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Scarborough explores the struggles, endurance, and resilience of the culturally diverse Toronto community through the lives of three children growing up within a system that has set them up for failure.Courtesy of levelFILM

So many “Toronto movies” capture the quote-unquote quintessential city: landmarks and streets that are too familiar; districts and destinations instead of neighbourhoods and homes. The wonderful new film Scarborough is blessedly different, offering a ground-level view of the city’s Kingston-Galloway community, where three children and their caregivers struggle to make it to the next day.

Together with writer Catherine Hernandez, who adapts her own 2017 novel, filmmaking and life partners Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson create a singular portrait of a Toronto that is almost completely foreign to the screen. The end result, which is up for 11 Canadian Screen Awards in April including best motion picture, is a heartbreaking, wrenching but ultimately uplifting mini-masterpiece.

Ahead of the film’s release this weekend, Nakhai spoke with The Globe and Mail about money, community and Scarborough’s own Morningside Cinemas.

Director-Producer Shasha Nakhai.Michael Ori

This film was made under Telefilm’s Talent to Watch micro-budget program, yet unlike a lot of extremely small films, this doesn’t take place in one or two locations, with only a few performers. There are tons of outdoor locations, dozens of characters. How did you make it work?

Filming in active locations was the only way that we could’ve made this film. We of course didn’t have the money to close an entire restaurant for an entire day and we couldn’t hire a bunch of extras. So, we’re there shooting, and if someone walks in to buy food, you have to stop filming and let them pass or if they end up in the shot, you have to chase them down and get them to sign permission. It adds another layer of challenges, but it lends a layer of realism that would be hard to create from scratch.

Given that you and Rich aren’t from Scarborough, how do you feel as quote-unquote outsiders telling this extremely community-specific story?

We discussed this at length throughout the process. It’s Catherine’s neighbourhood, very near and dear to her. We had to humble ourselves every step of the way, because this film doesn’t just represent Galloway. There are more than 60 cast members who represent such a wide array of backgrounds. So we knew that if we assembled an extremely collaborative team, we could come away with some measure of authenticity and constantly ground ourselves in Catherine’s, and the cast and crew’s, experience.

Scarborough is up for 11 Canadian Screen Awards in April including best motion picture.Courtesy of levelFILM

The film is shot in a compelling cinéma vérité documentary-style. We feel like we’re on the ground.

That approach was why Catherine wanted to work with us. We had worked together on a dance film six years ago, when the Reel Asian Film Festival commissioned us and we had about two cents to make it. But it was documentary style, too, with an active location with people all around us. It was the major reason why Catherine approached us this time. She didn’t want trailers taking over the sidewalks of the neighbourhood and disrupting its natural rhythms.

There are three exceptional young actors here, Liam Diaz, Mekiya Fox and Anna Claire Beitel, whose characters we follow over the course of one school year. But they’re put into traumatic circumstances. How do you prepare such a young cast?

There was improv with the children on-set, but when it came to dealing with the violence or challenging subject matter, that’s when we switched to a mode of working to be much more rehearsed, as if you were filming a fight scene. This started before filming, with us talking with their parents about how we’d handle the material. I remember Anna, she is the extreme opposite of her character: she is joyful on-set, suggesting shots to us and calling out, “cut!” During the most disturbing scenes, her mother would be right next to me, and then we’d stop, and Anna would burst out laughing and yelling, “Let’s do that again!”

Scarborough is a heartbreaking, wrenching but ultimately uplifting mini-masterpiece.Courtesy of levelFILM

The shoot was interrupted by the pandemic. How did you get to the finish line?

We were supposed to film our final block of filming starting March 15, 2020. We had to cancel, and for a long time, we just let go of the film. We thought the kids would grow up too fast by the time we might be able to return to it. We could just make up an insane ending to the film, or it might never get finished. By the summer of 2020, bigger productions were going back, so we waited to observe how others were handling protocols. In August, we filmed the remaining five days, with all the added layers of COVID protocols. Some locations, like the nail salon, now had Plexiglass barriers up by the time we returned, so if people look carefully toward the end of the film, you’ll see that. But I think we did a good job of blending it all together.

The film is opening in Toronto at the TIFF Lightbox, but also the Morningside Cinemas in Scarborough. How important was it to premiere locally?

Accessibility was at the forefront of our minds since making it. We’re so glad [distributor] levelFILM listened to our pleas to screen it in Scarborough, because it’s not too easy to show a little film like ours. This is Catherine’s neighbourhood theatre. One of our young actors goes there to watch Marvel movies. The fact that he can now see himself on that screen means a lot.

Scarborough opens Feb. 25 in Toronto (including Scarborough), Hamilton and Saskatoon. It expands to Vancouver and other Canadian cities throughout March.

This interview has been condensed and edited

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