The Regent Park Film Festival occupies an interesting niche in Toronto’s mini-festival circuit, as much because of its grounding in a particular neighborhood—Canada’s largest and oldest public housing project—as for its commitment to offering its programming free of charge. This year’s slate is a mix of community filmmaking, documentaries about a range of issues relevant to Regent Park residents, and mainstream features like Ryan Coogler’s award-winning Fruitvale Station, based on the true story of Oscar Grant’s death at the hands of an Oakland police officer.
The festival kicks off with “Finding Courage” (November 13, 6:30 p.m.), a panel that should be of interest to those curious about a recent strand of Canadian filmmaking that has tackled poverty and class inequality in urban areas. The conversation, moderated by filmmaker Jennifer Holness, will feature acclaimed documentarian Alanis Obomsawin, Toronto filmmaker Charles Officer (whose Nurse.Fighter.Boy is partially set in Cabbagetown), and The Lesser Blessed director Anita Doron.
Most of the festival’s offerings are divided into thematic clusters, including programmes specifically geared toward children in various age groups. We were especially keen on a couple of these slates, including Thursday evening’s “Art and Expression” (November 14, 9 p.m.) shorts programme, which simultaneously profiles a range of artists and the political causes to which they’re committed. Among these, Cara Mumford’s When It Rains struck us as a nice use of the music-video aesthetic to comment on violence against Aboriginal women in Canada.
Perhaps the best expression of the festival’s mandate to offer screenings not just for Regent Park residents but also about them is the “Regent Park Voices” programme (November 16, 12:30 p.m.), which is dedicated to the experiences of youth within the community. Co-produced by the Regent Park Film Festival, the Luminato Festival’s Education and Outreach Program, and a group from the Young Street Mission, the shorts in this programme are the product of collaborations between commissioned filmmakers and area youth-group members. Like most artistic productions to come out of workshops, these are a bit edifying, but deliberately so. Despite its humble origins, Ride or Die, whose development was led by youth-group facilitator Richard Fung and whose script was written by the young performers themselves, is a refreshingly earnest look at how a pair of young adults from good but poor homes struggle with the temptations of drug culture.
Though most of the programming consists of shorts, there are also a number of mid-length and feature films that should appeal to different audiences. Those seeking something a bit lighter might be drawn to Ramya Jegatheesan’s Playful City (November 16, 4:30 p.m.), about a number of Toronto artists who sought to make creative use of public space in the fall of 2012. The doc’s production values are a bit ropy, but it’s a fascinating commentary on how Torontonians might better engage with their city all the same.
The feature that will likely get the most attention, though, is Michelle Latimer’s Alias (November 16, 6:30 p.m.), which was well-received at Hot Docs earlier this year. The film, which is set primarily in Regent Park, follows three Toronto hip-hop artists, as well as a singer and a promoter, as they navigate everything from the mundane (bill payments, studying for the LSAT) to the transcendent, losing themselves in the rare moments in which they get to forget about income inequality and student loans and just perform. It’s a tender portrait, honest about its subjects’ daily struggles without being too on-the-nose about them. It’s also a rare opportunity to see the neighbourhood represented lovingly and unhysterically on screen, a stark counterpoint to the sensationalistic media clips of arrests and police raids that we see in the opening moments.