The Stairs tells a touching, difficult tale of three Toronto addicts

We spoke to the filmmaker who followed his subjects for years to show their side of an uncomfortable story.

Marty Thompson in The Stairs

Toronto filmmaker Hugh Gibson’s documentary The Stairs chronicles the lives of three addicts who work at and frequent the Regent Park Community Health Centre in Toronto. Less of a film about recovery than a film about harm reduction and living with addiction, it’s a touching, often difficult film that offers no happy endings and, a year and a half after its initial festival run, finally sees a release at the Cinémathèque québecoise.

We caught up with Gibson on the eve of the film’s premiere to discuss the film’s origins and what it’s like to work in such particular circumstances.

Alex Rose: How did you first come across the subjects of the film? Was it difficult to find people who were willing to open up about their addiction issues?

Hugh Gibson: Early in 2011, I was asked to direct two educational videos about harm reduction programs operated by public health non-profits (the Regent Park Community Health Centre and Street Health). The first was about safer strategies for street-based sex workers, called “The Safer Stroll”. The second was about “CUP” — the Crack Users Project — a training program for peer outreach workers. That was my introduction into the world of harm reduction, and to the setting and subjects of The Stairs.

Some amazing things happened. I developed close ties with many clients and the projects became far more personal than I could have imagined. The projects focused on clients’ voices and personal experiences, unfiltered and unrehearsed. It became personal for them, too: the project became an outlet for self-expression, which they shared with intense feeling. One of those clients, Marty, appeared one day wanting to be recorded, even though nothing was scheduled. He said he’d written a poem and could he recite it on camera. I set up my equipment and obliged. To my disbelief, he proceeded to bear his heart and soul, recalling his days and nights spent living in stairwells. That performance is in the film, and it’s where The Stairs’ title comes from.

That wasn’t an isolated incident. I felt I’d stumbled upon something much larger than what I was doing in the moment. Both myself and the subjects agreed that we needed to do something more. If only we could dig deeper…

That’s how I met most of the subjects (Marty, Greg, Sushi). They seemed to like me; being curious and non-judgmental served me well. I relied heavily on their expertise and let them navigate me. And we were always in close proximity. At that time, I was the only crew! I embraced that intimacy and utilized it.

The educational films were deemed a success in the community and that opened more doors for me. The bonds I’d formed, along with my non-judgmental approach, afforded me access. Together, we were compelled to go further, uninhibited. Then there was a long period — many months — of discussion, research and observation. For instance, I would hang around Marty at work, or join neighbourhood outreach shifts: watch, listen, decide what we might eventually talk about, what we might shoot.

I tried to make people feel comfortable. We’d always shoot on their turf. I’d be as non-intrusive as possible: no lights, small amount of gear, try to look and feel inconspicuous. Shooting in a car was useful. As Abbas Kiarostami would point out, it’s conducive to an intimate dialogue because other distractions can’t get in the way.

Locations were important. Marty took me to the stairwell where he used to sleep. Roxanne took me to her old corner, or to a hidden user’s space called Field of Dreams. I would cede control to them and go along for the ride. Roxanne insisted that visiting her old corner had to be done at 3 a.m. when the bars were closing, so it would feel real and she would be in the moment to tell me how she felt. It would have been easier and looked the same if we’d shot at 7 p.m., but that was how much she wanted to share her world. As Greg told me early in the process, “We’re doing this to show our side.”

AR: The film was shot over several years — what is that experience like?

HG: Among the great many things I learned while making the film, was the value of trying to see things through other people’s eyes. Patience was essential. It contributed to my working method, of discovering the film as I went.

The film was process-driven, incorporating the passage of time into the narrative. I would shoot a little, edit a little, shoot a little more, and the film evolved as life unfolded. I didn’t know what the ending would be when I started. I always felt that I’d know it when it happened. Naïve as it sounds, that’s what actually happened.

Returning to the point about people opening up about their experiences, one way that was accomplished was by allowing the subjects to take ownership of their own storytelling. That’s rare to see and it’s a key component of The Stairs.

 AR: One of the many strengths of the film is how it presents itself locally. Has the film had impact on the discourse in Toronto?

HG: The film has been seen a lot and received great exposure. I’m told that there’s been an impact. I’m pleased when viewers see something new, or learn things from the film. For example, that agencies employ people with lived experience, or who are actively street involved — that’s a new idea for many viewers, and it was for me, too.

People in policy have seen or spoken about the film. Last week I had a screening at Victoria City Hall, arranged by city councillors. The week prior, I presented the film in Halifax to Dalhousie medical faculty and did a Q&A with the CMO of Nova Scotia. I’m also arranging events in the U.S. with policy makers. Discussion is important. Many stigmas are deeply entrenched, especially with that “fascist loofa-faced shit-gibbon”.

In Toronto, many dedicated people have toiled for many years to create positive change. One such example is the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society: last summer, they set up a tent in Moss Park – a location seen throughout The Stairs – and dared city hall and the police to shut them down. As they said, “Life won’t wait.” They’re still open now, saving lives. Roxanne works there, too. It’s people like them who make things happen and pave the way for change.

AR: I was struck upon viewing the film with how little of the typical redemptive narrative it employs — it’s a film with no easy endings. Can you speak a little about that facet of the film?

HG: I had a meeting early on the process with various outreach workers. We were discussing what the film might be about and who would participate. Someone interrupted and said, “What’s the ending going to be? How will we know if there’s a happy ending?” Of course I had no answer. As I sort of stammered, someone else said, “That depends on us, doesn’t it?” That moment immediately stood out and stayed with me. Furthermore, the person who said it, Lisa, was intended to be a lead subject. Soon after, she passed away suddenly. That led to me being introduced to Roxanne. As mentioned, I didn’t know what the ending would be. But my overall goal was to humanize lifestyles that have been dehumanized.

There’s a typical narrative of users trying to quit using drugs. They go to rehab to “get clean” — I hate that term — and the story’s over. Reality is quite a bit different. The traditional narrative around substance use needs to be blown apart and reconstructed. It’s time to question a lot of assumptions about people and the way things are. So I focused on things that surprised me, or that run counter to what we’re used to seeing. I chose people, stories and places that have been overlooked; t1hat are hidden in plain sight. Yet are each remarkable.

AR: The stories told in the film kept unfolding after shooting — what has the experience been like for the subjects since the film first screened? Are you still in touch?

HG: I’m seeing them tonight (Thursday)! There’s a screening at Ryerson University, followed by a Q&A. We’ve done many, many talks together. They’re each superb speakers, and it’s extremely gutsy for them to face an audience after the level of disclosure and soul-baring in the film.

We’re all in touch. I’m sure it’s been a rollercoaster for them. They all get recognized. A notable highlight was this past November when I travelled to a film festival in India accompanied by Roxanne. She was recognized at the Toronto airport (“Oh my God! It’s the prostitute from The Stairs!”). At age 50, it was her first time getting a passport. She brought two suitcases; one contained only shoes. I call her the original Wonder Woman. Marvel can’t compete with that shit. ■

The Stairs opens at the Cinémathèque québecoise (335 de Maisonneuve E.)  on Friday, March 16. Gibson will present the film and lead a Q&A session on March 16 at 6:15 p.m. and again on March 17 at the same time.