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TIFF 2021 | Scarborough: An empathetic portrait of a diverse community

Last Updated Sep 13, 2021 at 12:40 pm EDT

Bing (Liam Diaz), Sylvie (Essence Fox), and Laura (Anna Claire Beitel) enjoy playing together at their daycare in Scarborough, playing now at the TIFF. Courtesy of TIFF

Scarborough is a raw, empathetic drama shot and set in the West Hill neighbourhood of Scarborough.

It stars several first time actors, all who live in the community.

Based on the novel by Catherine Hernandez, this was directed by Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson.

Across Canada, many communities get left behind. Usually these are racialized communities with low-income families, left living according to government policies that can change every election. And this film looks at one of those communities right here in the GTA, Scarborough.

Scarborough is a film directed by Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson, and it’s based on a novel of the same name by Catherine Hernandez. This film shows the lives of four children, all from struggling low-income families, who attend the same daycare program in Scarborough.

Bing (played by Liam Diaz), a Filipino child starting to ask questions about his gender, and worried about his family’s mental health, frequently plays with Sylvie (played by Essence Fox) and her younger brother Johnny (played by Felix Jedi Ingram Isaac), two Indigenous siblings who don’t have permanent housing. They also play with Laura (played by Anna Claire Beitel), whose parents’ are both neglectful of her. All four children were first time actors, each delivering fantastic performances.

The film follows the course of one school year, charting the highs and low of the children’s friendship. Focus is also given to Ms. Hina (played by Aliya Kanani), the head of this particular government-funded daycare program trying to help every member of her community. The film was shot and set in the West Hill neighbourhood of Scarborough.

Scarborough is a raw, but empathetic portrait of life in a diverse and predominantly low-income community. All three families struggle every single day, from not having enough money for basic necessities to not having anywhere to call your home. The majority of the film is shot in close-ups from low angles, locking the audience in with the kid’s perspectives. It feels like you’re watching a documentary instead of a fiction film. Several emotionally rough scenes are shown, including one in which Laura’s father verbally abuses her for not getting angry at him.

The film’s directors, Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson, say that one of the biggest challenges in making this film was casting the children. Nakhai says that “the majority of their cast was first time actors.” It was especially challenging thanks to the film’s microbudget. A big part of the challenge was finding people who were “available for an entire year on evenings and weekends.”

But both were passionate about the project, and were determined to do whatever they could. They say that they collaborated with all the kids on how best to help their performances, and made sure they had lots of fun on set as well. Nakhai says that Beitel (who played Laura) greatly enjoyed shooting the emotionally intense scene in which her father verbally abuses her, because she got to play with pasta sauce. Nakhai even says it was Beitel’s “favourite thing on set.”

Nakhai and Williamson have previously worked on several documentaries (including Frame 394, which was shortlisted for an Oscar). That was exactly why Catherine Hernandez wanted both of them to direct her film. She says several filmmakers wanted to direct this film, but they weren’t the proper fit because they were too polished. “I just knew that for Scarborough ‘polished’ is not a word that you would use to describe our area.”

Hernandez based the novel on several of her own experiences running a daycare, and she also wrote the screenplay. She says in writing Scarborough, she wanted to capture “…the ways in which front line workers built bridges with community members and how decisions made in offices far away affect the community at large.”

Hernandez adds that while the film is about the lives of these children, it’s also an inherently political film. The pandemic has shown that low-income communities like Scarborough need more from the government to keep people safe and well, including “…accessibility to good transit and affordable housing.” She also thinks that this movie couldn’t “come out at a better time,” which is during an election. Ms. Hina, the program’s head, has a scene where she argues with her boss about maintaining distance from the members of the community during a tragic incident. While her boss says they need to maintain a distance, Ms. Hina argues that they have to care, because they are members of the community.

Scarborough is a mirror, showing us what life is like in communities frequently forgotten about in this country. This film was recently acquired by levelFILM for Canadian distribution, no word yet when you’ll get a chance to see it in theatres! However, it does have several screenings at TIFF!

Stay tuned to 680 NEWS for more coverage on TIFF 2021!