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Unarmed Verses: Strong Community Bonds in a 'Worn-Down' Neighbourhood

This film explores the strengths that exist in communities like Villaways, focusing its lens on the essential roles women and girls play in the community.

By Doreen Nicoll
Published October 05, 2017

"Poetry to me is an unofficial language that speaks to your soul. Like a river to your heart. It feels like looking into the eye of a waterfall. I want to create that waterfall." Francine Valentine - 12 years old.

Charles Officer's 2016 documentary, Unarmed Verses (1 hr 25 mins), chronicles the life of Francine Valentine, her family and her community at a time when urban revitalization threatens their already tenuous daily survival.

Francine Alicia Valentine was born in Antigua in 2002. At the age of four year, Valentine moved to Canada with her father. In the film, Valentine lives with her father in the house her grandmother, Keturah Francis, rents from Toronto Community Housing (TCH) in what was then known as the community of Villaways.

Valentine knows people her regard her neighbourhood as dirty and worn-down. That's why the 1970s housing complex is slated for revitalization. But, it soon becomes clear to Valentine and many other Villaways residents that the lavish condominium and townhouse units replacing their 121 townhomes are not meant for them.

Most, if not all, current TCH renters will neither qualify to return to a subsidized townhouse unit nor be able to afford to purchase one of the new condo units starting between $300,000 to $1.5 million.

This revelation is just one more in a long line of challenges Valentine faces on a daily basis. Thankfully, the Villaways Art Studio offers Valentine, and all the children in the complex, a reprieve from the reality of living precariously.

Run by Program Director Carleen Robinson, the art studio gives the kids living in Villaways a safe place to share some food, create poetry and music or just chill.

Musician and music instructor Krystal Chance is instrumental in helping the kids learn to reach further and take chances in order to reach their goals. Valentine really blooms with Chance's encouragement.

Valentine starts out shy and insecure because, as she states, "It's kind of hard to find your voice around here because there are just so many other perspectives and you just don't know if yours is good enough."

But with the help of Robinson and the encouragement of Chance, Valentine eventually faces her fear of failure head on and records the beginnings of a song she's been composing.

Far too insightful for one so young, Valentine reminds us, "We all have a voice. We just have to find different ways how to use them."

Officer's film focuses on the strengths that exist in communities like Villaways. While young men like rappers Sydney Duff and Lavane Kelly are seen and heard encouraging and mentoring Valentine, the film focuses its lens on the essential roles women and girls play in the community.

In particular, it highlights the connections between the women in Valentine's life as well as the networks between those women and the children in the community, and the bonds between the neighbourhood girls.

Unarmed Verses is a stark reminder of how easy forced relocation of marginalized segments of society remains even when it tears apart vital networks and support programs especially those that empower youth and give them an outlet and a voice.

Named Best Canadian Feature Documentary at Hot Docs 2017, Charles Officer's powerful National Film Board of Canada production Unarmed Verses returns to the big screen in Toronto at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, 506 Bloor Street West:

Doreen Nicoll is a feminist and a member of several community organizations working diligently to end poverty, hunger and gendered violence.

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