The Toronto Community Housing’s Villaways neighbourhood is viewed as a slum by some, but for 12-year-old Francine Valentine it is home. However, it may not be her home for much longer. With the area about to go through a massive redevelopment, one that will bring shiny new condos that most of the current residents will not be able to afford, Francine and her community are facing great change. One of the many adversities that has forced Francine to grow up faster than most kids her ages. Her only outlet to express herself is her writing and the local Arts Starts’s Up & Rooted music program she participates in.
In the beautifully poetic and captivating film Unarmed Verses, director Charles Officer presents a community fighting to have their voices heard in a society that is subtly silencing them through gentrification. Francine may lack self-confidence, often speaking in hush tones, but her writing and candid commentary speak to a deep humanity that flows within the community. Though the redevelopment has been forced upon them, and displacement would open a whole new slew of problems, their spirits cannot be broken.
Officer’s patient lens may capture the sense of uncertainty that Francine and her family have for their future, however, the ray of hope still shines through the darkness. Like a poem, Unarmed Verses speaks to the viewer’s soul, causing them to not only reflect on Francine’s plight, but also the ability of artistic pursuits to give voices to the seemingly voiceless. Through the power of art, Francine and others, such as poet La-Vane Kelly, are able to not only keep their dreams alive, but potentially turn their desires into reality. Reaffirming the importance of community, and how art can strengthen them, Unarmed Verses is not to be missed.
This review was originally published as part of our Hot Docs 2017 coverage. The film opens in theatres today.