- Directed and edited by Hubert Davis
- Classification: NA
In the hands of another director, Invisible City could have been an exercise in frantic camera work, break-neck pacing and chest-thumping rhetoric, all orchestrated to a hip-hop soundtrack. The raw ingredients certainly are there: handsome, disaffected black youth (check) in a huge, inner-city housing project (check) where the moms are worried (check), the dads are absent (check), the social workers stressed and the cops just a shot away.
"Make you wanna holler," to quote the late Marvin Gaye.
However, Hubert Davis's direction here is cool, almost leisurely, his lens a calm, at times calming presence as it follows Kendell Campbell and Mikey Lewin, two real-life African-Canadian high-school students, as they go about their admittedly troubled lives in Toronto's Regent Park, Canada's oldest and largest housing project.
Davis, himself the son of a black father (and a Harlem Globetrotter at that) and white mother, spent three years hanging with Mikey and Kendell. As a result, Invisible City is no smash-and-grab. Rather this National Film Board co-production is a measured, gently probing and, finally, sympathetic portrayal of young males on the shaky cusp of adulthood, as well as a bittersweet depiction of the poverty-stricken Regent Park milieu that, in part, has shaped them.
Davis, whose earlier film Hardwood (largely about his father) was nominated for a 2005 Oscar in the short documentary category, uses scenes of the Regent Park Revitalization project that got under way as he began his documentary, as a sort of Greek chorus or parallel narrative to the stories of Mikey and Kendell. If there's hope for Regent Park, he seems to be saying, there's hope for you guys, too. Times change, and time changes.
Davis doesn't soft-pedal the obstacles the duo face. As Ainsworth Morgan, a former teacher, ex-Regent Park resident and the documentary's moral exemplar, says: "Sometimes the temptation out there is stronger than what's at home, [sometimes a youngster]is going down a path he won't be able to come back from."
At the start of the film, we learn that Mikey has spent two weeks in jail for having participated in a car theft. He subsequently gets re-arrested, at his mother's behest, after he breaks probation. Then he gets busted for possession of marijuana and crack. Kendell, in the meantime, is hauled out of his high school in handcuffs after assaulting one of his teachers with a juice bottle.
Davis doesn't dwell on this stuff, what one character calls "young mistakes." In fact, Invisible City, which won best Canadian feature kudos at last year's Hot Docs festival,is largely bereft of the signifiers that are the staples of "ghetto fabulous" films. There's nary a gun or knife in sight.Davis doesn't even specify the national origins of any of the people he films, as if to short-circuit whatever prejudices a viewer may be bringing to the project.
If there is a flaw cinematically to Invisible City it's the very evenhandedness that is the film's virtue. Davis seems so keen to avoid sensationalism, to respect his characters and honour their struggles for identity and self-worth in the face of society's indifference, that occasionally his film feels, well … tepid.
Kendell, for instance, is described by his mother as someone whose "anger attitude" is sometimes vented on her, in language she doesn't like. Yet the one mother-son scene that supposedly illustrates this is muted and inconclusive.
The film's ending feels similarly unfinished. Kendell and Mikey are still in Regent Park, still friendly if not friends, each moving in what one calls "different circles." But are they moving up and out, the viewer wonders, or down? There's no tidy resolution. Life's kind of like that.
At the Royal Cinema, 608 College St., Toronto, Friday through Tuesday, Feb. 9.