Documentary ‘V6A’ amplifies the poetry in vilified postal code
V6A is a documentary about Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, but it isn’t just another documentary about the Downtown Eastside.
It’s true that it touches on addiction, poverty, trauma, and class warfare, as many other Downtown Eastside documentaries have done and do.
But unlike the bulk of other documentaries about this particular postal code – some of which have been very good, some of which can only be described as exploitative and voyeuristic – Ruggero Romano’s feature-length documentary is a celebration of the people who live there and the vibrant community they’ve built in spite of it all.
“Poetry lives in the area,” says Romano in a recent phone interview. “I just want to raise the unheard voices of the people who truly have that substance within.”
Romano isn’t originally from the Downtown Eastside. He isn’t even originally from Vancouver. He was born in the Piedmont province in Italy, and arrived in Canada in 2016 for a one-year course at Vancouver Film School.
“The course was great, but there were a lot of layers, and a lot of structure, and I felt there was too much structure, and I felt that was the way Vancouver mirrored itself as well,” recalls Romano. “There was so much structure in Vancouver and I wanted to go to the substance of it all. What is the substance of Vancouver? What is the truth? Don’t give me the good news. Give me the truth.”
Romano walked the streets of Vancouver in search of that truth, and soon found himself in the heart of the Downtown Eastside – emphasis on heart.
“I started walking there one day out of curiosity and instinct, and I just stepped into the Carnegie Community Centre,” recalls Romano. “I started playing chess and painting and cooking and singing, and, slowly, I started becoming part of the community, and I felt there was such a disconnection and such a misunderstanding between what was happening within the area and what was happening outside.”
Thus, with V6A – which screens this weekend at the Vancity Theatre as part of the Italian Film Festival, and again on January 27 – Romano intended to fill the void created by that misunderstanding and disconnection. But in order to do so, he had to immerse himself in the community and build genuine connections with the people whose voices he yearned to elevate: people like philosopher and poet Rainbow John, and musicians Wendy Gaspard, Jason Timmins, and Mike Richter, the last of whom leads Carnegie’s Singalong Choir.
“I feel that the real power of documentary filmmaking is not in getting the shot but in creating that bridge,” says Romano. “It needs to be a solid bridge and it has to be invisible. You want to empower the message.”
Which is why the bulk of V6A’s shots “are pretty much close-ups of faces, because I want the audience to take the people in the movie for who they are, not for their context but for who they truly are,” says the filmmaker.
V6A’s participants speak about love and loss, poverty and peace, and their dreams for themselves and their neighborhood. In Victory Square, in alleyways, in urban green spaces, in tents, and in Carnegie, they sing and recite poetry and laugh and rage into Romano’s camera.
“There was an intimacy that was only created through trust and time,” says Romano. “That requires a lot of humanity that’s not often projected on this area. The true cause of this reality is fear and laziness, and they go together so well sometimes. Fear and laziness are really the true reason that this area has been secluded so much. We can’t afford to be scared anymore. We can’t afford to be lazy in a world, in 2019, when there’s so much that we can do to help each other and support each other, and especially in a city like Vancouver that has so many resources.”
It’s not that Romano doesn’t love other Vancouver in its entirety. He does. But he expects more from a city that, in his words, “has so much to offer.”
“I have seen other countries and communities that don’t have the wealth that Vancouver has, but it’s more evenly distributed, and I think that what creates the crime, the drug addiction, all of that, it’s not poverty but it’s relative poverty,” he says. “Relative poverty is what really triggers this juxtaposition and all this negativity.”