Principal Cast: Roxanne Smith, Greg Bell, Martin Thompson
Runtime: 95 min.
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One of the most moving Canadian documentaries in recent years, THE STAIRS introduces viewers to Marty, Greg and Roxanne, three people who have survived some very tough times on Toronto’s meanest streets. Now, as their Regent Park neighbourhood undergoes a massive revitalization, they face troubling changes of their own. By capturing their accounts with such sensitivity, director Hugh Gibson challenges prejudices and preconceptions about drug use, sex work and homelessness. He was rewarded for his efforts when THE STAIRS won the Toronto Film Critics Association’s award for Best Canadian Feature of 2016. Showing some of the magnanimous spirit that informs his film, Gibson decided to split the prize money with fellow nominees Kazik Radwanski and Matt Johnson, whose OPERATION AVALANCHE is also at this year’s KCFF.
Shot over the course of several years, Hugh Gibson’s profoundly affecting and compassionate documentary examines the lives of habitual drug users in Toronto’s Regent Park.
Hugh Gibson’s compassionate and profoundly affecting The Stairs takes us inside Toronto’s Regent Park Community Health Centre, whose staff of social workers includes both former and current drug users. These workers understand all too well what their clients are going through.
Shot over five years, Gibson’s film focuses on three staff members: the loquacious, seemingly tireless Marty, who was so addicted at one point that, after being shot in a deal that went south, he stopped for a hit before going to the hospital; Roxanne, a former sex worker whose tales of life in the trade are beyond harrowing; and Greg, a biracial child of the 1960s consumed with a long-delayed legal case hinging on a police officer’s use of excessive force.
As it draws us closer to Gibson’s subjects, The Stairs challenges prejudices and preconceived notions. It also underlines how tentative sobriety and stability can be for people who have lived in addiction for years. In one of the film’s rawest moments, Marty, when asked what kind of future he sees for himself, explains that “When you wake up and you’re at that next day, you’re very happy because it’s another day you didn’t smoke crack … I didn’t do it yesterday, I’m not gonna do it today either. That’s our happy ending. Cuz it never ends.”
As the film progresses, Gibson subtly builds a wide-ranging portrait of the conditions that can nurture addiction, most notably poverty and homelessness. In its nuance, social conscience, and moving affection for its subjects, The Stairs is a worthy continuation of the tradition set by the NFB’s legendary Unit B. — Steve Gravestock