Photo of Kendell by Hubert Davis.
When Hubert Davis set out nearly five years ago to tell the story of two Regent Park boys becoming men, he wanted to shed light on an untold dimension of the well-known low-income neighbourhood. The ongoing billion-dollar redevelopment of North America’s first social housing complex has sparked all kinds of creative protest in an attempt to attach a face to the casualties of gentrification—including everything from the uproarious, louder-than-life Trey Anthony–produced play, Secrets of a Black Boy, about a youth centre’s closing, to Dan Bergeron’s larger-than-life poster project featuring the community’s real faces.
Davis’s approach was slighty different. His feature-length documentary and 2009 Best Canadian Feature at Hot Docs, Invisible City, was supposed to be shot over a one-year span, but gradually expanded into a four-year project. His goal? To let the viewer wear the sneakers for a typical teenage walk through Regent Park. When he first approached Ainsworth Morgan, a teacher at Nelson Mandela Park Public School, in a search for characters nearly five years ago, he asked not for dangerous drug dealers or honour roll recipients, but rather, the middle ground. “What I was interested in capturing was the grey zone… the idea of these kids that are kind of in between, at the crossroads,” he told us by phone last week.
And thus Morgan presented him with Kendell and Mikey, two Grade Ten students—childhood friends and charismatic characters. While the initial plan was to trace solely their sophomore struggles and triumphs, Davis and the crew were swift to see that what they were facing wasn’t only a one-year endeavour. “Towards the end of the first year I started to realize I needed a lot more time to get to know them, to see their transitions, or maybe, more importantly, for them to get to know me—the level of trust,” he said. But with resources allotted for a year’s worth of work, tripling the time made things tight. It was largely in part the stretching out of resources that eventually forced Davis to stop filming at the end of Grade Twelve. Sigh—if only growing up ended at high school.
Photo of Mikey (left) and Ainsworth Morgan from production.
On the surface, Davis’s previous film was distant from City. Personal, and barefacedly so—the Oscar-nominated Hardwood is the result of a well-documented personal pilgrimage to learn more about his Harlem-Globetrotting father, Mel, and the effect of his father’s choices in love and basketball on his family. Told through home movies and intimate interviews, it’s as much a discovery process as it is a product, one of healing and reconciliation. Looking closer at Mikey and Kendell, both struggle in their mother-son relationships. Both have sisters, but their father figures are absent—and although Davis is no longer a teenager, it’s a situation to which he can relate. “My dad came into my life when I was twelve years old,” he says, “I understood the angst of not having this person in your life, trying to figure out what manhood was when both of the closest relationships in your life are to women, to your mom.”
Davis stressed that at times, having been through such a similar scenario, it was difficult for him to stay behind the scenes and not involve himself. “You want to step in to say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t be doing that, you should be doing this,” he said, “I think that comes across when you’re watching. At the same time, that wasn’t really my place. My role was to observe and give them a voice.” And he does—like any great film, the documentary is capable of relating to viewers on a variety of levels. While the audience may not be living in Toronto’s ghetto or have spent a night in the confines of social housing, it’s a broader emotional, human appeal that sheds light on the real issues facing Regent Park, an appeal Davis refers to as the “human condition.”
In the last minutes of the film, a short, powerful quote fades onto the screen: “Irresponsibility is part of my invisibility. But to whom can I be responsible and why should I be when you refuse to see me?”
Taken from Invisible Man (the social commentary, not the sci-fi), the proclamation is echoed by Morgan in the film. “Someone once said every child needs to have someone in their world that they don’t want to disappoint.’ I’m hoping they still have someone in their lives. There’s a lot of seventeen-, eighteen-year-olds out there who aren’t connected to anybody, or anything.”
Even with the film’s completion, the boys aren’t out of the woods yet (but are they ever?): it’s just the beginning. Davis says they’re both still working on their high school degrees. But with exposure set in film, their stories are now forever visible to the city—at least, to those who want to see.
Davis, Morgan, Mikey, and Kendell will be attending the first night of the film’s week-long run at The Royal this Friday at 7 p.m., with a full show schedule on the NFB website. Invisible City makes its television debut with a short cut next Wednesday on TVO at 10 p.m. (immediately followed by a live webcast discussion), with the full cut broadcast next Sunday at 10:45 p.m.
All photos courtesy of Industry Pictures/Shine Films/NFB.