This article originally appears in the December 2018 issue of Flix Premiere’s Close Up magazine.
Of the police in Toronto’s Regent Park, one man—and an employee at the harm reduction clinic StreetHealth – says: “We are fodder for their arrest stats.” Hugh Gibson’s The Stairs is a remarkably poetic, biting and personal documentary following several individuals who have recovered from substance abuse and who frequent StreetHealth. What is most impressive about the documentary, though, which was an official Toronto International Film Festival selection, is the intimacy that it creates. It’s the kind of film, sometimes rare even in the cinema verite genre, that you can tell that the filmmakers spent a great deal of time getting to know their subjects.
And yet, the film also intersperses such expectation with social commentary, particularly socio- economic struggles and women’s suffering. There seems to be genuine collaboration and a sense of comraderie and respect. The central subject, who remains nameless like all of the subjects out of concern for their own safety, often tells the cameraperson to cut, or he will tell the camera to follow him as he shows off his new Bob Marley t-shirt collection. Money, he says, which would have been spent on drugs before. This creates a feeling of playfulness, and a breaking down of barriers, which is remarkably refreshing.
There can be a tendency among films that portray people who have recovered from substance abuse one-dimensionally, meant to illicit a tear-jerk reaction in the viewer, or for us to assign moral judgement or pity. But The Stairs skillfully avoids such tropes. The subjects are diverse and their stories are richly complex and personal.
One woman, who suffers extreme PTSD from witnessing her partner’s overdose, has been sleepwalking. She woke up one morning in a park and couldn’t say how she got there. Through talking head interviews with her, the viewer sees her honestly tackle subjects that some documentaries might shy away from.
She says that she is frank with her children about her sex work and her struggles with substance abuse. Such frankness is what the film aspires to:collaborating with an initiative – StreetHealth – which tackles substance abuse head-on. The organization, which gives $20 each week to every participant over the course of the several months that they sign up for – which is also the cost of buying crack, according to one employee – to grab a sandwich and a cup of coffee and listen to recovered substance abusers tell their stories. The main subject of the film saysthat, in his early days at the clinic, when he would listen to them speak, he could have sworn they were talking about him.
The Stairs is bold and urgent.