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Film Reviews Nova Scotia-set documentary This Is North Preston is a vanity project disguised as filmmaking

Jaren Hayman's This is North Preston looks at the community of North Preston, N.S., and up-and-coming musician Just Chase.

Courtesy of GAT

  • This Is North Preston
  • Directed by Jaren Hayman
  • Classification N/A
  • 77 minutes

rating

As far as the music industry is concerned, the narrative (and oft truth) of black men making something from nothing is not a new one. This now almost mythic narrativization of black men who have succeeded both because and in spite of the realities of their backgrounds and identities is rarely the exception to the rule, but the base upon which much contemporary black-male star power is built. In its best iterations, this positioning deeply informs the public personas of figures like late rapper and community activist Nipsey Hussle, whose music was inseparable from the work he undertook to shift power, voice and autonomy back toward his community and others like it. In its least generative form, it becomes a way for artists to market themselves outside of their communities while simultaneously distancing themselves from their roles within them.

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Director Jaren Hayman’s new documentary, This Is North Preston, falls into this latter category. Hayman rests his shallow focus on the oldest and largest black community in Canada – North Preston, N.S. – and local up-and-coming rapper and vocalist Just Chase. Clocking in at just over an hour, Hayman’s film offers an abridged history of North Preston. The director’s handling of the community’s history, both distant and recent, is stiff and uneven, and Hayman finds himself caught between North Preston’s two most well-known narratives: Its recent labelling as one of the most active hubs in the country for sex trafficking and its origin as a safe haven for black slaves and refugees from the 18th century onward.

Sarah Tai-Black writes that the film functions more as a vanity project promoting Just Chase than a documentary telling the story of North Preston.

Courtesy of GAT

The fact that the director is unable to synthesize these histories into any sense of organic, compassionate storytelling is glaring. As if aware of this, the film punctuates its narrative of North Preston with the mythos it builds up around Just Chase, an artist associated with “North Preston’s Finest.” It’s reiterated several times that NPF is not a gang, but “a lifestyle,” and Hayman seems content not to push back on the accuracy of this description, the realities of which he captures with his own camera. Interviews of women speaking to the trauma of being trafficked are bookended by men who underscore that trafficking is a means for them to get by. If Hayman has made just one thing clear in his film, it is that This Is North Preston deals largely in such ambiguities.

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In keeping with this lack of viewpoint, members of the North Preston community testify to its background and internal politics in a way so democratic that it’s actually the opposite. Hayman brings few stories of the community’s history and people to the fore, and those he does are positioned with a neutrality that is clearly meant to forge a sense of togetherness or, ironically, community, but instead puts into high relief the structures in place in North Preston that empower some and marginalize others.

Above all, the documentary feels more akin to a vanity project meant to market Just Chase, his work and his background, rather than a nuanced or empathetic look at a community on the margins. Even on a technical level, the films draws more from music video direction than it does documentary filmmaking, which figures Hayman’s handling of the material, realities, and stories drawn from North Preston here even all the more thoughtless.

This Is North Preston opens May 17 in Toronto and Halifax.

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