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.
One day in summer 2012, I was meeting at a Toronto health agency with around twenty clients and staff, many of who later appeared in The Stairs. We’d come to know each other during the prior year, and we discussed my unfolding documentary: who wanted to participate, what it might look like, what should be covered. Suddenly, someone interrupted: “Yeah, yeah, yeah… I wanna know, what will the movie’s ending be? How do you know if there’ll a happy ending?” I began to stammer… I didn’t have any answer. Then a client interjected, “That depends on us, doesn’t it?” That client’s name was Lisa. I’d intended for her to be a lead character, but soon after that meeting, she passed away suddenly. Her words stayed with me in the years that followed.
Back then, I didn’t know what the ending would be, or that shooting would last five years. I did know that the subjects were remarkable. Marty, Roxanne, Greg and others, each survived decades of street involvement, and used that experience to ease the paths of others. In all the many films about poverty, drug use and sex work, I’d rarely seen anything that captured the essence of their personalities: funny, warm, unapologetic; focused on family and community. Each was entering a new phase: stability. Could they adjust to it over time? All while managing traumas, past and fresh, against the backdrop of their old neighborhood—concurrently undergoing its own dramatic transformation. What place would they have in the new, gentrified Regent Park?
My goal was to humanize lifestyles that have been dehumanized. I took aesthetic cues from the subjects’ harm reduction work. The camera is positioned at eye level—never a downward gaze. For greater intimacy (and to reduce intrusion), we always shot on the subjects’ turf and only used available light, including at night. In keeping with the pared-down style, there’s minimal text and no narrator or musical score. Drug use is only shown on camera late in the film, once we already know each person very well—and it’s normalized (no needle porn). There are no voices of “outside experts”: after all, the subjects are the real experts.
Sometimes I’d suddenly need to cover a days worth of shooting in two hours (or one). To quote a famous boxer, everyone has a plan until you get punched in the mouth. Ceding control was often necessary—and led to some of my favorite moments. One day at Marty’s apartment, I asked, was there anything he wanted to share, to help us understand him better? He replied, “Have you seen my collection of t-shirts?” Another time, I asked Roxanne if she’d describe a typical night on her old corner in the 90s? She thought about it for a few days, then replied, “Yes, I want to shoot that. And here’s how we’ll do it: I’ll wear this fur coat, this make-up and these boots; we’ll go to my old corner and see the stroll; we’ll go on Saturday night, when the bars are closing, between 2:30–3am. Then I can tell you what it felt like back then.”
Even the subjects found it hard to determine which way they’re headed on their own narrative staircase. There’s persistent fear of going back and the past weighs heavily on the present. I tried to capture that struggle over a long period. I’d shoot a little, edit a little, shoot and edit some more. Gradually, the story evolved organically. While editing, I was reminded of The Five Obstructions, and how Jørgen Leth had the hardest time making the film without any restrictions. Of what was shot for The Stairs, you might see 1%. It was like a jigsaw puzzle, with half the picture missing. Not the most efficient way to work—but the only way to make this film.
One day in summer 2015, I was invited to show a rough cut to around twenty members of the Peer Network of New York—a group of comparable age and life experience to the film’s subjects. Among many things, I wanted to know if they found this Canadian story relatable. We watched together and I was elated with my first, most crucial, validation. During the scene of Marty describing his temper—how his stuttering would lead to fights, and how his cat calms him down—one gentleman exclaimed, “If that motherfucker ain’t from New York, I don’t know what!”
There’s a Regent Park in most cities. Greg’s encounter with police is but one example of the same conflicts and marginalization that happens everywhere. Another of the film’s subjects, Judy, once told me, “People pass us on the street. They don’t see us. So we start to not see ourselves. We believe that we don’t matter. We do matter!”