Invisible City (2009) dir. Hubert Davis
“Invisible City” premieres in Hot Docs with a certain degree of anticipation, certainly for the Canadian filmmaking community. Director Hubert Davis’ first doc “Hardwood” was fantastic and earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Short Subject. His first dramatic short, “Aruba” was equally fantastic. And so arrives “Invisible City”, a National Film Board feature doc, continuing Davis' themes of family and despair in the inner city of urban Toronto. The intentions are worthy, shedding much needed light on the ‘invisible’ community of Toronto's Regent Park and its families with so much working against success resulting in a self-perpetuating cycle of despair. Unfortunately, a consistent frustration persists from the inability of the documentary to expose the true emotions of its characters.
Over the course of three years, grades 10, 11 and 12, Davis followed two troubled black teens, Kendall and Mikey, living in the country's oldest housing project, Regent Park. It's not an uncommon story in any major city, single mothers, trying to raise their children to be righteous against the pressures of gangs, violence, crime and all belligerent behaviour kids find it easier to escape to. There's also the teachers who are forced to act as social workers and surrogate father figures to the boys, none of whom though can seem to get Kendall and Mikey on the straight and narrow.
A sombre ambient music soundscape begins the film set against the dreary overcast skyline shot of Toronto. Voiceovers from the film’s participants speak in hushed quiet voices with little or no ambition or verve for life. This becomes the tone and visual language of the film - a unique style, which becomes both its strength and its weakness. Davis' frames are carefully chosen. He rarely using talking heads, instead looping his interviews over his frequently stunning and cinematically-inspired imagery.
But somewhere after the mark when a short film becomes a long form feature, repitition sets in - both visually and narratively. We continue to watch the kids wander aimlessly through school and the streets with maximum disaffection. Davis nails this despair and self-loathing, but we badly desire some positive action or beacon of light to guide us somewhere. Davis’s long lensed closeups try hard to attach the audience to the characters, but the barrier between camera and subject is never broken. Neither Kendall, nor Mikey truly open up to us, What do these kids want out of life? In terms of a story we need to have hope, an end goal to achieve.
It's all the more frustrating because Mikey and Kendall and both their mothers are acutely aware of their predicament. They know their actions are driving them down into an inescapable cycle of crime. Sandra, Mikey’s mother, tells us that she works two jobs starting at 5am, and unfortunately has no time to look after her son. This appears to be the crux of the predicament. How can a child with such a loving mother go down the wrong path in life? Clearly the lack of a father figure is a major cause.
Perhaps this is the point, the frustrating conundrum of inner city life - love is just not enough to pull these families out of despair. If so, while it's important to address the issue, as cinema entertainment "Invisible City" succumbs to its own sword.
"Invisible City" premieres tonight, May 2, at the Royal Cinema