'Unarmed Verses': A Masterclass in Documenting a Community

By Cory Angeletti-Szasz ● January 24, 2018 09:40

three individuals sit on a stage as part of a panel.

Panellists and CFC alumni Charles Officer and Lea Marin, as well as Mike McLaughlin at the Canada's Top Ten Film Festival Industry Forum.

On Friday, January 12, we spent the day at the Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival Industry Forum at TIFF. The Forum explored a series of themes and topics relevant to today’s entertainment industry through five panels comprised of various screen industry professionals, including CFC alumni.

The fourth panel of the day invited guests to gain insights into the filmmaking process behind CFC alumni film Unarmed Verses (winner of TIFF’s 17th annual Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival People’s Choice Award, recently nominated for a Canadian Screen Award for Best Feature Length Documentary and winner of the Best Canadian Feature Documentary Award at Hot Docs 2017) and provided a real masterclass in documenting a community. Panellists included CFC alumni Charles Officer (writer/director) and Lea Marin (producer), as well as cinematographer Mike McLaughlin.

A woman standing in front of a microphone in a recording booth.

Francine in 'Unarmed Verses'.

Unarmed Verses presents a portrait of the young residents of Villaways, a community facing imposed relocation. At the centre of the story Francine, a remarkable 12-year-old Black girl whose poignant observations about life, the soul, and the power of art give voice to those rarely heard in society. Through the clips shown during the panel, the audience is exposed to Francine’s poise, intelligence and wisdom and viewers are welcomed into her world through real, intimate moments captured on screen.

The filmmakers emphasized that so much of the story they were able to capture in the film was because of the relationships and connections they built with the members of the Villaways community, particularly Francine. Officer became involved in the community 18 months prior to the start of production to develop trust and establish a relationship. The filmmakers also sat down and had individual conversations with both Francine and her dad before they began filming in their house, “You have to gain trust along the way […] that was very important for us to do,” explained Officer. This helped Officer draw out stories, feelings, fears and hopes from the individuals in the film, and enabled McLaughlin to capture tender, quiet, intimate moments that he may otherwise not have been welcome to capture. In fact, Marin described how at the outset, Francine’s grandmother did not want to appear on camera, but she decided to appear in the film after the filmmakers developed a rapport with her, “between the two of them [Officer and McLaughlin] they built that space of comfort of trust, not only in this household but with the community.”

In fact, they were able to capture so much incredible footage and so many wonderful stories that “there are three different films we could have made,” explained Officer. They captured hundreds of hours of footage – often the cameras would be rolling from the moment they arrived until dark. They wanted to keep the camera rolling so that they captured all of the small moments and because, at any moment, Francine could do something that was extremely poetic and they didn’t want to miss it; “you have to always be listening,” suggested McLaughlin.

A young girl does her homework at the kitchen table.

The filmmakers had an idea of what the film would look like at the outset, but the focus shifted throughout the filming process and again in the edit suite. Marin explained that they had different ideas about whom they would speak to in this community, but they always knew that the film needed to be told from only the perspective of the youth. However, “it became clear as we were filming this community that Francine was that light that we were watching transform before our eyes,” said Marin. They decided that they needed to allow Francine’s voice to rise because “it’s Francine’s voice that actually carries the story,” added Marin.

Officer explained how it was Anita Lee (CFC alumna and the film’s executive producer) and Marin who in the edit suite further identified Francine as the centre of the story, “follow this person, you can’t go to anything unless she touches it. […] That was the biggest breakthrough in our editing process.” As a result, they had to let go of some beautiful things, but that allowed them to focus in on Francine. “Anita and Lea really recognized that she [Francine] had something that we should really be focusing on,” added Officer.

"You don’t leave these things. These things stay with you."

- Charles Officer

After watching clips of Unarmed Verses throughout the panel, it’s clear to see what the filmmakers saw in Francine. She stays with you, so it’s no wonder she, and the Villaways community, have stayed with the filmmakers, too. “You don’t leave these things. These things stay with you,” shared Officer. Marin echoed his sentiments, “You may physically leave an environment or a location, but I think the relationships are ongoing, and they should be.”

PANEL # 1: Read our post (Ethical Programming and the Duty of Audiences) from the first panel HERE.

PANEL # 2: Read our post (The Rise and Evolution of Digital Content) from the second panel HERE.

PANEL # 3: Read our post (The Art of the Edit) from the third panel HERE.

PANEL # 5: Read our post (“It gets easier” and other advice from breakout Canadian directors) from the fifth panel HERE.

Cory Angeletti-Szasz

Manager, Communications (Mat Leave)