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FILM

Taking theatrical exhibition into your own hands, literally

Hugh Gibson, director of The Stairs, with Marty.

Despite winning accolades, director Hugh Gibson says no one in Canada wants to distribute The Stairs, which tells the story of people who survived decades of street involvement

On a clear, sunny evening this past June, I stood admiring the enchanting inner harbour of Victoria. As a gentle sea breeze traced the shimmering waves, I strolled to a nearby cinema to present my film, The Stairs. There, I learned a pearl of film-distribution wisdom: Good weather sucks for business.

That evening, only the most dedicated cinephiles were prepared to sacrifice sunshine and fresh air in favour of my intimate documentary and its humanizing look at addiction. Since premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016, and after nearly a year self-exhibiting the film around Canada and the globe, this was the first sparsely attended screening I had witnessed.

So this was why, I thought, despite winning awards and critical acclaim, no one in Canada wants to distribute it. I could practically hear F. Murray Abraham's words from Inside Llewyn Davis: "I don't see a lot of money here." I'd expended considerable resources on promotion, arranging guest speakers and travel. A pit formed in my stomach. Then I met a nurse from Nanaimo.

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She had made the 90-minute drive, teenage daughter in tow, just to see the film. Aside from nursing, she also does volunteer outreach and community organizing: she was sure others back home would like the film. A few months later, I presented The Stairs to a packed auditorium in Nanaimo. She had connected with others to make it happen. Another pearl of wisdom: get to know more nurses.

Her dedication was hardly surprising. She belongs to a community that is combatting the harmful effects of stigma and discrimination, as Canada faces an epidemic more severe than at the height of the AIDS crisis. The Stairs tells the five-year journey of people who survived decades of street involvement. They use their experience with addiction and sex work to ease the paths of others. For many, the film offers a surprising view that challenges preconceptions; humanizing lifestyles that are dehumanized.

Greg and Roxanne in The Stairs.

Distribution furthers the conversation. I partner with agencies and ensure representation from people with lived experiences. Despite reams of coverage, we seldom hear their voices. Their presence is essential and enriching. I've met extraordinary people, from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, to Montreal, Halifax and Ottawa, where volunteers operated a life-saving overdose prevention tent for three months – without a penny of government support – while locals heaped on threats, intimidation and bags of manure.

Still, travelling the country, I've seen a pervasive thirst for change. It's a movement . Of course, movements don't always pay. Fortunately, Telefilm Canada did. Thus, I'm self-releasing The Stairs and people can watch it in cinemas (upcoming dates below). It's not glamorous. I take public transit to the airport. I stay with friends. But I get to see people connect with the film, which is like a high of its own. And I make a living.

I don't do it alone. As with making the film, I'm surrounded by a small, dedicated team of cinephiles and friends. The graphic designer and I have been close since Grade 1. His poster design was assisted by his daughter. Their efforts received the ultimate compliment – people constantly try to steal it.

When the film played in Toronto, it was bootlegged. We had to laugh. In a way, it's flattering (see: poster). If you're dealing with theft, at least you're getting noticed. One of the film's subjects, Roxanne, is frequently recognized. As I write this, Roxanne and I are at Pearson International Airport (overheard in line: "Oh, my God! It's the prostitute from The Stairs!"). We're en route to show the film in India. At the age of 50, it's the first time Roxanne has owned a passport. She brought two suitcases. One has only shoes.

Who knows how audiences will react in India. It varies by location. In Argentina: shock. South Korea: surprise. In Baltimore, some found it quaint (remarked one viewer, "Nice how the Canadians have due process"). A common thread has been empathy toward the subjects – admiration for their strength, resilience and striving to help each other. Turns out the Nanaimo nurse isn't unusual; those situations happen frequently. I've witnessed it for years.

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Returning to Vancouver Island, the crowds were great (the weather didn't even suck). Even so, the logistics and realities of distribution usually overshadow any enjoyment of the cinematic experience or sense of accomplishment. But when the lights went down in that Nanaimo auditorium, I stepped away from the business and just took in the moment. I had only seen my film once before with an audience: at the world premiere, over a year ago. This time, I stood in the back and watched. I thought – I made that.

The Stairs plays the Winnipeg Cinematheque Nov. 30 through Dec. 3; Calgary's Plaza Theatre, Jan. 19-25; Edmonton's Metro Cinema, Jan. 21; Regina's Public Library Theatre, Jan. 25-28; Halifax's Carbon Arc Cinema, Feb. 17; and Montreal's Cinémathèque Québécoise, March 19-22. More information at thestairsdoc.com.

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