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Catherine Hernandez’s book helped usher in Scarborough’s creative renaissance. Now it’s a buzzy movie set to world premiere downtown.
(L toR) Scarborough author and screenwriter Catherine Hernandez, actor Aliya Kanani, directors Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson.
Scarborough (Shasha Nakhai, Rich Williamson) at the Toronto International Film Festival. Sep 10, 11, 14 & 18. 136 min. tiff.net.
The first time Scarborough author Catherine Hernandez experienced the Toronto International Film Festival, she was working as an usher. Hernandez was at the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre, handing out programs in what she calls a “monkey suit” and begging well-dressed folks to take their seats at the premieres of films like Life Is Beautiful, never imagining that one day she could be doing like Roberto Benigni and mounting that TIFF stage with her own film.
“The festival is not for you,” says Hernandez, recalling the way she positioned herself with respect to TIFF and other Toronto institutions that always felt so far away and out of reach for anyone from Scarborough. “It’s for fancier people. It’s certainly not for people going to Food Basics or No Frills, going to the cheap, almost rotten vegetable section to afford food.
“There’s something about being from Scarborough. You’re always meant to feel like things are not meant for you. The city is not working in your favour. Transit is not working in your favour. Schools are not working in your favour. If you need to get anywhere in life, you have to leave Scarborough.”
Now, Scarborough is coming to TIFF.
Alongside filmmakers Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson, Hernandez adapted her novel about three children and the adults in their orbit surviving and finding community in the Galloway area into a wrenching, uplifting and in so many ways ground-breaking new film. And they’re going to premiere it at TIFF on Friday.
“It’s just so thrilling,” says Hernandez, speaking to NOW during a Zoom conversation along with Nakhai, Williamson and actor Aliya Kanani. They speak about the challenges of bringing this story to the screen in a Canadian film industry that historically ignored communities like Scarborough while centering privileged voices, propping up filmmakers who can shoot at their family’s cottage or at their homes and restaurants in Little Italy. And they talk about what it means to represent a community that has for so long felt neglected and disconnected, not just culturally but physically, with a subway line that stops short and leaves residents vulnerable to the whims of the 116 and 86 schedules.
“The east side will be taking up space,” says Hernandez, whose journey back to TIFF is a far cry from her days wearing a monkey suit at the Elgin. “This time I’m not going to take the TTC.”’
A haunting sequence in Nakhai and Williamson’s film takes place at Warden station. A child is lost after her caretaker seems to run from her with intention. The child, played in the film by Anna Claire Beitel, roams the platform and shops. She looks wide-eyed at the trains. She tastes those infamous Warden station patties and enjoys the kindness of the shopkeeper serving them. There is a wondrousness to it all. But it comes wrapped up in trauma.
That scene isn’t in the 2017 novel, though it is evoked on the book’s cover and reflected in its dedication to a young girl Hernandez knew as a teen who was surviving neglect. So much of Scarborough is moulded from Hernandez’s memories and experiences. She wrote the novel after fleeing a dangerous situation with her daughter. They lived in precarious housing. She started up a home daycare so that she could make a living while being present as a single mother.
“During that time, I was noticing that there were these frontline workers who would be serving these communities,” says Hernandez. “And if there was a change in government, it meant that they could lose their job and all of those years of outreaching to these communities and gaining their trust would be lost. I wanted to capture that spirit.”
That struggle is reflected in both the novel and the film through the character Ms. Hina (Kanani), the frontline worker who runs a literacy program in the Galloway community, which is attended by kids Bing (Liam Diaz), Sylvie (Essence Fox) and Laura (Beitel). Ms. Hina occasionally reads frustrating emailed instructions from an absent downtown supervisor, who urges her not to treat the facility like a food bank and to resist getting close to the people who need help. The disconnect between downtown Toronto and Scarborough is felt deeply in these exchanges between the people who make decisions and those on the ground coping with the repercussions.
Played soulfully by Kanani, Ms. Hina becomes the anchor in a story about the three young kids who deal with their own struggles and harsh environments, including neglect, abuse, poverty and violence. But while the challenges in Scarborough are a big part of both the novel and the film, Hernandez’s story is about the strength of the community that forms around the literacy program and beyond.
“It’s capturing what it means to create community,” says Hernandez. “Especially since the community was really giving back to me and my daughter at that time while we were healing.”
What is Canada’s answer to Do The Right Thing? Where is our version of those indie New York stories like Girlfight or Raising Victor Vargas about tight-knit, diverse urban neighbourhoods? Watching Scarborough makes immediately apparent what we’ve been missing while the Canadian film industry kept busy making cottage porn or getting cute about emotional hang-ups in the Annex.
The film gets specific with its depiction of a neighbourhood and its people, shooting largely in the Galloway area between Idlewood Inn and the Suya Spot, cheating a little bit with some scenes at Bellamy and Lawrence, but ultimately evoking the sensation of a whole microcosm existing within a few blocks, where you can’t get to the corner store without stopping and saying hello to all the people you recognize along the way. While we were conducting our cover photo shoot in the same area, one family involved with the film just happened to pass by. The heartwarming accidental reunion almost a year after filming took place shut shit down for a minute.
“It takes me so long to get anything done,” says Hernandez, who just got back from getting shoes at National Thrift where she had to brush some people off to get back in time for our interview. “You go to the store, you see these people and you talk.”
“When you’re reading the book or when you’re watching the film, it feels very much like the geography of Scarborough. You’re going to be passing by all these people that want to tell you stories, because one of the joys of living here is some really good gossip. We love gossiping. I really wanted it to feel like that.”
Filmmaking teams were quick to approach Hernandez about adapting her novel after it was published. But she says they came with polished reels that felt inauthentic to the Scarborough experience. Hernandez also wanted to avoid a big production that would feel invasive in a community like Galloway. Instead, she wrote the screenplay and turned to Nakhai and Williamson, who come from the documentary scene, to shoot it.
Hernandez and Nakhai knew each other for years through the Filipino community. Nakhai, who is Filipino-Iranian, worked with Hernandez on her student film Baby Not Mine (2009), which is about Filipino caregivers. They later partnered up with Williamson, who is Nakhai’s professional and life partner, on Paruparo (2013), a dance short commissioned by Reel Asian.
The filmmakers are not from Scarborough. Nakhai grew up in Nigeria; Williamson in London. But they found their bearings and supports to tell the story with Hernandez guiding the way.
“We anchored ourselves in the things that were relevant to our upbringing,” says Nakhai. “But we also humbled ourselves to know that there’s a lot of things that we won’t know how to depict accurately. We tried to bring on board collaborators who would cover our blind spots and we would cover theirs and we all had different strengths.”
Williamson and Nakhai give Scarborough a vérité aesthetic on a scrappy budget. The film is produced through Telefilm’s Talent To Watch program. Given the story’s relatively massive scope, capturing not just a neighbourhood but a way of life, the small team had all the challenges you could predict (and then some) given their barely six-figure balance sheet.
“We don’t have access to this $10 million automatic Telefilm tier that more seasoned filmmakers have,” says Nakhai. But the directors also acknowledge the advantage to working with limitations, which is pretty much on brand for Scarborough.
“We had the freedom to stay true to the writing in the story and to do things on our own terms,” says Nakhai.
“The more you add the bells and whistles,” adds Williamson, “the more you complicate it and get away from that raw sort of documentary feel.”
The filmmakers describe the care and sensitivity needed when filming in areas like the Idlewood Inn, the adjacent family shelter and nearby apartment blocks. They kept their footprint minimal and maintained respect for spaces in the film. They also had to stay light on their feet when directing child actors.
“It was really like trying to videotape a comet going through the air,” says Hernandez, describing Nakhai and Williamson’s doc approach, setting up environments, letting the actors just be who they are and staying ready to capture the right moments.
“There were points where I forgot there was a camera,” says Kanani, who, as Ms. Hina, would often just lead the play sessions with the kids for real and trust that whatever was needed was being captured.
“I never knew what part of my face was being shot,” adds Kanani, who has yet to see the final product. “I have no idea what this film looks like.”
Nakhai and Williamson say their approach and aesthetic is inspired by the docs of D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, but also films like Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum and Sean Baker’s The Florida Project. Like Scarborough, Capernaum and The Florida Project temper harsh environments through the innocent perspective of neglected children. Both films have also inspired discussion and criticism on how they render misery, with the unflattering label “poverty porn” tossed into those debates. With its story about institutional neglect in a low-income neighbourhood, Scarborough will naturally invite similar conversations. And that could get touchy considering the rep Scarborough has carried for decades.
Scarborough, the place, is diverse, both racially and economically. Like all of Toronto’s boroughs, there are areas that are affluent (and mostly white), middle-class and hard done by. But up to a point, depictions of Scarborough, particularly in the news media, would dwell on the violence in the area while neglecting everything else.
That reputation preceded Hernandez’s novel, which tells the story of a very specific neighbourhood at a very specific time. The events take place in Galloway during the 2011-2012 school year, right before the neighbourhood would become infamous because of the Danzig shooting, where rival gang members opened fire during a street party, killing two teens and injuring 24 others.
“When you think about all the different shootings that happened since I was a kid, its more than I can even count,” says Hernandez. But she’s sensitive to how the media didn’t portray Scarborough as anything else. She also didn’t want her own narrative to veer into so-called poverty porn.
The film can be hard to watch at times, but its focus is largely on the small joys and a thriving sense of community despite the circumstances. The most memorable moments are the helping hands, the little wins or the kids at play, whether in a Dollarama or a nail salon. That pretty much encapsulates the Scarborough spirit.
“When you’re living out here, the measurements of success are very different,” says Hernandez, reminding people to recalibrate their gauges. “During the time I was writing the book, the measurement of success was: Can I make rent? Am I not searching the ground for change to buy a dozen eggs? Is my car not breaking down? To me success was I bought a $2 can of Rust-Oleum and sprayed it on my Grand Caravan, hoping that if I sprayed long enough that it was going to turn into a Mercedes-Benz. That was my success back then.
“The measurements of success are these little things that are joy for these people. Their increments of success are: Did I get food on the table? Was I able to have a conversation with someone? Did I make a friend? [Those] are the things that make these forgotten parts of the city – such as Scarborough and Rexdale – so special. Because those things matter to us more than getting a reservation at a fancy restaurant or getting a fancy condo overlooking the water. What matters to us is those meals that we share together.”
Kanani nods in agreement.
“These people are living full lives,” she says, heaping praise on Hernandez for doing right by her characters.
Kanani turns to her own character, Ms. Hina, a Muslim woman who wears a hijab. Before reading the script, Kanani assumed Ms. Hina would be running scared from her husband, falling in line with the typical depiction of Muslim women.
“That’s usually what it is,” she says, before rendering her surprise that Ms. Hina was not that at all. “She’s smart. She’s powerful. But she’s also silly. And you never see that exist together. You never see somebody in a hijab who’s also allowed to be silly on screen, because oftentimes in our society we see hijabi women, and we think conservative and reserved.”
Kanani also has her own take on Scarborough and its rep. She moved around a lot when growing up, living in Scarborough for a brief time. She still has family in the area. “When I go to Scarborough, I instantly just feel my shoulders drop back a little bit,” says Kanani, who wasn’t opposed to scaling a fence to get the right shot for our photo shoot. “I could be a little louder now. You feel a little more comfortable in your skin when there’s more people that [have] the same vibe as you.”
“Sometimes people ask if I’m from Scarborough, almost like they were like trying to decide why I was a little rough around the edges,” she says, before noting that the tone has changed. There’s a buzz around Scarborough, Hernandez’s own novel being a catalyst to a changing perception around the area and its community, for better and for worse. “All of a sudden we’re actually celebrating these differences rather than looking down on them.”
Hernandez is quick to point out that she’s not the first storyteller to come from Scarborough.
“The art here has been good for a long while,” she says, name dropping poets Randell Adjei and Téa Mutonji and actor Stephan James. She speaks enthusiastically about all the visual artists, photographers and musicians to come from, represent and uplift the neighbourhood. And of course, there’s the thriving Scarborough food scene that still keeps Suresh Doss busy giving tours.
Scarborough isn’t even the first Scarborough film. That distinction could arguably go to Joyce Wong’s melancholic Wexford Plaza, though there are likely others who put various neighbourhoods on film and never got their due credit. And then there’s the web series Next Stop, which is about Toronto but made by Scarberians, who are about to drop a second season on CBC Gem.
The Scarborough renaissance is real. As Kanani said, the tone around the neighbourhood has changed. But with that comes a whole other mess.
“The appropriation!” says Hernandez. She’s calling out how some folks are getting too comfortable with claiming Scarborough, perceiving it as a pass to misconstrue and claim a life that isn’t theirs – there’s a difference between growing up in Mornelle and Agincourt – or start slinging Scarborough slang, which is often just repurposed Jamaican patois. You-Tuber turned talk-show host Lily Singh regularly cites the places she grew up and the people who surrounded her as the reason she’s comfortable appropriating Jamaican culture specifically and repeatedly in her skits.
“I grew up in a mixed Filipino household,” says Hernandez. “I could have been surrounded by people of another culture, but that’s not my culture. If it wasn’t your life, it wasn’t your life. Give it up.”
Hernandez notes that Scarborough is celebrated for its diversity. And those trying to reduce it to one homogenous idea are not doing it justice.
“If you look at what is so lovingly called the Scarborough trifecta between [Brother author] David Chariandy, [That Time I Loved You author] Carrianne Leung and myself, it’s that our Scarborough’s are very different communities. We’re three peas in a pod. We’re very close. Those are just three different perspectives.”
The other downside to the Scarborough renaissance is that it’s changing the borough. The area is undergoing intense gentrification, with new condos being built at every corner, which a planned Scarborough subway and LRT may cross. Bungalows in the area are now selling for around $1 million if not two. Meanwhile rental housing is being sold to condo developers like Altree, who are evicting the working class from their community to turn a profit. Last month, ACORN Canada organized with tenants in Glen Everest area to picket such a demoviction.
Even Hernandez has noticed newcomers on her street flipping the ugly salmon colour brick homes into something HGTV-ready, which means even her housing situation is tenuous. She lives in slim townhouse – a lighthouse, she calls it— that could probably sell for a million dollars.
“Most likely, I will have to leave Toronto,” says Hernandez, worrying that she will be a part of the mass exodus, artists being priced out of the city by skyrocketing rents and unattainable house prices. Hernandez says she approaches every lease renewal with racked nerves, hoping her landlord doesn’t decide to cash in on current real estate prices by selling and leaving her looking for a new home far from the one she so intimately identifies with.
“I love Scarborough so hard,” says Hernandez. “But there is no way that I can afford to buy here. There’s going to be a point I won’t even be able to afford renting here. Unless our leadership changes, and we can have rent control, we are really screwed.”