Canada Now: Unarmed Verses

UNARMED Verses, Charles Officer’s thoughtful documentary, takes the perspective of a 12-year-old whose community is on the verge of upheaval.

Francine is a bright young black girl who moved to Villaways – a small housing community in Toronto, Canada – from Antigua when she was four years old. Wise beyond her years, we are first introduced to Francine as she critically dissects lines of Edgar Allen Poe’s short story The Black Cat.

It is this thirst for life and intrigue for art that makes Francine such a vibrant subject for Officer’s film. She is someone with a youthful profundity and promising future – that is if it is not crushed by forces outside of her control.

One of those destructive forces could be the planned ‘revitalisation’ of the Villaways community. This involves uprooting and relocating residents in order to build new modern high-rise accommodation. Not fooled by these proposals, Francine recognises that her family will not be unable to afford these new condos – and the ‘revitalisation’ will likely mean the end of the Villaways community as she knows it.

There is one telling shot of Francine standing in front of an advertising board for the new flats that reads: ‘Tridel – Built for Life’. The youngster is dwarfed by the advert of a project that has so little regard for her individual story. It is not being built for Francine’s life, rather it will displace her life.

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Officer’s delicate observational cinema captures Villaways in all its run-down beauty. There is an admission that change is inevitable – if not necessary – but meetings with officials about the developments come with an inescapable air of uncertainty and worrying racial subtext.

You cannot help but feel this minority community will draw the short straw, no matter how politely the ‘revitalisation’ is worded. This is an investment in building a new community rather than believing in the existing one.

For Francine, art acts as an escape from these imminent realities. Helped by an Arts Starts initiative, she has the opportunity to write and record her own song. It is in this setting that we see the strength and influence of a community such as Villaways. A collective spirit that breeds creativity, confidence and responsibility – the perfect nurturing for Francine’s talents.

Officer’s film provides a stirring view through the eyes of a curious and caring youngster. The look on Francine’s face as she watches a woman make an onion crepe in a supermarket speaks to this irresistible zeal. Yet this gleam cannot cover the potential sadness of Francine’s story.

You can only hope that her vitality of spirit wins out against seemingly discriminatory forces. Unarmed verses and unarmed resistance against indestructible forces.

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