Cut Through the Stigma: An Interview with Hugh Gibson on The Stairs
By Adam Cook
Hugh Gibson’s award-winning documentary The Stairs deservedly joins the ranks of Canada’s finest documentaries. A humanist portrait of drug users in a harm reduction program in Regent Park in Toronto, Gibson avoids sensationalist tendencies and focuses on the people, their personalities, and relies on their insights into a lifestyle often portrayed, but really with such authenticity of insider knowledge. Observant, patient, and poetic, The Stairs’ greatest power comes from the sense of trust built over time—the film was shot over five years—between the filmmaker and the people on screen. The result is a rare sort of documentary that doesn’t feel like it’s “on” its subject, but “of” it. Likely to change peoples’ assumptions about users, drug culture, and challenge thinking around harm reduction, this is an essential film that applies to anywhere in the world, but has particular relevance here in Vancouver.
I was able to talk to Hugh Gibson about the project, his approach, influences, and more.
VIFF: Can you talk about what led you to taking on this project?
Hugh Gibson: Early in 2011, I was asked to direct two educational videos about harm reduction programs operated by public health non-profits (the Regent Park Community Heath Centre, and Street Health). The first was about safer strategies for street-based sex workers, called “The Safer Stroll”. The second was about “CUP” – the Crack Users Project – a training program for peer outreach workers. That was my introduction into the world of harm reduction, and to the setting and subjects of The Stairs.
Some amazing things happened. I developed close ties with many clients and the projects became far more personal than I could have imagined. The projects focused on clients’ voices and personal experiences, unfiltered and unrehearsed. It became personal for them too: the project became an outlet for self-expression, which they shared with intense feeling. One of those clients, Marty, appeared one day wanting to be recorded, even though nothing was scheduled. He said he’d written a poem and could he recite it on camera. I set up my equipment and obliged. To my disbelief, he proceeded to bear his heart and soul, recalling his days and nights spent living in stairwells. That performance is in the film, and it’s where The Stairs’ title comes from.
That wasn’t an isolated incident. I felt I’d stumbled upon something much larger than what I was doing in the moment. Both myself and the subjects agreed that we needed to do something more. If only we could dig deeper…
VIFF: What side of addiction and the treatment of addiction in Toronto did you want to show audiences? What do you want audiences to take away?
Gibson: These stories can and do take place everywhere. The effects of criminalization, access to housing, stigma and discrimination – to name a few – are everywhere.
The traditional narrative around substance use needs to be blown apart and reconstructed. It’s time to question a lot of assumptions about people and the way things are. So I focused on things that surprised me, or that run counter to what we’re used to seeing. I chose people, stories and places that have been overlooked. That are hidden in plain sight. Yet are each remarkable.
As I got to know Marty, Roxanne, Greg, and others in their community, I felt that I’d rarely seen their experiences on film, and rarely seen anything that captured the essence of their personalities: funny, warm, articulate, unapologetic; focused on family and their community. Poet, grandmother, grandfather, as well as substance user and sex worker. I was inspired by their concern for one another, even as they combatted all sorts of personal demons, and the work that they do.
One thing that drove the subjects to participate was the chance to show things how they really are. To cut through the stigma. And a motivation for me was to humanize lifestyles that have been de-humanized. So perhaps audiences will come away thinking about their surroundings and their communities in a different light.
VIFF: Can you tell us about the subjects of the film, and how your relationship developed with them? There’s a remarkable sense of trust on screen. How do you create that?
Gibson: I met many of them through making the educational films (Marty, Greg, Sushi). They seemed to like me: being curious and non-judgmental served me well. I knew very little about the neighbourhood, their lifestyles, or their harm reduction work, so I let them navigate me. And we were always in close proximity. At that time, I was the only crew! I embraced that intimacy and utilized it.
The educational films were deemed a success in the community and that opened doors for me. Together, we were compelled to go further, uninhibited. Then there was a long period of discussion, research and observation.
I tried to make people feel comfortable. We’d always shoot on their turf. I’d be as non-intrusive as possible: no lights, small amount of gear, try to look and feel inconspicuous. Shooting in a car was useful. As Abbas Kiarostami would point out, it’s conducive to an intimate dialogue because other distractions can’t get in the way.
Locations were important. Marty took me to the stairwell where he used to sleep. Roxanne took me to her old corner, or to a hidden user’s space called Field of Dreams. I would cede control to them and go along for the ride. Roxanne insisted that visiting her old corner had to be done at 3AM when the bars were closing, so it would feel real and she would be in the moment to tell me how she felt. It would have been easier and
looked the same if we’d shot at 7PM, but that was how much she wanted to share her world.
VIFF: How long did the film take to shoot?
Gibson: It was shot over the course of five years. Starting in spring of 2011 until spring/summer of 2016.
VIFF: What was the most important lesson you learned along the way?
For my own life: to put things in perspective. Early in 2011, I had arranged an interview and the subject didn’t show up. The day was a wash: nothing to show for my time, plus equipment rentals. I was miffed. A few days later, I was filming again in the neighbourhood. I saw the absent interviewee. They apologized for missing the interview: a “bad date” assaulted her and she’d been in hospital. I felt terrible. Who cares that I’d lost a day? It meant nothing. There were many more cancelled days over the next five years, but I learned to take it in stride. Patience was essential. It contributed to my working method, of discovering the film as I went. The film was process-driven, incorporating the passage of time into the narrative. Among the great many things I learned while making the film, was the value of trying to see things through other people’s eyes.
VIFF: When you were deciding on the formal approach, which films and filmmakers served as inspiration?
Gibson: I watched Alan Zweig’s A Hard Name while editing the educational videos and thought it was the closest I’ve seen to what I’m going for, in terms of intimacy and rawness of both emotion and style. It’s a startlingly honest examination of ex-cons, connected by experiences with childhood sexual trauma. The subjects are presented respectfully, without pretense or judgment. After I’d made the educational films, we were introduced by a mutual friend. Alan became Executive Producer and he was wonderfully supportive.
Pedro Costa’s In Vanda’s Room was an important film for me. Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven too, particular for its use of sound. Josh Oppenheimer’s films. And of course Nettie Wild’s Fix: Story of an Addicted City.
Iranian cinema is very important to me. Jafar Panahi’s films, and especially the films of Abbas Kiarostami. I’d like to think there’s elements of Close Up, And Life Goes On, and Taste of Cherry, from his formal approach, to his sensitivity, to his fondness for shooting in cars. Much of my shooting was done rapidly and we relied a great deal on instinct, constantly working in the moment. There wasn’t time to think about things like influences. But months later, I might look at something and see an unconscious decision that reminded me of Kiarostami.
VIFF: How do you feel about doc portrayals of drug culture in general?
Gibson: There’s a typical narrative of users trying to quit using drugs: they go to rehab to “get clean” (I hate that term) and the story’s over. Reality is quite a bit different.
A typical scene of someone using will show a blurred face and a close up of a needle being inserted (I call it needle porn). The intention may be to preserve anonymity, but it reinforces the stigma of users – we don’t see the person, we only see one dimension. In The Stairs we get to know the person – who they are, where they’re coming from – as rich, complex individuals, before we ever see any using on screen.
Returning to the point about how I developed relationships and established trust: one way that was accomplished was by allowing the subjects of to take ownership of their own storytelling.
The Stairs screens at Vancity Theatre April 21st – 27th. Friday’s screening (April 21) will feature a panel discussion of the issues raised by the film led by filmmaker Hugh Gibson. Moderated by Andrea Woo (Globe and Mail). Panelists and co-presenters: Brenda Belak (Pivot Legal Society) and Jordan Westfall (CAPUD, Cdn Drug Policy Coalition).