In the feature documentary Unarmed Verses, acclaimed filmmaker Charles Officer creates a thoughtful and vivid portrait of a family and a community facing a difficult transition. The largely low-income residents of a rental housing block in Toronto’s north-east end are threatened with imposed relocation due to the impending demolition of the place they call home. At the centre of this story is 12-year-old Francine Valentine, a curious and compassionate girl whose astute observations and innate ability to express her thoughts belie her young age.
Having immigrated to Canada as a four-year-old, Francine lives with her father and other family members but has a distant relationship with her mother, who remained in their home country of Antigua. Francine’s remarkably insightful reflections on life, the self, and the soul are beautifully framed by her love for art of all kinds, from poetry to drawing, dancing, and music. The difficult realities of her existence—poverty, girlhood, family rifts, and community tumult—are no match for this bright and expressive youngster.
Francine and her peers are aided through their community’s transition by teachers and mentors who show them the power of art and creativity in navigating adversity. From garage reggae jams to the soft jazz emanating behind languid shots of the neighbourhood and its people, from Francine’s careful reading of Edgar Allan Poe to the recording studio where the neighbourhood’s teenagers learn to lay down their musical tracks, the capacity of art to provide strength and create change is fully realized. As Francine herself says, art is an “escape from reality.”
While Francine’s unforgettable voice speaks for an entire community facing change, Unarmed Verses gives agency to those who are rarely heard in society. Francine’s transformative journey transcends a simple coming-of-age story: it mirrors our universal need to express ourselves, find our voice, and belong. Charles Officer builds a powerful bond of trust with this luminous girl, crafting a poignant urban observational film that explores intertwining themes of economic disparity, home, love, and self-esteem.
“It’s a miracle that we exist at all,” is a line from a poem by one of Francine’s mentors, who encouraged her to improve her self-confidence through art. This universal truth transcends the struggles and triumphs of communities across the world that are facing adversity while celebrating their bonds.