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Interview: Hugh Gibson talks The Stairs

Hugh Gibson’s powerful work The Stairs, which is about harm reduction workers in Regent Park, debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival at the Ted Rogers Hot Docs Theatre. The response was so powerful that the two subsequent screenings were completely full and received resounding standing ovations. This documentary is a game-changer, and, in a non-confrontational manner, provokes complex concerns. Yet the film does not offer simple answers to difficult questions that affect the residents of the city of Toronto.

As such, there will be a panel at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Wednesday, October 12th taking place following the 6:40pm screening. The guests are Toronto city councillors Joe Cressy and Gord Perks, who both head Toronto’s Drug Strategy, Raffi Balian, South Riverdale CHC Project Coordinator, along with Roxanne Smith, one of the subjects of the film and Gibson himself. The panel is moderated by Toronto Star reporter Joe Fiorito.

We sat down with Gibson at the Lightbox prior to the theatrical release of the film, in which he discussed his five-year filming process in greater detail. We have known the director and producer personally for many years and he provided responses that were quite extensive and challenging.

Scene Creek: What was the role of documentary filmmaker Alan Zweig in developing The Stairs?

Hugh Gibson: Talking about styles and influences, I produced the movie myself and Alan is the executive producer, and his role is to be a mentor. He was there whenever I needed him, he was extremely helpful and he was there from the beginning. I initiated the project in 2011 with a series of educational films, for two of the health agencies you see in the movie.

When I was making those and editing them, I saw specifically saw on TV, Alan Zweig’s A Hard Name. For those who don’t know, that’s a Doc about ex-cons and sort of a close intimate look at a number of people who have been in jail and what connects them through their own history, and specifically it’s like childhood abuse, sexual trauma, and when I saw that film, I thought “that is what I’m going for.” That is what I was thinking about when I was shooting those educational videos is something that is very raw, and is very honest, and very intimate, which is done on sort of a one-on-one basis, that explores a world that is often misunderstood and looks at it in a different sort of way.

So it was through watching that, and then a mutual friend put us in touch and that’s how we got connected. But his work, and in particular that film was a major talking point and that was the intimacy that I was looking for whenever I was shooting an interview.

SC: What do you consider to be your style of film-making?

HG: My own style is definitely different, and I was looking to do other things visually and stylistically. I brought a lot of influences to this one. One of them, it was conscious when I was imagining the film and then through making it was a sort of unconscious influence was, that I only noticed much later in editing, and that would be with Iranian cinema, and my love of, in particular, Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi’s work.

What would be unconsciously influencing me was filming things in cars. One of the characters, Greg, was homeless during the filming process, and shooting him in a car just seemed to be a natural thing. It ended up being the perfect location and the perfect timing, and remembering how Kiarostami would frame his shots, or some of the different techniques that he would use with subjects.

Another example would be a key scene with Roxanne at night where she took me to her old corner and it seemed more natural to shoot it in the car. There are certain documentary techniques that put the subjects at ease, that get them to talk, one of them is giving them something else to do to put them more at ease, letting them choose the turf, so these were some of the techniques that I used.

SC: Were there other influences that played a role in the film-making process?

HG: One of the little things I ended up doing, pretty late in the game actually, was looking at Errol Morris’s Gates of Heaven. I ended up seeing a lot of unconscious similarities in different way, we both used no music, both made on similar limited resources, interview-heavy, but we both used the interviews in sort of unconventional ways. That was one that I sort of enjoyed going back to and that’s a movie that I love. There were others: Werner Herzog’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly and Joshua Oppenheimer’s movies which I think are absolutely brilliant, taking the subject again on their turf, and letting the subjects tell the story where they happened throughout the years. I gave the subjects ownership over their own subjects. I said “I want to be surprised. I want you to show me something that you haven’t shown anyone else about how you live or about this lifestyle or about you”. They took ownership of their own storytelling. That is something that I hadn’t really seen in everything else that’s out there about this world. Making them an active part of it was part of the non-judgmental approach and a way to make a connection with them and hopefully with the audience.


The Stairs is now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.