A well meaning, suitably uplifting, but slight and narrowly focused look at youth putting on a testament to their unfairly maligned Toronto community, the documentary My Piece of the City has a great idea, plenty of relatable people to follow around, and barely enough narrative depth to hold together.
Although its reputation has seen a considerable about face in recent years, Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood was a community born into hardship. A run down slum without sewers, sidewalks, or social services until the 1940s, Regent Park/Cabbagetown began a dramatic overhaul with the implementation of Toronto’s “Garden City” revitalization program. As well meaning as that was, the project turned Regent Park into its own bubble within the city, one known for community housing, drugs, and violence. It was an image that hasn’t fully been shaken over the past several decades, but thanks to a significant rise in gentrification, Regent Park has been undergoing a face lift via a partnership with Toronto Community Housing that’s in the process of tearing down old, decaying, irreparable apartment buildings and creating a new blend of “market housing” (a.k.a. Fancy Expensive Condos) and affordable TCH housing.
While one could easily make an entire film about the evolution of Regent Park alone, filmmaker Moze Mossanen decides to focus on what these changes mean to younger generations of Torontonians. My Piece of the City takes a look at a group of predominantly black teens and young adults from the neighbourhood as they team up to put on a local stage performance of The Journey, a musical created by Mitchell Cohen and Anne-Marie Woods that outlines the past and present of Regent Park while voicing the concerns of this up and coming generation of neighbourhood leaders and advocates. The show has been performed for the past several years at the local community center and is a blend of traditional musical, spoken word, hip-hop, dance, and history. It’s a co-operative effort that allows the young people cast in the show – many of them budding performers, but non-actors – to find their characters through a natural and organic process. The performing arts elements of My Piece of the City (which gets its title from one of the show’s musical numbers) unfold with usual documentary conventions. There are a few light backstage clashes, occasional jitters, and some performers have personal and social hurdles to overcome before making their way to the stage.
It’s kind of a shame that Mossanen doesn’t have more than an hour to flesh out his entire story, because My Piece of the City starts in a great place. One of the biggest questions about the revitalization of Regent Park is tackled in the opening minutes: does this restructuring of a once overlooked neighbourhood foster a sense of community or does it create a sense of homogeneity that destroys a once strong and united populace? When viewed through the eyes of young people – most of who have moved away and returned to the neighbourhood following the demolition of much of the community’s lower income housing – that question becomes a lot more poignant. “What have we learned,” “What have we lost,” and “Where do we go from here,” are questions that The Journey seeks to answer, but through candid discussions with many of the show’s performers the viewer is given better answers than the stage musical ever could.
The young people that are individually profiled in My Piece of the City are captivating, vulnerable, and openly questioning if a piece of Toronto’s cultural and sociological history is being erased by this revitalization. Mossanen has his work cut out for him in trying to capture this, particularly in the backstage segments of his documentary, since many of these youngsters don’t like their stumbles and missteps to be forever documented. The filmmaker finds a way to put these budding performers at ease by giving them some truly show-stopping solo performance numbers throughout the documentary, all of them emerging as stand out high points.
Initially, I was starting to become convinced that My Piece of the City could slot nicely against other Toronto-centric looks at low income life and people of colour like Charles Officer’s Unarmed Verses or Hugh Gibson’s harm reduction documentary The Stairs (which is also set in and around Regent Park). Films like My Piece of the City are coming along at a unique time in the city’s growth, and serve as piece to a greater puzzle about the nature of Toronto’s infrastructure and a desire to build upward and not outward. But given its brevity and some obvious shortcomings, Mosanen’s work doesn’t come very close to matching the high water marks set in recent years by Officer and Gibson.
My Piece of the City was produced in conjunction with The Daniels Corporation, a real estate sales and development company that has been working closely with Toronto Community Housing on the new look of Regent Park. While some of the kids profiled have some critical things to say about the redevelopment and the looks on their faces as hundred thousand dollar sports cars drive down the streets of what was once “the ghetto” speak volumes about the surreal state of local affairs, it’s clear by the halfway point that My Piece of the City wants to be uplifting and non-confrontational. It’s produced by a corporation that wants to depict their blend of luxury living and affordable housing in the most positive light possible. It’s frustrating to hear some of these young people talking about how the once vibrant and supportive community has become spread out and hermetic, but outside of a few off the cuff remarks, none of this ever gets dealt with head on, in favour of the uplifting, but less interesting nuts and bolts of the theatrical production that’s taking place at The Daniels Spectrum within the community centre.
I’m not saying that Daniels has forced Mossanen into making an outright puff piece, but I am saying that the corporate slant here is obvious. It casts a shadow over a documentary that should be about young people with some important things to say about their lives and what Regent Park means to them. In its worst moments, My Piece of the City unwisely ignores its initially intriguing questions about the neighbourhood’s vanishing cultural identity by going seemingly out of the way to say something nice about the work being done in the redevelopment, and although Daniels is rarely, if ever, mentioned by name outside the credits, the implication that everything is wine and roses is certainly there. As far as films made by corporations who want to give their giant infrastructure and housing projects a positive slant go, My Piece of the City is certainly passable, but if this same film were made by a filmmaker with no biases or corporate funders to answer to, it could have been exceptional.
My Piece of the City screens at TIFF Bell Lightbox on Friday, February 23, 2018 at 7:00pm (with a Q&A with director Moze Mossanen and producer Teresa M. Ho), Saturday, February 24 at 2:00pm, and Sunday, February 25 at 7:00pm.
Check out the trailer for My Piece of the City:
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