When Hugh Gibson began shooting The Stairs in 2011, he didn’t know how his documentary about a group of past and present drug users living in Toronto’s Regent Park was going to end. Through five years of filming, that’s what kept him going: searching for a conclusion.
“It was just the sort of thing where, when it happened, I would know,” he says on the phone from Toronto. “And then the ending you see in the movie, I knew that that was the end, right when it happened.”
The award-winning documentary plays at Vancity Theatre beginning this Friday (April 21). It’s a simultaneously gritty but warm portrait of people addicted to drugs.
Today the film’s three protagonists work at Regent Park Community Health Centre or Street Health, two nonprofit organizations that supply neighbourhood residents with harm-reduction supplies such as condoms, crack pipes, and clean needles.
Martin Thompson, or Marty, as most people know him, is a poet of the streets and a charismatic raconteur. Greg Bell, a life-time friend of his, is obsessed with a beating he received from six police officers several years ago, waiting for a glacial court system to deliver him justice. Roxanne Smith, a long-time sex worker, describes tragedy and abuse of terrifying extremes, but always with such strength that you’re sure she’ll be alright, in the end.
Their stories defy stereotypes. Thompson, for example, collects shoes, baseball caps, and Bob Marley t-shirts, caring for them so meticulously that they all look brand new even years after they were purchased. “Everything I got, I cherish,” he says.
Smith runs a stable home and provides for her children.
“Early in the morning, I get home and my babies are getting up for school,” she says. “I’ve had a shower, washed my hair, it’s in a ponytail, and now I’m spending the morning getting my kids ready for school and making sure they get off to school. I mean, there wasn’t a lot about my life I didn’t like.”
Gibson tells the Straight the whole thing started as a much simpler project. The Regent Park Community Health Centre and Street Health approached him to produce a pair of 20-minute education segments on the harm-reduction work they were doing.
“The agencies said, ‘When you make the videos, let’s do it in the words of the clients themselves,'” he recounts. “'It’s not going to be rehearsed. It’s going to be you and them, one on one in a room.'”
Gibson remembers seeing the potential for something larger almost immediately.
“Drug users, sex work, homelessness—those subjects have been covered a lot, so how could I show something different?” Gibson recalls thinking. “It quickly became evident, ‘If only we could do something more. There is something here.'”
The five-year period that followed was erratic.
“There was no set pattern,” Gibson says, laughing. “It was process-driven. I would shoot a little, edit a little, and kind of find it as I go, and trust that the people involved were very interesting.”
Last year in B.C. 922 people died of an illicit-drug overdose. In Ontario in 2015 (the last year for which data is available), 854 people died after taking drugs (including prescription pills). Both of those numbers are all-time highs. Gibson started filming before the country’s deepening opioid crisis began, but with the arrival of fentanyl and more people dying every year, The Stairs’ deeply humanizing stories of drug users have never been needed more.
Gibson eventually found his ending, but Thompson warns that there's no such thing for an addict.
“There aren’t none of those happy endings,” he says in the film. “I’m a recovering addict. Like they said, you’re a recovering addict for the rest of your life. So where’s the happy ending? It’s a good day, but no good ending. The ending is when you’re dead. There’s a good ending for you. But as long as you’re still alive, you’re still struggling, you’re still coping.”
The Stairs plays at Vancity Theatre on April 21, 23, 24, 25, and 27. The screening on Friday (April 21) will be followed by a panel discussion featuring director Hugh Gibson alongside Brenda Belak of Pivot Legal Society, Jordan Westfall of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, and Coco Culbertson of the Portland Hotel Society, and moderated by the Globe and Mail’s Andrea Woo.