No Straight Lines
by Josh Cabrita
Dir. Hugh Gibson, Canada
The Stairs screens Sunday, April 15 at Museum of the Moving Image, with the director and special guests in person.
Let’s begin with where The Stairs concludes. While in conversation with director Hugh Gibson, Marty, a social worker serving drug addicts in Toronto’s Regent Park, issues a warning to those viewers who might still be anticipating closure. “You’re a recovering addict for the rest of your life,” he advises, “so where’s the happy ending?” If complete recovery remains outside the realm of possibility, as Marty seems to be saying here, then The Stairs’ final few moments can only leave us with an appraisal of what is to come: good days and bad days, patches of sobriety and even the occasional relapse, all of which will be endemic to the life of the recovering addict until that life is finally over. “There’s a good ending for ya.”
Shot over a five-year period, Hugh Gibson’s documentary zigzags through the meandering lives of the three recovering Regent Park users now employed by the area’s outreach center—Roxanne, a former sex worker; Greg, a habitual indulger of crack-cocaine; and Marty, the most loquacious of the bunch—all of whom remain afflicted by their codependencies, memories of abuse, and addictions, even as they provide vital services to those in their community who are stuck in similar straits. Before conceiving The Stairs as a feature film, Gibson was initially commissioned by Regent Park Health Centre to produce two educational videos on “harm reduction,” a form of outreach providing users with tools to help minimize the risks of drug use and sex work—whether those tools be educational or purely practical, like needles, condoms, or pipes. Rather than attempt a full and instant conversion of the user, harm reduction starts from the assumption that addiction arises not from failings inherent in individuals but from environmental conditions and personal histories intimately intertwined with the politics of race, class, and gender. In other words, harm reduction is a pragmatic application of intersectional thinking, and it understands that the path to recovery cannot be reached by will alone. This is why there are no overnight recovery narratives in Gibson’s film, only arduous processes that require immense commitment and elicit slow results.
In its presentation, The Stairs retains the educational roots of its inception, so much so that the film’s assemblage of talking head interviews and observational reportage could easily be mistaken for being purely functional. Apart from the occasionally evocative image, the visuals—flat compositions and harsh lighting—are less gritty than they are mute and mundane. Without any supposedly expert voices interceding into the realities depicted, Gibson appears to afford his subjects agency over how they’re shown, even allowing Marty in certain scenes to wield the camera himself—one of the film’s many strategies to present this world as its inhabitants would see it. During the scene that gives the film its title, Marty takes Gibson through his prior abode, demarcating the areas on a nondescript stairwell that he imagines to be his kitchen, dining room, and living room—areas that in actuality are uncomfortable concrete, frigid, and covered in piss. Roxanne, Greg, and Marty perform similar translations throughout, speaking in frank and often coarse terms about the daily abuses they suffer and the blight that is their shelter, leisure space, and work zone. Aware of the stigma already attached to these locales, The Stairs unpacks what these spaces mean for those who frequently occupy them. One such example, the “Field of Dreams,” may be an abject slum littered with dirty needles, but as Roxanne notes, this is a “marker” for her community, “like the CN tower.” We too are invited to see it as such.
Near the beginning of The Stairs, Greg, seated comfortably beside condemned Victorian homes on George St., explains how this skid row might be the last place in the city where smoking crack is semi-legal. Later, when the municipality’s containment strategy intensifies, transitional shots capture the construction of new developments and the demolition of low-income housing that once stood in their place, portending the eventual reinvigoration of Regent Park and dramatizing the region’s transition from urban wreckage to gentrified utopia. Where we might have found synthetic beauty in the area’s now pristine, vividly green state, Gibson invites us to witness these spaces as its displaced residents would, this so-called “City within a Park” now seeming haunted by all that is unrepresentable within it: the dispersal of the low-income residents that once occupied the space and the eradication of their culture to establish this would-be haven. The marks and presses on the faces of the outreach workers index the abuses perpetrated in this neighborhood, long after this environment itself is purged from the urban landscape. As Greg engages in protracted legal battle with the police officers who assaulted him, his only evidence of the event is a polaroid of the aftermath and a permanent, nasty scar on the side of his face. Similarly, Marty’s apartment, with its cloistered bric-a-brac, memorializes the area, those who’ve passed away (their funeral cards and obituaries scattered across his fridge) and his own advances over time (the hundreds of Bob Marley T-shirts in his closet, bought with the money he would’ve used to purchase crack).
In interviews, Gibson has referred to The Stairs as a “harm reduction film.” Not simply his film’s pedagogic thrust, harm reduction becomes a narrative and formal mode in and of itself, working as a guiding principle for how to represent Regent Park and its inhabitants in a way that perpetuates the least amount of violence against them. This is reflected in the represented trajectory of Roxanne, Greg, and Marty’s lives over the course of the film’s multi-year span. Although the occasional title card or change in aspect ratio helps ground the proceedings within a roughly defined period, most of the time it’s impossible and otherwise arbitrary to place a given event in the film’s chronology. In this context, indications of personal growth are largely effaced or absent; cycles of addiction are presented as just that: cycles, not straight lines from poverty to affluence, addiction to sobriety. Just as recovery can’t be reached in twelve steps, neither can it be achieved with three acts.
Harm reduction also means limiting the violence of representation itself, reducing the potential discrepancies between the lives lived and the ones documented. With regards to the ethics of a privileged filmmaker peering into a world to which he doesn’t belong, typically, there are two aesthetic responses to this skepticism: fly-on-the-wall Direct Cinema in the spirit of the Maysles brothers, seeking fidelity to its subjects through appeals to objectivity; or hybridization, which, suspicious of any claims to “truthful” depiction, muddles distinctions between what is staged and captured on the fly. If Gibson’s film can be aligned with either tradition, it is most certainly with the former.
But the relationship of Roxanne, Gary, and Marty to Gibson goes beyond claims to objectivity and self-reflexive signaling of the documentation process, speaking to a growing rapport with the filmmaker himself. Documentary’s ethical imperatives are here met in the way Gibson shows that filmmaking is an extension of a practice that is already proactive and lived. The evolving relationship between filmmaker and subject is retained implicitly in nearly every shot and interaction. And so, if we are to cautiously draw any straight line from the beginning to the end of The Stairs, it would be with this: the shift in the identity of the camera from a learner-observer to an active agent in the happenings going on in front of it. During the film’s coda, in which the means of documentation become almost superfluous, Gibson drives with Marty to pick up Greg before his court date, well aware that Greg has blown off such occasions in the past. Here, then, the camera becomes fully entrenched in the lives captured. If it is still true that the only ending is when you’re dead, as Marty says, then it might also be the case that the difficult moments leading up to this inevitable conclusion can also alleviate some of the pain and suffering through communal endeavor—which could very well include the work of documentary making itself. Maybe not a happy ending, but an ending nonetheless.