An homage to places where street people live, ‘hidden in plain sight’

What: The Stairs

Monday: Movie Mondays at 6:30 p.m. at the Eric Martin Pavilion, Victoria

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Tuesday: 7 p.m. at Vancouver Island University, Nanaimo

Wednesday: 7 and 9:20 p.m. at Cinecenta, University of Victoria

Tickets: By donation to $7.75

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When Toronto filmmaker Hugh Gibson was asked to make a short educational video about programs for street-entrenched people in Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood, he learned firsthand how harm reduction works.

“I entered this milieu knowing nothing at all, even though I’m from Toronto,” said Gibson, 36. “But what I saw very quickly was this community dedicated to one another, remarkable individuals who defied stereotypes of being street-involved. And they opened up to me.”

The Stairs premièred at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016 to critical and audience acclaim. It was later awarded the Rogers Best Canadian Film Award from the Toronto Film Critics Association.

The harm-reduction model is generally understood as a non-judgmental approach to helping drug users make safer choices and seek supports — as opposed to abstinence and criminalization.

The opioid-overdose crisis has claimed nearly 2,000 lives in the past two years in B.C. and is moving across the country, putting a spotlight on harm reduction, with the success of supervised consumption sites and widely accepted use of the antidote naloxone.

“I really identified with the non-judgmental approach,” said Gibson, adding his subjects “really spoke from the heart and gave me so much material. We all said together, it shouldn’t end here.”

He was so intrigued with the people he met that he went on to spend five years documenting their lives and experiences. His film, The Stairs, follows three protagonists who work at community outreach centres but also struggle with their own addictions and pasts.

“Marty [Thompson], one of the main characters, comes into the health centre one day and asks to share a poem on camera,” said Gibson, “He launches into this remarkable, revealing and passionate piece about a life spent in stairwells. It was incredible.”

That’s how Gibson picked the name for the film, his first feature documentary. The Stairs is an homage to “the places hidden in plain sight” where street-entrenched people spend their lives.

Some of the most touching scenes in the film take place in the offices of the outreach workers as they discuss their own challenges as current and former drug users or sex workers, and counsel their peers.

Roxanne Smith, a long-time sex worker and opiate user, talks about being a good mother, struggling with sleep after years of trauma and life on opiate-replacement therapy. Gibson takes the viewer into counselling sessions, street outreach work and even a doctor’s appointment.

He explained that he approached the film without a narrative or conclusion in mind, filming and editing as he went along.

“This is not the type of movie that will hit you over the head and tell you what to think,” he said. “It humanizes lifestyles that in many ways have been dehumanized. It shows complex individuals with complex issues.”

Gibson said the film’s stars have been inspired by the response and have attended several screenings around Toronto and talked to audiences afterward.

He’s been busy with screening and speaking requests from around the world, often asking harm-reduction workers and experts to join him in talkback sessions.

When The Stairs is shown in Victoria and Nanaimo this week, Gibson will be joined in discussion by Bruce Wallace from the Centre for Addictions Research of B.C. (Monday), Laura Suski from Vancouver Island University and Kevin Donaghy from the pop-up overdose prevention site (Tuesday), as well as anthropologist Margo Matwychuk and Jess Thornbury from Cool Aid Society (Wednesday).

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