Toronto filmmaker Hugh Gibson's documentary sheds light on recovering addicts and social workers in Regent Park.
There were a lot of views of Toronto on display at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. For the casual festival-goer, for starters, there was the modernist cityscape of the fest’s inspired Infinite Views ad campaign. The kaleidoscopic posters dotting King Street and much of the downtown core depicted the city as a tangled mess of mirrored expressways and skyscrapers, at once crowded and strangely unpeopled, like something out of Christopher Nolan’s Inception and Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy. (Or, if you prefer, like a monster from Jane Jacobs’s worst nightmares about urban planning.) For Canadian literature stalwarts and Catherine Keener loyalists, there was the urban carnival of Unless, Alan Gilsenan’s adaptation of the Carol Shields novel about a young woman (Hannah Gross) who leaves home in a dissociative state to live in front of Honest Ed’s, silent except for a cardboard sign saying “Goodness.” Gilsenan’s Toronto is a hellish nocturnal mess of car horns and walk signals, the Infinite Views poster transformed for nighttime scenes. For anyone who had the rare privilege of taking in the premiere of Matt Johnson’s hysterical new Vice series Nirvanna the Band the Show, meanwhile, Toronto was an absurdist playground for a pair of trickster late 20-somethings; the Scotiabank and Royal Cinema were just two mundane cinephile haunts hijacked for the sake of Johnson’s guerrilla film-making tactics.
For our money, though, nothing captured Toronto as a lived-in city occupied by actual citizens with real stories like local filmmaker Hugh Gibson’s The Stairs. Along with Alanis Obamsawin’s epic We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice, it showed that the most vital Canadian film-making today might be happening in non-fiction. The product of five years of research and emotionally devastating personal interviews, the film is a deep dive into the personal lives and dedicated work of staff at the Regent Park Community Health Centre. It’s a neighbourly clarion call to recognize the humanity of an often demonized and neglected community, the active and recovering drug addicts who tenuously belong to a city that would prefer not to see them.
Gibson focuses on three captivating subjects. The first, Marty, is a chatty recovering crack addict with a “Ford For Mayor” sign in his apartment and a troubling view of the future that goes against the kinds of progress narratives we expect of more redemptive works of non-fiction. A happy ending for addicts like him, he argues, is staving off crack for one more day in a seemingly endless procession of them; it isn’t arriving at a new plateau above the rest, but returning to another day like the last with a weathered resolve. Marty’s story is paralleled with Greg, an unashamed habitual crack user who also works at the centre and goes to school full time. At his darkest moments, Greg views the city as an avenue for drugs, walking the camera operator through Moss Park as he points out that he “goes where the crack is.” Marty and Greg’s stories are threaded with those of Roxanne, a measured and eloquent sex worker who speaks frankly about the hazards of her work and the very real traumas to which it exposes women like her—as intense, she argues, as the PTSD of someone who has been to war.
Despite the unrelenting heaviness of their stories, Gibson’s minimalist, realist approach to his subjects is characterized by an uncommon warmth. His familiarity with them, particularly Marty, comes through in the way they trust him enough to walk him through their neighbourhoods, evoking in the process a realist portrait of a frankly under-photographed Toronto community. The result is a deeply affecting film that is also important, both as an extension of Canada’s cinema vérité tradition—from NFB producer Tom Daly to master documentarian Allan King—and as a critical firsthand document of one of those infinite views of Toronto that TIFF is so keen to show.
The Stairs has its final festival screening this afternoon at Jackman Hall. Tickets are available through the TIFF website.