First Do No Harm: Hugh Gibson on The Stairs

By Angelo Muredda 

Early in Hugh Gibson’s The Stairs, we meet Marty, a recovering addict working as a social worker for drug users in Toronto’s Regent Park. A loquacious eccentric who clearly relishes the Aaron Sorkin-inflected walk-and-talk of his onscreen introduction, Marty seems equally comfortable leading a tutorial on packing safe injection kits at work and watching Bonanza on a hard-won recliner at home. As he brings Gibson in to the antiseptic stairwell of the Regent Park Community Health Centre, where he currently works and used to use, Marty asks the filmmaker to look at their surroundings through his eyes. “Sit down in my living room. You could seat the whole family there comfortably,” he jokes, gesturing to the landing—at once ironically highlighting the dire situations of the centre’s clients, and making a real point about how abundant even so small a space as this appears to someone who’s had to make do with much, much less.

Rather than any overt editorializing, it’s in moments such as this that Gibson’s delicate, observational documentary advances its argument for understanding and empathy, entreating us to familiarize ourselves with such taboo spaces and think about how they might become comfortably domestic for the people who rely upon their services, or call them home. That scene with Marty is subtly rhymed with a later episode where Roxanne, a sex worker and one of Marty’s colleagues at the centre, invites us to take in the ambiguous grandeur of a needle-strewn park colloquially known as the “Field of Dreams.” “In my world, this is a marker,” she says, “like the CN Tower.” While he emphasizes the incongruity between the park’s mock-epic moniker and the sad sight of volunteers anxiously combing through the grass for debris to make sure nobody treads on an abandoned syringe, Gibson, simply, takes Roxanne at her word, adjusting his focus to perceive what she perceives: a magical space that can launch one to dreamy highs and plunge them to desperate lows.

Heady as that might sound, The Stairs is as unassuming in its manner as it is lofty in its goals. A comic set piece where the fast-talking Marty proudly shows off his closet full of Bob Marley T-shirts carries a poignant undertone, transforming garish display into something more slippery and interesting: for Marty, each of these lovingly hoarded shirts serves as the happily concrete embodiment of dollars not spent on the transient highs of crack. It’s a testament to Gibson’s long-term investment in these people’s lives over the five-year period of the film’s production that this moment isn’t deflated by a later long take of Marty using in his apartment, and a subsequent monologue about a violent flare-up that’s put him back in court. A moment of relapse, Gibson suggests, doesn’t negate the struggle for sobriety any more than sobriety erases the ongoing traumas of a history of addiction.

Gibson has called The Stairs a “harm-reduction film,” referring to an intervention strategy that aims not at a total cessation of drug use, but something more dynamic and nuanced: a forgoing of short-term solutions by recognizing that addicts are in it for the long haul, rather aiming to minimize harm for both users and their communities. The Stairs’ roots in educational videos produced for community health centres are revealed in the numerous vignettes of the film’s subjects lending an ear to distressed clients when they’re not sorting out their own health and legal crises. But The Stairs isn’t a social worker’s manifesto or a recruitment ad; rather, it’s a serious effort to reckon with harm reduction as a storytelling strategy—a way of thinking about addicts, whether currently using or sober, as people with still-evolving narrative trajectories and voices worth hearing, regardless of where they’re standing on the staircase at any given time.

Cinema Scope: How do you get from making harm-reduction videos to making The Stairs?

Hugh Gibson: The whole thing evolved out of doing those educational films. I guess I could set the scene back in spring of 2011. I met the people at Regent Park Community Health Centre and Street Health, and they wanted someone to do short videos about programs that they run. One video was being run for safer strategies for sex workers. The second was about a program called C.U.P., the Crack Users Project. Both programs involved educating people with lived experience and working in a harm-reduction model, training people to be workers at these agencies who could use their lived experiences to be a bridge between health services and the street community, by which I mean people who wouldn’t necessarily access those services unless there was an intermediary. This was my introduction into the world of harm reduction, which I went into knowing nothing about. It was through meeting the people in the community that I became engaged, and I quickly saw that the people were amazing, and thought, “Why don’t I know about this?” I loved watching things like the different David Simon series, but why haven’t I seen somebody like Marty or Greg?

Scope: How do you establish a rapport with someone like Marty or Greg?

Gibson: The process became more personal than anyone had anticipated, not just for me but also for the people involved. A really good thing that the agencies did in terms of framing how these videos would be made in the first place was insisting that we not prepare any talking points: it was just going to be you and them in the room. It created a good dynamic, very intimate and one on one. They became very involved. They had a personal stake in it that was very genuine. The first time I met Marty, he invited me on a walk, a tour of the neighbourhood for like half an hour. He’d say, “Here’s where I went to sleep, or here’s where the church used to serve really good meals, here’s where I grew up.” By the end of that half hour I knew there was something there. Greg told me about this other incident with the police: not the kind of thing you can put in an educational video funded by Health Canada, but I started to wonder, if only I can go deeper, pull back the veil, there might be an opportunity here. Early in the process someone asked, “How do we know what the ending’s going to be? Is it going to have a happy ending?” Of course I had no answer, but someone rightly piped in: “That depends on us, doesn’t it?”

Scope: You talk about walking around with Marty and seeing his world. Early on Marty describes the staircase of the community health centre as his living room, and I feel you take that up as a challenge: how do we see this space as someone who accesses it regularly might see it? How do you make these unfamiliar spaces feel familiar?

Gibson: It’s about meeting these people on their turf, and giving them ownership of their own storytelling. It’s about giving them license. I would say something like, “Where should you take me? Where’s somewhere that’s important to you?” And so Marty took me to the stairs. Another example would be the poem that gives the film its title—that was Marty bringing that to me, deciding to read it to me. I thought, there’s a lot that’s been done, but I want to focus on things that surprise me. One way is to go deeper in their lives than you might typically see in a more straightforward documentary, in terms of the time we spent with them. But it’s also about giving them ownership over their own storytelling. They will take me to places that are important, and I’ll do less dictating on the content. Some people ask me why there aren’t any voices of experts giving context. Marty, Greg, Roxanne—they’re the experts.

Scope: You don’t have any talking heads. You also don’t rely on nonfiction tropes like statistics and charts, or narration. I’m curious about your own minimal presence in the film.

Gibson: I would cut myself out completely if I could. People have told me, in defence of my presence, that it makes them feel like they’re in the room, in the moment, when Marty addresses me. But more of my presence wouldn’t fit. I don’t see what I would bring editorializing, clubbing the audience over the head. The subjects’ storytelling was always a much bigger part of it, which came from the educational films—humanizing people who have been dehumanized by letting them speak.

Scope: There’s a moment where Greg talks about how addicts like him become fodder for police officers trying to fill arrest quotas. There are other potential versions of this movie more interested in situating these people in larger phenomena like what Greg is talking about. Why go in a different direction?

Gibson: It’s true that there are other directions I could have gone. But the more I worked, the more it became evident I wanted to focus on one neighbourhood. Really, there’s a Regent Park in every city. The more specific you get the more universal it becomes.

Scope: This is very much a Toronto film, but it’s not a Toronto you’d recognize from other films. Did you consciously choose to stay grounded in places like Regent Park?

Gibson: Regent Park is a dramatic backdrop for a film, as are places like the Field of Dreams, so part of it is that. It’s also just interesting to film somewhere that’s underrepresented. It’s interesting to look at places that are hidden in plain sight. That reflects how these people think about themselves, too: passed by, and not fully considered.

Scope: There’s an implicit connection between the five-year span of your project and the ongoing revitalization project in Regent Park that we see traces of throughout. Are you interested in looking at how these people are changing in tune with the spaces around them?

Gibson: I thought about that, sure. The neighbourhood changes, the characters change. Maybe they’re trying to rebuild their own lives, rebuild others’ lives, while their community is being rebuilt around them. Where’s their place in this neighbourhood that’s dramatically transforming? They’re asking those questions. I try to represent that visually, though, and not by having people talk about it.

Scope: Did you see this as a longitudinal study?

Gibson: There wasn’t a five-year plan, but time was an asset for me. I tried to use whatever I could to my advantage, to be practical as well as artistic. It’s like with natural lighting: on the one hand it suits the look of the film, on the other I can’t afford lights, and Marty’s apartment was small. But it’s interesting to see things progress over time, to wonder if things will change or stay the same. Greg disappeared for a year, and I thought I’d never see him again and that thread would just be gone. It happens, and it’s just a fact of life. They lead very unstable lives. Another reason it look so long is that their priorities are different from mine, as you might expect with anyone. I had to roll with the punches.

Scope: You don’t quite start at the beginning of this story, but a couple of years into your time with Marty, as he’s showing you an old scar. Why start in the middle and work your way back, then forward?

Gibson: I liked the idea of framing the film with a story that put Marty into perspective. I liked it as a summary of the challenge of overcoming a past that’s with you all the time. The title has a double meaning for me. They’re all on a narrative staircase of sorts. They’re not sure where they are on it: they could be up, they could be down, and they don’t know what the top looks like. They also change places as the film goes on.

Scope: Despite the heavy subject, the film has a lyrical vein. I’m particularly thinking of the intimate close-up early on where Marty shows you his gunshot scar. There’s a tactility to moments like these that reminds me of Agnès Godard’s work with Claire Denis. Are you striving for lyricism and intimacy, or is it a happy accident that you found them?

Gibson: That’s not a bad comparison. I’d say I’m striving for those things, but in an appropriate way. From the beginning I’ve been conscious of not fetishizing poverty, shooting in a pornographic way. I wanted to shoot in a way that suited the harm reduction model of being honest and non-judgmental. Early in the process Greg said, “Just show us for what we are. Just be honest.” And I think that’s why they wanted to do it. There’s a huge amount of stigma they deal with on a daily basis, so this was an opportunity to just show them as they are. There’s a narrative we’ve been told wherein you’re a user, you go to rehab, you’re cured, and then that’s it—the story’s over. Reality is quite a bit different. As for the aesthetic angle, I definitely looked for lyrical moments to bring something of myself into the film. It’s what I saw, but I’d certainly bring in my knowledge of cinema; anything shot in the car, for example, was influenced by Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi. But it was organic, and very much in the moment.

Scope: On this note of being in the moment, I want to talk about how you structure these subjects’ stories, given the unpredictable nature of addiction and recovery. Late in the film somebody says that there aren’t any happy endings for users, only good days.  How do you apply that logic to a film that inevitably has to end somewhere?

Gibson: These types of films tend to have a direction in which they’re moving—getting clean, for example. That kind of narrative would undo a lot of what the film was about. That was something that came in editing, too: asking throughout whether it was going to come together. I had to let the material speak to me. Again, I was structuring it from a harm-reduction perspective. One of the key tenets of the work that they’re doing is not getting people off drugs but keeping them as safe as possible under the circumstances; getting them equipment and services, for example. It’s not about having to quit if you want help, like the Salvation Army. That’s a different model, and it would be a different film.

Scope: At one point, Roxanne points out that relapse isn’t an aberration but a major part of recovery. Is this lack of narrative closure a threat or an opportunity for you?

Gibson: Can it be both? It gets back to the honesty of their circumstances. They lead complex lives. I liked the idea that the movie is over but it’s not over for them. I had to wrap my head around the idea that it doesn’t just end for them when it ends for us.

Scope: Is it a quirk of nonfiction filmmaking that you can’t come in with an ending in mind?

Gibson: I don’t know that you could have achieved the way the film was developed over time, or captured the way the neighbourhood they’re in has changed over time, if the project was scripted. The intimacy, the spontaneity of it—how do you capture that? So much of what they were giving me was also better than anything I could have written, frankly. They’re so funny and articulate. Why upset that balance?

Scope: You speak a lot about being given material and letting the material speak to you. You’ve also talked about your relationship with your subjects in terms of their ownership stake in their stories. Do you see the film as co-authored?

Gibson: I do. One example would be going to Roxanne’s corner at night. That was a scene we had spoken about beforehand, but ultimately it was her idea. All I asked was, “What is something people don’t understand about you?” She said, “Let’s go to my corner, and I’ll tell you. And not just at night, but on a Saturday, at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, when the bars close, when I would have been there normally. And there won’t be any light; it’ll just be lit by the light of the car.” There was a lot of that: seeing what happens, but also trusting that they’ll surprise me, and show me something I haven’t seen before. So, of course, they are authors in a way. There’s nothing I could bring to that in terms of structure, because I don’t understand their world. I need them to explain it to me, and to show the audience what I don’t know and they don’t know—about street involvement, about police violence, about using. Am I going to tell them what I need? No. They’re going to show me. Muredda Angelo