Stretching all the way back to Larry Kent’s 1962 short “Hastings Street” and including, notably, the NFB’s Oscar-nominated “Whistling Smith” from 1975, Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside has been remarkably well-documented on film. In the last two years alone we’ve seen Wayne Wapeemukwa’s award-winning Luk’Luk’I and Josh Laner’s portrait of at-risk artist Ken Foster—both presenting the district as an emblem of the city’s grotesque wealth inequality.
Even then, V6A stands apart. Italian expat Ruggero Romano, orginally from Torino, invests the 65-minute doc with the freshness of discovery, producing in turn a bracingly positive depiction of Canada’s poorest postal code.
“Coming from Italy, I know that it’s something particular to step into someone else’s city in another country and make a film like this, right?” offers the ebullient 22-year-old, reached by the Straight at his home in Chinatown. “But I actually feel sometimes that you need a stranger to come into your own space and tell you, ‘Maybe things can be arranged differently.’ I was so tired of the fake appearances in Vancouver, I just said, ‘Know what? I’m gonna go for the truth. I just want the substance.’ ”
With a Vancouver Film School graduation under his belt, Romano thus embedded himself in 2016 at the Carnegie Community Centre, where he volunteered, collected notes and biographies, and finally turned his camera on a community he found himself “falling in love with”. The finished film brims with the passionate, articulate testimonies of V6A’s residents, most of them musicians and artists who view creativity and basic human decency as the powerful revolutionary tools they are. Think post-Olympics Vancouver has no soul? Romano’s film is bursting with it.
“I used to say the same thing. ‘Vancouver has no soul.’ The only place where I found that soul, and that energy, and that drive for community was in the Downtown Eastside,” he says, adding that his primary brief in making V6A was to remove himself from the project.
“I had tons of footage, and the majority of it was not about getting the shot,” he says. “It was always about listening to the person. The camera was just an excuse for that person to be heard, and that person got heard just because they had the chance to speak and someone was listening to them. Those moments were priceless. There’s no way to describe it, for me.”
Crucially, the film isn’t patronizing or starry-eyed. Its general backdrop is the 2017 eviction of over 150 tenants from the Balmoral Hotel. Certain slumlords and back-sliding former mayors receive conspicuous cameos by graffiti. Addiction and trauma issues are unblinkingly discussed. A denizen of a tent city calls the opioid crisis what it is: “a cull”. Another participant strips down to reveal sickening purple bruises received courtesy of the VPD. The ambient political culture of the DTES is captured again and again in V6A, perhaps most movingly by Rainbow John, a font of natural poetry who asks: “Resources are everywhere, nobody can afford them—what kind of insanity is that?”
With warmth and heart, V6A captures the DTES as Vancouver’s growing front in a global class war. When it premieres with Romano in attendance at the Vancity Theatre’s Italian Film Festival on January 6 (screening again January 13), it will agitate alongside Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist classic Umberto D. and new titles including Tutti a Casa—Power to the People? (about Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement) and the politically themed comedies A Cat on a Highway and I’m Back (in which a resurrected Il Duce sets out to retake Italy).
“It’s something bigger than any one human being can achieve,” concludes Romano of V6A. “Somehow movies are a mirror of who we are and whatever happens within us. We manage to project it onto the screen as the movie flows, frame by frame. I’m thankful because this is the result of many people coming together, speaking their minds truthfully. It’s always about truth, you know? We have to respect the power of truth."