Under Review

Rohit Joseph

From the opening shots of Charles Officer’s documentary, Unarmed Verses, it’s clear that this is a film that embraces its setting. In typical Canadian fashion, we’re immersed into scenes of winter with beautifully composed shots of frozen plants and children playing in snow.

But this isn’t your typical National Film Board documentary rooted in Canadiana or delightful Maritime accents.

Instead of exploring the struggles of rural Canadians living in the elements, Unarmed Verses is a NFB doc that tells the story of residents in Villaways, an urban low-income housing complex in Toronto. Ironically, you wouldn’t know Villaways is even in Toronto because it is far from the iconic skyline of the city’s downtown. It’s a community on the edge, in every sense of the word.

Villaways is undergoing a transformation or “revitalization,” depending on who you ask. It’s a story that’s all too familiar for Vancouverites; treasured affordable housing demolished to make way for aesthetically pleasing and upmarket housing.

At the heart of this story is Francine Valentine, an adorable 12-year-old girl who lives in Villaways with her two older brothers, father and grandmother in a small townhouse. Francine and the youth of Villaways struggle to come to terms with their community’s transformation.

Francine is shy and soft-spoken, but her words are anything but. She’s a talented poet, and she’s one of the few youth in Villaways participating in a program that connects them with music producers and a recording studio.

In the backdrop of this community that is on the verge of permanent change, we have a glimmer of hope in the creativity of Francine and her peers. One of the older Villaways youth, 20-year-old Lavane Kelly, might remind you of a young Mos Def. Where Lavane is confident with his ability, Francine takes time to find her voice. She doesn’t like sharing her poetry or songs in front of people, especially in the recording booth. When you finally see Francine start to open up and record her own song, you can’t help but cheer in your seat. That’s how invested you become into her life and the success of her community.

Unarmed Verses lives and breathes in its intimacy. Intimacy with Francine and her family. Intimacy with the talented youth of Villaways. Intimacy with the whole community of Villaways. From start to finish, this is a documentary that gets you to understand the beauty and value of low-income housing. Talent can and does flourish in communities like Villaways, all the time. We just tend not to look there.

The arc of Francine is the main focus, but the film struggles at times to maintain that focus, occasionally drifting to briefly look at other characters or taking its sweet time lingering in artful establishing shots. That being said, if you are willing to let Unarmed Verses take you on its journey and welcome a slower-paced documentary, you might find yourself wondering what you can do to help preserve the Villaways’ in your city.

Marked by tension and atrocity, Sweet Virginia unveils a bitter yet beautiful view on human nature. It superimposes the relationship between necessity and sin over the format of a classic crime thriller. Turbulent and enigmatic, the film centers on the interconnection between crime, debauchery, and vice, in a small town world.

The interdependent and complicated relationships between the main characters drives the path of the film. Sweet Virginia focuses on a series of crimes committed in a rural Alaskan town, and their consequences on the town’s residents. The film follows a hitman after being hired by a wife seeking to kill her cheating husband. Complications with regards to the murder of the husband leave two other men dead, and predispose the town for maximum entropy and chaos. Following this crucial event, conflict and disorder mark the film, painting the small town red with disorder and terror.

 Well structured and carefully composed, the film reflects on the contemporary, seemingly idyllic view of pastoral life, as well as the violent nature of humanity, through its straightforward and evocative cinematography. A strong sense of visual command on the part of director Jamie M. Dagg is able to point the film down a garish and hauntingly beautiful path, with simple and striking shot sequences and imagery. This, combined with powerful performances from the cast, are able to bring the award winning screenwriting of Benjamin and Paul China to life.

Poignant, stark, and bold — Sweet Virginia leaves its viewers with a lasting impact, making us question the inherent natures of humanity and sin. The complex relationship between pure motivations and impure actions takes center stage. However, it is not a fight between forces of evil and good — but rather, portrays an intricate dance in which they intertwine. This bittersweet and complex film noir is both chaotic and contemplative, leaving its viewers with a vivid, dark, and resounding image of what it means to be human.