Film Review: UNARMED VERSES (Canada 2017) ***

Unarmed Verses Poster
This feature documentary presents a thoughtful and vivid portrait of a community facing imposed relocation. At the centre of the story is a remarkably astute and luminous 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. Unarmed Verses is a cinematic rendering of our universal need for self-expression and belonging.


Charles Officer

UNARMED VERSES arrives with all the critical and public raves after being named Best Canadian Feature Documentary at this year’s Hot Docs 2017.   It is a National Film Board of Canada production which means it is (as most NFB films are) a meticulously constructed arty small budget film. 

The centre of the film is 12-year old Francine Valentine, played by the real Francine Valentine.  So, the film is a documentary of sorts, a documentary of the present so that the film feels like a fiction piece.  Francine is a Jamaican Canadian (as seen from the country’s flags in her house) who has been to live with her old grandmother and father inToronto so that she can obtain a better education.  The film follows her throughout the entire film with her often speaking out loud so that the audience can relate not only to her thoughts but also with what is going on in the film.  Francine’s family in Toronto is not rich.

As the film opens, her community faces a difficult transition, when the largely low-income residents of a rental housing block in the city’s northeast end are threatened with imposed relocation due to the impending demolition of the place they call home.  They have to move out and given a chance to return.  They are unable to afford even renting the new condominiums that will be built.  They are informed, as expect from the typical government, that that any of their questions will be answered though this does not mean that their problems will be solved.  Francine’s grandmother, old but still bright a a light questions the schools that need to be changed for the children.

The film follows the thoughts of Francine, as she reads poems, writes her thoughts and composes her songs,  Through the activities, the audience sees Francine’s reflections on life, the self, and the soul.  

But Francine is not the only person on display.  Her rhythmic father also sings reggae in the film.  Another older black teen inner community class, raps and writes poetry.  

One wonders about the authenticity of the scene in which Francine is so shy at the recording studio, almost unable to go on.  If this is so, how come she could sing in front of the film’s camera earlier in the film?

A highlight of the film is Francine’s visit to the Basquiat exhibit at the Ago (Art Gallery of Ontario)in Toronto.  She gives her 12-year old view on art.

The film ends up a quietly insightful film that also serves as a coming-of-age drama of Francine Valentine.

UNARMED VERSES screens in Toronto at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, 506 Bloor St. W., starting Friday, October 6. There will be a Q&A with producer Lea Marin and guests from the film on opening night, October 6; and with director Charles Officer and guests from the film following the 8:30 p.m. screening on Monday, October 9.


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