By Madeleine Wall
Despite having arrived in Canada five years ago from Syria, Rashid (Hussam Douhna) and his wife Fahra (Amani Ibrahim) have not entirely settled in. Whatever promises a country founded in Hewers of Wood and Drawers of Water gave them, they wake up without working hot water. Thorncliffe Park, their home, is a part of Toronto in which high rises are easily spotted from the eastbound expressway out of the city, nestled next to the woods surrounding the Don River; it’s often the first place recent immigrants live.
Antoine Bourges’ Concrete Valley is a character study of one family existing in the gap between their past lives and what little Canada’s largest city can offer them; its subject is what they can create in between. Working with non-actors from the Thorncliffe Park neighbourhood, Bourges explores how a community is created after its members have had to give up everything they knew before.
Bourges’ screenplay, co-written with Teyama Alkamli, is subtle, with the character’s backstories revealed gradually, in increments. We learn that Fahra used to be an actress when she watches a video of herself with a friend in a storeroom at work. Rashid’s casual recommendations for friends on the side of his son’s floor hockey game develop into a medical practice he can only do clandestinely. Though both are devoted to their son Ammar (Abdullah Nadaf), their marriage isn’t happy, and rather than continuing bickering they both look for support elsewhere. There are disappointments here as well, with what should be a work opportunity revealed to be picking up trash in the woods; or Rashid’s relationship with a neighbour, which develops into a threat to his fragile family situation.
These dramas unfold in underfurnished and fluorescently lit apartment buildings, but Bourges’ keen eye and Nikolay Michaylov’s camerawork never waver from presenting the neighbourhood as beautiful. The adults’ lives take place on the sidelines, while they watch their children run and play through the trees, looking at a future where blue crayfish can be found in the river.