Years ago, Catherine Hernandez would attend the Toronto International Film Festival by ushering in ticket-holders at the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre for a little more than $6 an hour. This year, the author is back at TIFF as something of a celebrity herself, with the worldwide debut of the film “Scarborough.”
When the independent movie screens on Sept. 10, it gives voice to racialized and under-privileged community members in the notorious Toronto suburb, capturing their spirit as they desperately try to keep themselves together under the thumb of a system that’s designed to see them fail. Hernandez penned the script adaptation from her eponymous 2017 award-winning book, which is loosely based on her experiences running a home daycare in Scarborough.
While the novel introduces several character perspectives, the film — for which LevelFilm has picked up Canadian distribution rights — follows three children over the course of one school year. There’s Bing (Liam Diaz), a gay Filipino boy whose mother has just fled his abusive and mentally-ill father; Sylvie (Essence Fox), an Indigenous girl whose family struggles to find housing or the help they need for her autistic younger brother; and Laura (Anna Claire Beitel), a neglected and abused child who is dropped into her ill-equipped father’s care.
Hernandez, who is a queer woman of color, began working on the script after several filmmakers approached her about optioning her novel. When it came to the depiction of this community, she wanted to show it as much care as it had given her, and she didn’t trust a large production to capture its true spirit. Rather than film the project with a slick dramatic lens, she approached directors Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson of Compy Films to make the movie in a documentary style, having worked with them in the past.
“When I looked at [other company’s] reels, their reels were very polished,” Hernandez recalls. “And I thought, ‘That’s not my community.’ I don’t think I would feel really good about a large production unit [being] in my community and being very invasive to people. So then I thought, ‘Well, what if I wrote it?’”
To capture the reality Hernandez depicts so vividly in the book, Nakhai and Williamson shot many of the film’s scenes from the waist up, to evoke a child’s perspective. There is also an agility to the overall camerawork, which came in handy during those scenes in which the micro-budget of about $250,000 (and the overall nature of working with child actors) meant they had to capture some of their content in standalone takes.
“We’d never seen anything like this done in the Canadian independent film landscape,” says Nakhai. “Personally, being Filipino and having worked in film for 10 years and having never seen anything like this, I wanted to be part of helping make that happen.”
Throughout the film, there are also several sketches capturing the beauty of the community. The art is created onscreen by a character named Victor (Joshua Obra) but was sketched offscreen by Williamson. Along with depicting the beauty of the community, the work is meant to represent the hotbed of artists who have emerged from Scarborough over the years. Now, it’s being used as one of the film’s marketing tools on social media.
“It just happens to be that Scarborough artists are having a moment. But to me, [the character of] Victor was so important in capturing that there have been artists for a very long time who have been observing the magic of this community,” says Hernandez.
The care with which those details are addressed, combined with the triptych take, results in a haunting story that deals with themes of trauma, grief, abuse and social injustice, all while doling out dashes of hope, resilience, and maybe even a call to action.
In order to accommodate the younger, first-time actors, production created a safe space in which the kids knew the overall subject matter they were filming. That allowed them to have fun with movie magic during hard scenes, such as when a pot of hot pasta is thrown near one child’s head, or another kid’s hand is being forced into a frying pan.
“We had a close relationship with the parents of each of these kids, because we needed to make sure that they would be able to explain these things to their kids, and that they were comfortable with certain things as well, like being a queer character,” says Nakhai. “We had to really talk about these things upfront.”
Filming on “Scarborough” kicked off in early 2020, and there were just five days left when the pandemic forced production to shut down for five months. As any parent can attest, the growth a child can go through in that amount time is staggering. Luckily, Nakhai and Williamson had made the decision to shoot the film in sequence, and some time was meant to have gone by as the story carried forward.
Another stroke of luck was Hernandez’s gut-decision to record vocals of Diaz performing a key song in the film in February, a choice that paid off when filming resumed in August, as the actor’s voice had changed. The final cut, which debuts at TIFF, features that recording.
To that end, the premiere will be a big, full-circle moment for Hernandez. To go from being the low-paid usher in a “monkey suit” to being able to bring her community to an international audience is one of the most meaningful pieces of this journey.
“When you’re running non-stop up and down stairs, bringing people to their seats and being paid minimum wage, nobody cares about you. They just care about seeing whatever celebrity is there,” she says. “Then the movie starts and you really feel that this is not for you. You’re like, ‘Oh this is for fancy people.’ So I’m amazed. I can’t believe this is happening. And I’m thankful because there were 300 people that really helped us make this project.”
“Scarborough” premieres as part of TIFF Discovery and Next Wave on Sept. 10.