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.