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Review: Unarmed Verses

October 6, 2017

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Francine is a young black girl living in North York’s Villaways neighbourhood.  But the affordable housing units where she lives with her father, grandmother and two autistic brothers are facing a forced revitalization project set forth by the city, meaning that the residents will have to leave their homes as the buildings are knocked down and redeveloped into condos.

While struggling with having her entire life upheaved at the hands of the city, Francine finds an outlet for her self-expression through an afternoon arts program.  The students are encouraged to write poetry, and given an opportunity to set their words to music and have their songs recorded in a professional studio.  It’s here that the kids from this disadvantaged neighbourhood are allowed to explore themselves and come into their own.

Filmmaker Charles Officer follows these subjects with an artistic and observational eye in Unarmed Verses, which took home the Best Canadian Documentary prize at Hot Docs.  This is an important work for the way that it shines a spotlight on poverty here in Toronto, showing how these populations are largely kept out of the public eye.  The film questions whether the affordable housing units are truly being redeveloped for the inhabitants, or to make them more visually appealing to the richer neighbours around them.  The condo spaces are also being assigned through a lottery system, which means there is no guarantee that the original families will even be able to move back into the new buildings, leading to charged encounters with indifferent city councillors.

At the centre of it all is Francine, who makes for a bright and engaging subject who puts a human face on these struggles.  Francine is thoughtful and sensitive tweenager and an avid reader who has a knack for interpreting literary works, and when we first meet her in the film, she is gracefully evaluating the work of Edgar Allen Poe.  The moments in the recording studio are equally compelling, as Francine struggles to find the courage to overcome her stage fright over singing out loud, and there is some major rap talent on display as the students spout rhymes that poetically reveal their life experiences.

The film offers a compelling study of race, class and the increasing gentrification of poor areas in major cities, and Unarmed Verses is filled with vérité moments that won’t soon be forgotten.  It’s moving and also inspiring to watch these teens sort themselves out and come into their own through the artistic process, and the film is equally powerful for the way it puts a distinctly human face on the affordable housing crisis, offering a compelling glimpse into a side of this city that we too rarely see.

Unarmed Verses is now playing in limited release at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto, tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

A version of this review originally appeared during the 2017 Hot Docs Film Festival.

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