Ninth Floor is a documentary film about an incident in 1969 at Sir George Williams University (now part of Concordia University) in Montreal that began with six black Caribbean students charging their professor with failing them systematically, continued through endless delays and refusals by the university administration, and ended with arson and riot police dismantling an occupation of the Hall building. A lot of value has been placed on the fact that this film has been made and is making this shameful moment in Quebec and Canadian history known to a larger audience. I don’t want to take away from the film’s value in that regard, but I also don’t want the film’s value to excuse its shortcomings, which are both narrative and political.
The film is half a documentary composed of archival footage of the incident and interviews with the original complainants, other protesters, and descendants of those involved in the incident, and half an experimental art film about isolation and surveillance, using the interviewees as its cast. They come and go from empty buildings for mysterious reasons, are seen through the windows of other buildings, silently listen to public payphones. You can sense what Shum was going for: something beyond just a dry TV-style talking heads documentary, something with more artistic heft. The shots are very beautiful, with the snow-covered, brutalist concrete locations precisely framed to emphasize the sense of isolation and alienation the Caribbean students talk about feeling in Canada. (The terrifyingly symmetrical Hall building has never looked more like a dystopian detention centre than it does here, and this is coming from someone who had to take classes in it.)
But when combined with the film’s Important Documentary aspect, these shots become distracting, even irritating. The interviews are filmed in an unnamed cold, beat-up concrete space, often through glass with secondary recording equipment visible in the shot (surveillance camera output on a TV, analog tape recorders, etc.). This distancing is a great aesthetic effect, but the visuals get in the way of hearing what is actually being said by the interviewees. The archival footage of student protests and contemporary news coverage, with its clear, direct style made fuzzy by time and technological advancement, is the most compelling part of the film, visually and content-wise.
The film makes many attempts to build a larger narrative out of the incident. That persistent surveillance motif is a part of this, building on the fact that the black student activists at Sir George Williams were watched by the RCMP, and in part by a black agent carrying out the Mounties’ orders. It’s an alarming part of the story, and important to the film’s exposure of state racism in Canada, but not a big enough part (and introduced too late in the story) to justify making it the film’s central visual conceit.
More successful are interviews with Nantali Indongo, daughter of original complainant Kennedy Fredericks, which show how trauma has generational repercussions; and with Marvin H. Coleby, then president of the Concordia Caribbean Student Union, where he talks about how there’s been a shift from “explicit racism” to something less visible and more sinister. These are both intriguing threads that lead out of the story. But the film is content to say, “Here are the threads,” without continuing to follow them. This could just be my political bias, but given the increasing overtness of racism and xenophobia in Quebec, I would have preferred for a stronger connection drawn between that and the Sir George Williams incident. The surveillance could have been left as a shocking anecdote, rather than being the way we’re guided to view the whole story.
This is the crux of the film’s political failure, in my opinion: it is unadventurous, and thinks it is doing more than it is. The time is long past when for this simply to exist as a document of the government’s misbehaviours created with government money would be a radical act. In a time of carding, in a time of black people regularly being detained and killed by the police not just in the United States but here in Canada, this film’s message is, “Canadians can be racist too,” and, “We should be better humans to each other.” That’s it. The film ends with Indongo and a band composed of musicians both black and white performing “Redemption Song”, alternating with stark close-ups of the interviewees’ faces, asking us to find humanity in all of them, or something. There was something stylistic in the film that irked me already, but the Q&A afterward confirmed what I was feeling. A black person asked what was being done to ensure this film would be shown to black communities — “not ‘communities of colour’, black” — across Canada, and was told by the Asian-Canadian filmmaker and Caribbean-Canadian producer that this was “not just a black story, but a Canadian story”. The person who asked the question walked out after that, and I don’t blame them. It was frustrating.
“Frustration”, I think, is the keyword of this film. It characterizes both the events that it documents and the feeling I had when I left the theatre. It is good that this film exists and that its existence has led people to learn about the incident in the present day, and it feels unfair to charge it with not doing enough. But it does not do enough. “Look past skin colour and see humanity” is not a moral for 2016; in 2016, these are words that are used by racists to silence others, not used in order to fight them. In 2016, Ninth Floor is not a radical film. This subject deserves more.