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concordia 09/04/2018 - 12:00PM

Making space for marginalized youth on the big screen

UNARMED VERSES post-screening Q&A with Chelsy Monie and director Charles Officer. Photos by Manoucheka LaCherie

^ Event photos by Manoucheka LaCherie

Chelsy Monie, founder of Ubuntu Talks, introduced director Charles Officer to a packed house on February 26th for the special Black History Month screening of his TIFF Top Ten masterpiece UNARMED VERSES. After the film, they gathered once more on stage for an inspiring, thought-provoking and poignant Q&A. They both spoke of the importance of creating alternative archives for people of colour to voice their experiences, which are often erased from dominant media narratives. Officer calls it his mission to document daily lives and archive community stories, in the hope of fostering possibilities for wider representation in the future.

The film gives a voice to Francine, a 12 year old Black girl from Villaways, a Toronto Community Housing project faced with forced demolition, and makes space for her experiences on the big screen. UNARMED VERSES opens with closeups of Francine’s face and hands, while she is deep in thought over a story by Edgar Allan Poe, voicing her reflections as she works through the text in the middle of the hustle and bustle of a weekday in her home. This first scene establishes her perspective and emotions as the center of the film, and challenges dominant perceptions of children of colour in film.

As Charles Officer mentioned during the Q&A, children, and especially children of colour, are often overlooked and dismissed in dominant cultural, social and political frames. The Toronto-based director, writer and actor added that it is of crucial importance to take the time to listen and let these often unheard or overlooked subjects express their wisdom and agency. The film is slow and introspective, giving time and space for Francine to build her own story as she navigates the beauty and difficulty of growing up. By weaving together contemplative shots of the neighborhood buildings and streets, and scenes of weeknight dinners or afternoons in the park, UNARMED VERSES functions as an intimate collection of memories and documents a fleeting present.

But the film also features similar acts of archiving and storytelling, enacted by the protagonist herself as she reflects upon her departure for a new and unknown life away from her community. In a particularly poignant scene, she buries a time capsule in her garden, as she reflects, “your future is nothing without your past”. The need that Francine feels to leave a trace of her life at Villaways in an intimate, private way echoes the more public endeavours of Charles Officer, as he strives to create a portrait of the youth for them to look back on it “when [they] are twenty”.

The documentary equally focuses on the importance of community initiatives, and the power of art in building intergenerational relationships based on creativity and mentorship. Despite the difficulty of revealing her poetry to others and exposing herself to their judgement, Francine grows in confidence as she progresses through a music production project organized by Art Starts. There, she is mentored by empowering and caring women, and builds meaningful relationships with older youth involved in the project. Their love of music and their determination to find their own voice is at the core of these supportive relationships which transcend age differences and strengthen the community.

In the documentary’s epilogue, Francine represents her community at a council meeting, giving a public voice to their concerns around the plans for their forced relocation. Today, she continues to pursue her creative voice in art school. In UNARMED VERSES, Officer crafts a delicate and thoughtful portrait of a child in the stages of becoming, of a community undergoing a difficult transition. He makes space for experiences rarely seen in Canadian media and often left out of dominant archives, enacting Francine’s thought that “we all have a voice, we just have to find a way to use it”.

To pay tribute to Black History Month with films that chronicle the struggles and triumphs of Black folks across North America and Europe, check out Cinema Politica On Demand—you can sign up for a free two week trial and start watching films like RIOTS REFRAMED, BLACK MEN LOVING and THE LITTLE BLACK SCHOOLHOUSE today.


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