If I had a dollar for every documentary that touched me emotionally, I’d still only have enough for my coin operated laundry. The documentary, Unarmed Verses has allotted me an extra large load with fleece for my dryer. Charles Officer has created a remarkable documentary told through the perspective of three talented youths. Before Charles became involved with film, he attended Art school and became a graphic designer. I’m so glad he switched gears.
I spoke with him in depth after screening the film. I was fascinated by his ability to tell a story through the eyes of black youth’s living in the projects north of Toronto. Unarmed Verses is a documentary that shines a light on the impact of black communities living in poverty while discovering untapped potential through the introduction of an eight week music program. The result is short of astonishing.
“How did you first become involved in this amazing venture?”
“After the verdict in the Trevon Martin case had been announced, the NFB had contacted me to do a story. I wanted to find out what was bothering young black youths the most. As I began my investigation I started exploring black communities and immediately connected with one in particular, the Villaways. It’s off the beaten path and north of Toronto surrounded by wealthy neighborhoods. It’s been there since the late 60’s. I spent 1 ½ years building relationships within the community before any taping had started.”
Charles Officer is a champion for following your dreams. A product of opportunity, he enjoys paying it forward and helping others to unlock their potential. He wanted to offer the youth in the Villaway community an opportunity to thrive, so he asked them what types of programs they were most interested in. They collective voices indicated a music program. Charles had expressed that the songs should be about the verses, because their words mattered.
“I noticed the absence of a narrator in the documentary. Was there a specific reason for that?”
“I thought it important to let the kids tell this story through their dialogue. This film is about the kids and giving them space to speak, therefore they carry the documentary forward as the adults take a back seat.”
Once such young girl that particularly stands out is Francine Valentine. Although young, she seems to have an old soul. She enjoys reading Edgar Allen Poe while finding inspiration for lyrics to her songs. She is quiet and shy but also very extraordinary for her age. When she does speak its with prowess and poise. Producer, Lea Marin took notice and quickly realized that she should be at the center of this story. The music program is spearheaded by Krystle Chance and Carleen Robinson. They have a real knack for bringing the best out in the kids. Two other youths that excelled in the music program were Q’Mal Labad-Workman for his rap style and Lavane Kelly (LJ) who does a spoken word poetry style of music. They all excelled in the program and may have intimidated some of the others to drop out of the program. Charles believes it’s unfortunate that some of the other kids thought of Q’mal and Lavane as competition instead of taking the opportunity to learn from them.
“ How much time did you spend with the youths and have you kept in touch since the documentary?”
“I’d spent 3 years on the documentary and filmed for 20 days with a small crew of five over the course of the year. Since the completion, I’ve continued contact with the three youths featured in the film. The young girl Francine is now in Arts School and is excelling. Lavane is working on his first book of poetry and Q’mal is making his first record. With the screenings and popularity of the documentary, the three of them have been enjoying the spotlight and their moment of newfound stardom. “
Charles was amazed at what the three were able to accomplish in the 8 weeks. They wrote their own lyrics and made their own music. They were so dedicated to finishing their songs despite their community teetering on the threshold of being dismantled to make way for higher income properties. Toronto’s motto boasts that diversity is their strength. Charles begs the question, when will they put those words into action?
Since the documentary, the housing community has been demolished to build high end real estate in its place. The families have been rooted up and moved onto other neighborhoods. Some of those neighborhoods are high in crime. So bad in fact, Charles had one of the three youths living with him for a few months for safety reasons. He does give Councilor Shelley Carroll praise for taking up the charge to prevent further dismantling of established communities. She held a screening of the documentary in city hall and was at the Hot Docs Festival on opening night. She is standing up and recognizing that the revitalization was not handled correctly. The people living in the communities had not been given a chance to speak up and their opinions not considered before decisions were made. He’d like those in power to recognize through his documentary, that families need safe communities to live, schools for their children and homes they can feel secure from being bounced out from.
Charles has just returned from a film festival in Seoul Korea. The film had opened the festival and the feedback from audiences has been similar around the world. The affordable housing crisis is internationally shared. The film is coming to Vancouver, Winnipeg, Ontario, Montreal, followed by screenings in the US and Europe. There is also a release in Toronto at the Bloor Hot Docs on Oct. 6. The same day it is being screened in Vancouver.
He is currently in production on another film, writing a mini series while attempting to accompany the documentary to as many festivals as possible.
Charles is hoping to have Netflix pick up the documentary.
As a society, we can sometimes become complacent to those struggling in our own backyards. There are youths/neighbors that do not receive the same advantages and treatment necessary to prosper and develop into productive adults. Thanks to filmmakers like Charles Officer, he has been able to demonstrate that the youth’s that are to often overlooked deserve the investment from those that have the means to offer an opportunity. The world could be a much better place and relationships made richer amongst our neighbors if only we took a moment to extend the olive branch without prejudice or judgement.