This week we are shining a spotlight on filmmaker Charles Officer, a Toronto native who has two films selected as part of this summer’s Cinematic Cities programme. Officer’s short film 100 Musicians screens alongside Selma on July 26th, and confronts race relations in Toronto via an intimate argument between a couple of colour. On August 16th, the Cinematic Cities series again points the lens to our hometown with the feature film Unarmed Verses, an award-winning National Film Board of Canada documentary that follows a community near Parkway Forest Park, Toronto Community Housing’s The Villaways, as it prepares for an imposed relocation. Unarmed Verses will be paired with two short films that also capture the rapidly changing face of urban life in Toronto, Castles on the Ground and Cleo.
Toronto Outdoor Picture Show invites you to journey to parks across the city for our Cinematic Cities programme all summer long.
TOPS: This year's Toronto Outdoor Picture Show programme is titled Cinematic Cities, a theme that draws bridges between vibrant and complex cities around the world while highlighting the people who make each of these cities unique. Do you have a favourite movie that captures the spirit of a city? Is there a city that you dream of capturing on camera?
Charles Officer (CO): A favourite film that captures the spirit of a community is Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. Hip-hop culture, racial discourse and the immigrant experience wrapped up in an explosive and relevant work of cinema. I would love to make fiction feature film in Tarfaya, Morocco, where the ocean meets desert. This place is so rich with stories, it will blow your mind. In October 2018, I was in Tarfaya working on my latest documentary Invisible Essence: The Little Prince. The youth are so vibrant, fluent in English, French and Arabic. They have so much wisdom to offer the Western world about what is essential to our lives.
TOPS: We wholeheartedly agree about the lasting impact of Do The Right Thing - we actually opened our Cinematic Cities series with that film this summer. For you, what makes Toronto a cinematic city? Is there something special about Toronto that you draw inspiration from?
CO: I grew up in Toronto and I believe creators have a responsibility to tell stories about the place they come from. Toronto is a city where many stories remain untold and the intersection of cultures is what inspires me. We have exploited a self-predicating humour in Canadian film and television to its fullest, from Hosers, Trailer Park Boys and small-town dwellers. When we say location is “character”, there is so much more to reveal in one of the most multicultural, urban cities on the planet. Toronto needs no disguise.
TOPS: Your short film 100 Musicians is paired with Selma, a dramatic retelling of the historic civilian march led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in defiance of racial segregation. Your film is also a conversation about racism and non-violent forms of protest. What inspired your creative approach to the question of how individual people can engage in social transformation?
CO: Engaging in social transformation is at the core of my work in this medium. I think we can engage in social transformations through cinema like no other medium, show and not tell. I am inspired by poetry and how succinct truth, perspective and emotion can be conveyed with so little words. It is what fuels my creative approach.
TOPS: You spent a lot of time in the TCHC Villaways community both before and during the documentary shoot of Unarmed Verses. How would you describe the collaboration with the film's subjects? Did you learn anything unanticipated or surprising about the community during the process of making this film?
CO: I was a stranger to the Villaways community and the collaboration took time. Building trust takes time. Although I had a vision when I entered the community, determining who to work with and how that would develop was unknown. Every relationship was unique and required frequent conversations around the intentions of the film. We built upon that over the process. But it wasn’t until the film was completed that Francine, LJ, Q’Mal, Tre and Sydney truly understood where I was going. And our relationships continue to grow now that the film is out there. Making Unarmed Verses reaffirmed a systemic problem that is generations deep right here in Toronto. Those who govern the city, from our Mayor, City Councillors, Policing Authorities, City Developers – everyone participates in the values the city prioritizes. Where revitalization in TCHC neighbourhoods is concerned. Tearing down communities after decades of neglect, relocating residents as the system sees fit, and washing over the core problem of poverty with a pretty new landscape is not a true solution. The point of view from which city leaders address the matter of poverty is not holistic when citizens from low-income neighbourhoods are not treated with the same dignity and respect as residents in Rosedale or Forest Hill.
TOPS: Where did you first meet Francine? When did you know you wanted to document her story?
CO: I noticed Francine the first day I arrived in Villaways. She was looking after the younger girls at the recreation centre and there was a nurturing instinct about her, although very quiet. The National Film Board facilitated an animation workshop for Villaways youth and they were split up in groups. I observed how Francine invested in the task, and how she escaped in the doing. Francine led her group with passion, and that was her authority. I saw her access a public solitude when engaging in artful expression. That’s when realized then I wanted to know how Francine sees the world.
TOPS: Toronto is a city that is rapidly changing: its population, its neighbourhoods and even how we see ourselves. How has Toronto changed or stayed the same in the time you've been living and making films here?
CO: Toronto continues to evolve cosmetically. Cultural diversity, development and entrepreneurship are growing. But what I haven’t seen from a leadership perspective is an exciting vision for the city - an intelligent and clear vision for the future. I hope to see that happen someday.