Toronto-based director Charles Officer’s quiet yet resilient Unarmed Verses highlights the personal and artistic development of two Black youths living in North York, Francine and Lavane. The film mainly focuses on Francine who is coming to terms with a planned revitalization project at Leslie and Nymark that, when it starts, will cause her to have to move away with her family in the hopes of being able to return four years later. Both Francine and Lavane respond to the imminent scattering of their community in different ways, but ultimately find strength through music and poetry.
Antiguan-born Francine is a lovely young woman, and at 14 years old, her struggles to find herself really come through the screen. In her room, she has a picture of two celebrities, both women, and then a picture of herself. On each of the women, she has written “perfect,” and on herself she has written “stupid.” At the beginning of the film, we witness Francine do some deciphering of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat.” She thinks out loud and really strives for a concise analysis of the story. This display of vulnerability immediately warmed me to Francine.
Francine is encouraged by a special community program to study music and learn how to express herself. At first she is reluctant to share her poetry with others, but through the help of her music teacher and Lavane, another participant in the program, she finds the courage to contemplate recording her voice to music in a professional recording session. The words both Francine and Lavane find to describe their feelings of powerlessness, insecurity, rage, and courage are inspiring, and the fragile undercurrent of resilience and self-confidence begins to solidify and come out into the open.
It’s evident that Francine feels powerless at the upcoming move her family faces. There are many unanswered questions about how the move will be carried out and uncertainty about how good the community housing will be when they return, and whether or not they will incur additional costs. There’s a brief moment where Francine explains her understanding of a meeting with her family, and one gets the sense that she is an interpreter of sorts–trying to understand the machinations of Toronto real estate as best as she can. As she mentions, the revitalization project is not about making her life better; in fact, the Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) simply wishes to alleviate itself of having to build brand new buildings, and has sold some of its land to condo builders (which, in turn, will provide the same number of TCHC housing units that were there previously and allow the TCHC to manage those units).
I believe Officer wishes to highlight that the communal way of life found in this development is at risk due to the revitalization. However, I would have appreciated more scenes where you see the whole community’s children gathering and playing together–I believe that would have given a greater sense of what’s at risk. However, beauty and poignance come from Francine’s ability to express what she sees in her community that’s worth saving.