The Stairs is the Most Empathetic Toronto Film Ever Made
Director Hugh Gibson explains how he brought the communities of Regent Park and TIFF together
Cinema treats drug users, sex workers, and the people who sleep on the stairwell in a similar fashion. Narrative films tend to give them a redemption arc, where the path to rehabilitation is the only solution. Documentary films use talking heads and statistics to take the long view about the societal and cultural factors that enable this population. But rarely do you see the power and simplicity of someone simply telling their story, direct to camera. In Toronto filmmaker Hugh Gibson’s quietly devastating documentary The Stairs, which premiered at TIFF 16 and screens at TIFF Bell Lightbox this week, you can’t look away.
Here, a handful of drug users, sex workers, and counsellors all working out of a Regent Park community health organization share their stories about addiction and rehabilitation with a radical sense of honesty. Gibson filmed them over a period of five years, in tightly-framed close-ups, offset by shots of the rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood they’ve spent years in. At a time when Toronto is quickly rebranding into luxury condos, The Stairs reminds us about the vibrancy and resiliency of a population the city is trying to repress. It’s not just a pivotal portrait of a community, it’s the most empathetic Toronto film ever made. We interviewed director Hugh Gibson at his home about how he came to the project, the philosophies of harm reduction, and his cinematic inspirations. You can read Gibson on how Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami functioned as a key inspiration for the filming of The Stairs.
How did you come to make this documentary?
In 2011, I made these educational videos for these health centres in Regent Park. They were looking for people and they said there's very little money, but I had just finished this other Spanish-language documentary in Argentina I had produced. It had took about four years to make, I had self-distributed a lot of [the film], so I was looking for something different to do while getting back into directing.
The people at the health centre said, “We need someone to do educational videos. The first one is about a program that we run for sex worker safety, but we want a woman to make that one." I was like, yeah that's probably a good idea. "But we have a second one and that's about a program called CUP — the Crack Users Project — in which, we worked with crack users and gave them training where they could be the first line of communication of clients because it's easier for people with street involvement to talk with their peers, than a social worker who they can't necessarily relate to.” I just thought, “Even if you don’t have any money, I’m in.” I had this interview for about an hour and when I left they were like, "We want you to do both projects." It was the best job interview I ever had.
It became very quickly evident that I was tapping into something. Everyone wanted to express something about their involvement in these programs, or their life, their stories. All it took was a gentle push, then everything would come pouring out. I had just finished The Wire, I liked Homicide: Life on the Street. I probably thought when I met Marty, "Oh, here's a guy who reminds me a bit of Bubbles," but I never walked through Regent Park in my life and I didn't know the first thing about drug use.
So what were your personal interactions with your subjects like?
The first time I met Marty was maybe in the late spring of 2011... Someone was like, "Oh, here's this guy, he's gonna be doing this film for us." He said, "Come on, I'm gonna take you on a little tour of the neighbourhood."
We walked around for about half an hour from Parliament Street on Dundas to Allan Gardens, as he pointed out, "This is where I used to live, this is where I used to sleep in the stairwell, on the sidewalk. Here is where I used to get my meal in the church. Oh man, you should've seen it about 15, 20 years ago — they had great roast beef, oh it was incredible. Now, it's kind of shit." Things like this. I'm thinking at this point as a filmmaker, there's something here, this guy's a character. If I did nothing else except follow him around for half an hour, there's probably a movie there. It came from having an open mind, being curious, maybe asking the right questions, and being non-judgemental, as well. I was applying the philosophies of harm reduction to the filmmaking.
That's really interesting, what does that mean?
Well, harm reduction means the safe use of drugs. In order to do that, you have to treat the client as a human being and put aside all the stigmas of people who use drugs, who are homeless, or who work in the sex trade, especially street-based sex work. Part of what The Stairs hopes to accomplish is humanizing the things that have been de-humanized. I feel this is the ethos of harm reduction too.
The whole idea of harm reduction is that you are not, first and foremost, trying to get the client to quit. Your goal is to keep the person as healthy as possible under the circumstances. If you're doing sex work, that means providing condoms, and using strategies to prevent you from getting into a situation where you can be abused or assaulted. This means, working in pairs, or working in well-lit areas. If you inject intravenously, it means using a sterile needle, or clean water. (A lot of people would maybe take water from a toilet, or from a puddle.) If you're using the little cotton that goes into the needle, sometimes people would use steel wool. No one's saying that using drugs is healthy, but you're just trying to keep the person as safe as possible. By doing that, the net result ends up being that you treat the person with dignity and respect. They, in turn, maybe see themselves as having dignity and respect. Maybe down the road, they may think, "How could I get housing? How could I transition into a healthier lifestyle?" What they were finding at the Regent Park health centre is that using these programs can be more effective than traditional rehab programs.
What were your preconceptions of drug users and sex workers before you made The Stairs?
There is a narrative I assumed before I got into this, that, "Oh, if you're a user, you kick it, you go to rehab, then it's over." If you watch a movie, they go to rehab at the end and then the movie ends because they're fine now. That reality is extremely different, I soon learned from talking to my subjects.
Your film received such a warm response at TIFF 16. What was that your subject's festival experience like?
They're very happy with the film, I'm extremely gratified to say that. The community has embraced it and it's extremely gratifying because in a sense, the film was made for them.
Critics are calling The Stairs a new "Toronto film." I personally love that there's no talking heads in it, you don’t show the other people who work at the centre, but you're also intercutting it with imagery of condos being built and signs that say “Phase 3 of Regent Park." While watching the film, I found it shocking to realize this is a neighbourhood I've walked through, I've taken the streetcar past it, but I actually have never really encountered Regent Park. The Stairs showed a vision of Toronto that was more real than the movies that are made about Toronto.
Well, thank you. I was definitely looking for anything that would surprise me, in terms of visuals, but also in terms of the storytelling, as well. If I felt like "Oh, I've seen this before," or "this won't come as a surprise," generally, I wouldn't use it. When it came to locations in the film, I was definitely looking for the areas that other people hadn't gone to, the stairwells being an obvious one, and the “Field of Dreams” location, the whole idea being that things in Toronto are hidden in plain sight.
There's interesting contradiction that someone who is an advice counselor and a leader in his community can also still be smoking crack on camera, as Greg does in your film.
I think that's a shift in thinking for a lot of people, and it's really important, actually, that users are part of the conversation and are employed by these agencies. I was talking before about how people who are street-involved don't want to go into these places, so people end up letting an infection that could be easily treated go and end up getting something amputated. The reason they don't go in is because they're fucking sick of being looked down on.
I tried to shoot the film in a way that reflected the normalization of which drug use is a part of their life. I feel like another part of the narrative of drug users is to refer to them as "addicts..." But this is part of who they are, just like everything else, it comes with their history. Those were conscious decisions.
It's especially true with sex work.
Big time. There's very few doctors who are trained in dealing with sex workers, or who have an open mind. I did another educational video that was specifically geared towards doctors and nurses on how to work in a harm reduction environment. I wanted to use it in the movie, but it didn’t really fit.
Formally, I could feel your subject’s humanity, even in your shot selection.
Did you notice that the angles were always right-on or a little below, even? Because I felt like either the tendency is to look down on them, which is how normally they would be seen. It's different to see these people as a peer, straight-ahead, eye-to-eye.
Yeah, it felt like, “Okay, we don't need talking heads. We don't need three angles of someone's face. We don't need coverage, necessarily... we just need people telling their stories.”
Sometimes, there was coverage and I just elected to use the same angle, but I was focused on what they were saying. I looked at Alan Zweig’s documentary A Hard Name where the rawness and the emotion of the movie is also baked into the style. Much later on, after shooting actually, I was thinking about Errol Morris' film Gates of Heaven, and how he got away with not using music, which I bet was not an aesthetic choice to start with. You take your disadvantages and you turn them into advantages.
I never got to say this actually onstage at the Festival, but TIFF was my community for a long time. I started going to see movies at the TIFF Cinematheque in 2000. I had my first short film, Hogtown Blues, in the Festival in 2004. I got to know this other community in Regent Park since 2011, and now I'm bringing them together. I like that.
The 6:40pm screening of The Stairs on Wednesday October 12th will be followed by a panel discussion moderated by Toronto Star columnist Joe Fiorito and feature City councillors Joe Cressy and Gord Perks (both head Toronto’s Drug Strategy), Raffi Balian (South Riverdale CHC Project Coordinator) and film subject Roxanne Smith.