Life Won't Wait: Hugh Gibson's "The Stairs"

The Canadian filmmaker discusses his feature debut, a compassionate, unvarnished look at the lives of drug users in urban Toronto.
Michael Sicinski

Hugh Gibson's The Stairs (2016) is exclusively showing August 9 – September 8, 2018 on MUBI in most countries in the world as part of the series Canada's Next Generation.

Hugh Gibson’s feature film debut represents the arrival of a major new voice in documentary filmmaking. The Stairs is a compassionate, unvarnished look at the lives of drug users in urban Toronto—their struggles to help themselves and one another, to change their lives for the better, and above all to maintain dignity in a society that often seems to prefer their invisibility. Gibson’s film avoids the pat narratives and uplifting bromides so often associated with this genre, instead preferring to allow the subjects to speak for themselves. His camera is curious and non-judgmental. Applying a style that is equal parts Errol Morris and Allan King, Gibson combines free observation with direct testimony to produce a vital document of a culture all around us. It’s a community that some of us may at one time have been a part of, one that others of us seldom see.

NOTEBOOK: The Stairs shows a great deal of intimacy with a community that might have cause to be rather insular or distrustful of a documentarian. How did you build rapport with your subjects?

HUGH GIBSON: The short answer is that I listened. I was well-served by three things: curiosity, investing a lot of time, and being non-judgmental. 

To elaborate, I’ll explain the film’s origins, and my introduction to the setting and subjects of what became The Stairs. In 2011, I made two educational films for public health organizations in Toronto. The first was about safer strategies for street-based sex workers, called “The Safer Stroll”. The second was about an education and training program for crack users, called “Harm Reduction”. Both programs trained people with lived experience to work at their organizations, utilizing firsthand accounts of street-involved persons. They showed how the community keeps each other stay safe, while experiencing high levels of stigma and violence.

As Roxanne says in the film, people size you up quickly. If I'd walked in cold, it wouldn't have gone so well. Fortunately, I was associated with respected institutions, and the process unfolded organically. I went in not realizing that these programs existed in Toronto, where I’ve lived my entire life. What I observed was very different to what I’m accustomed to seeing and reading about those lifestyles. Why didn’t I know more about it, and why did others get it so wrong? Because I had such a steep learning curve, I relied on clients and peer workers to show me around, and their expertise on how to best represent their community. The people I met—Marty, Greg, Sushi—later became prominent parts of The Stairs. Also, I was a crew of one, so everything was very intimate, leading to greater rapport with the subjects: the process became far more personal than I could have imagined.

NOTEBOOK: What were those earlier films like?

GIBSON: The films focused on clients’ voices and personal experiences, unfiltered and unrehearsed. They were closely involved, and revealed places, people and stories that are hidden in plain sight. It became personal for them too: the films became an outlet for self-expression, which they shared with intense feeling. For instance, Marty appeared one day at the Health Centre 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 bore his heart and soul, recalling his days and nights spent living in stairwells. You see that moment in the film, and it’s where The Stairs’ title comes from.

Together, we decided this shouldn’t end here: we should do something more. What could that look like? The educational films were warmly received, giving me greater currency. For 2012 and part of 2013, I applied for funding grants, waited months for answers, re-applied, and waited some more. During that time, I kept researching, hanging around every week in Regent Park. I spent a lot of time with people at work: kit-making, outreach shifts, drop-ins, having lunch or coffee. Talked about music, sports, pets, family, food, superstitions, fishing, tattoos… you name it—and of course, drugs, sex and all the rest. I observed, and I listened a lot. Sometimes I brought a camera, but usually not. People saw that I wasn’t going away.

NOTEBOOK: How did the subjects of The Stairs help shape the final film?

GIBSON: I received excellent advice from various social workers and substance users. I educated myself about language, including commonly used words and phrases that are offensive. Think about junkie, addict, “getting clean”—words have power, to demonstrate sensitivity, or to stigmatize. I was instructed on what to expect when filming someone smoking crack—and what not to do. I learned about mistakes and transgressions made by other films and members of the media—there were a great many.

Countless other things were also important, but it’s worth mentioning that we set boundaries and discussed things beforehand. The intensely personal disclosures in the film necessitated great care, as did certain images and actions. If someone ever felt uncomfortable, with a question or otherwise, we stopped immediately. It seldom happened, but when it did, there was no further discussion, no cajoling or trying it again. The subjects put a lot of trust in me, which meant great responsibility. Judy said, “If you think it will help other women, use whatever you want.” They took their own participation very seriously; Greg told me very early in the process, “Just show us for who we really are. That's why we're doing this. If it's too much for some people, so be it. We want to tell our side.”

NOTEBOOK: You aren't physically present in the film, but you are frequently addressed and your presence is felt in several situations. What was your philosophy regarding observation and non-intervention?

GIBSON: I kept the focus on the subjects and their stories. I never entertained including narration, or my presence as a guiding force. I removed myself wherever possible. I also hate hearing my own voice, but on rare occasions it was essential to the story. 

In terms of observation and non-intervention, I think it depends entirely on the situation. In one scene, I'm alone with a subject and question them about a shocking statement they've just made. It was appropriate to leave that in, particularly for the ensuing reaction. Another time, I shot Greg advising a client at work: I knew some information about laundry services that they didn’t, and I paused filming to help them. Sometimes, co-cinematographer Cam Woykin would ask his own questions, and get involved: invariably it helped the film and his contributions were always vital. Most other times, I'm an observer, which is what I generally preferred for this film. But I also don’t hide the camera’s presence, which is frequently addressed. Because it’s a bit unusual, it suited the film and enhanced the overall feeling of disarming honesty. Sometimes, Marty repeats my name, speaking directly to me throughout a scene. I’ve heard that it enhances the feeling of immediacy, making the viewer feel like they're in the room with us. In another scene, Marty ends a monologue then leaves frame and yells, “Cut!” It’s funny, but also speaks to the subjects’ active participation in the filmmaking process, at times taking control of their own narrative.

I attended the funeral of someone who was initially a lead subject. Marty gave a eulogy, and it was emotionally charged, ending with a brawl and the police being called. Out of respect and decorum, I didn’t bring a camera and I’m glad I didn’t. On the other hand, I filmed many things that were potentially dangerous, traumatic, or illegal. Those were always discussed beforehand, with subjects and crew (if applicable). My decisions were based on the comfort levels of the subjects and myself, and what was appropriate for the film. 

NOTEBOOK: In your understanding, to what extent is The Stairs a specifically Toronto or Canadian story, and to what degree is it a portrait of any city anywhere?

GIBSON: The Stairs happens within one Toronto neighborhood, but it could be any city in North America. The U.S. has all the same needle exchange, outreach, and other services seen in the film, although it varies wildly depending on geography (also true in Canada).

The drug war is still very much alive in Canada. Toronto's Board of Health recently recommended the decriminalization of all drugs. Portugal did this, back in 2001 (one year after In Vanda’s Room). On October 17, Canada will become the second country to legalize cannabis (after Uruguay). As for all the people currently in jail for pot-possession—so far, there’s no plan to expunge records, or release any prisoners. It's leading to some difficult questions, and that's a good thing, because the way things are seldom makes much sense. Take the laws around sex work, reformed in 2014: it’s legal to sell services, but illegal to purchase them. 

The concepts of harm reduction and evidence-based approaches to care are becoming more widely accepted. So is the idea that addiction and its underlying causes are public health matters, instead of criminal ones—although that view is certainly not shared by all.

NOTEBOOK: How have things changed on this front since the completion of the film?

GIBSON: When The Stairs was completed, there was one supervised injection facility in North America (Vancouver’s Insite). Since then, many more have opened across Canada—including in three locations seen in my film. U.S. cities are getting closer to opening the first, in New York, San Francisco and Seattle, among others. One wonders that it has taken so long: they operate effectively in Australia, Switzerland, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain, Norway, Denmark, and Luxembourg. Vast amounts of data support their effectiveness, both in terms of health outcomes and cost.

It’s particularly relevant since overdoses are the leading cause of death in the US for people under 50. More than car crashes, homicides, or suicides; more Americans died from overdose in 2016 than during the entire Vietnam War. In Canada, the deaths are also staggering; as with the States, they are worse now than at the height of the AIDS crisis in North America. The parallels don’t end there: with some notable exceptions, the political response has been repugnantly slow, due in no small part to stigma and discrimination. 

NOTEBOOK: Are you still in contact with some of the subjects of the film? How are they doing?

GIBSON: Yes, we’re all still in touch, and have been regularly since the film premiered.

Locally, the subjects are frequently recognized, which can be funny. Once, Roxanne and I were standing in line at the airport, and someone exclaimed: “Oh my God! It's the prostitute from The Stairs!” Apparently this isn’t unusual. We were en route to a film festival in India. At age 50, it was the first time Roxanne owned a passport. She brought two suitcases: one had only shoes.

Since the release, events have ranged between remarkable highs and lows. Earlier this year, Greg was hired full time at Regent Park Community Health Centre. I saw Marty last week: he just bought five more Bob Marley t-shirts. Sadly, we were attending a funeral. The photos on Marty’s fridge continue to accumulate rapidly, while the subjects continue to endure trauma and heartbreak. Roxanne has a photo from the TIFF premiere of her with three close friends. Less than a year later, two had died, including one of my mentors for the film, Raffi Balian. The last time I saw him was at a Super Bowl party Roxanne hosted for cast and crew. 

I’ll end with a story that transpired last year, and continues today. Moss Park is a location seen throughout the film, most notably in a scene with Greg. Last summer, a group of concerned citizens (including Roxanne, substance users, harm reduction workers, nurses and activists) put up a tent in Moss Park—an improvised Overdose Prevention Site. Although the tent was unsanctioned and illegal, the group’s conscience demanded action (their slogan: “Life won’t wait”). They publicly dared politicians and police to shut it down. Operating on donations, and completely volunteer-driven, Toronto OPS remained open for 11 months; this July, it relocated to a nearby permanent home. They saved hundreds of lives and paved the way for more sites to open across the city, and Canada.

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