How Scarborough’s documentary origins gave it a fresh voice

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TIFF '21: The filmmaking team behind the Discovery world premiere share how the year-long $300,000 shoot led to one of Canada's most buzzed about titles.

While all eyes are usually in the downtown core during the Toronto International Film Festival usually, a Canadian indie film has put the unlikely spotlight on Scarborough.

Based on the acclaimed 2017 novel by Catherine Hernandez – who penned the adaptation – and co-directed and produced by Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson, Scarborough paints a stark and heartfelt portrait of the multiculturally diverse Toronto district through the tales of three young families struggling in their own ways to get by, connected by a local literacy program.

The film had a strong debut for its Sept. 10 world premiere in the Discovery programme, preempted by Toronto distributor levelFILM picking up Canadian rights, as well as a selection for TIFF Next Wave. It is the first narrative feature for the Compy Films founders, who made their name with documentaries, including the Oscar shortlisted Frame 394.

Nakhai tells Playback Daily that Scarborough was the prodco’s largest scale feature to date in terms of the number of cast members and locations. The film, which had a $300,000 budget, was shot chronologically with 38 production days shot in four blocks between August 2019 and March 2020 in Toronto’s Kingston-Galloway neighbourhood.

And yes, you read that final month right. Nakhai says Scarborough had five more days of production before the pandemic resulted in a months-long production standstill. “We were in the middle of prep and then had to make the decision to postpone indefinitely,” says Nakhai. “We weren’t sure if we would ever finish, to be honest.”

In the end, the filmmakers went back into production in August 2020, one year after shooting initially began, to film the ending. The delay and the COVID safety protocols meant the script had to be adjusted, including a change to the ending, which Hernandez says is the original ending she planned for the novel.

Hernandez’ vision for the film is a core component of its origins. She says she received multiple offers from filmmakers to option the novel after it received critical acclaim, but none were the right fit for the project. “I would look at their reel and they were beautiful and very polished, but the problem is: that’s not my community. Scarborough is not a polished place – not the Scarborough that I know and the one that I’ve grown to love,” she says.

She knew Nakhai and Williamson from a commission they had worked on for the Reel Asian Film Festival and was interested in the concept of using their skills as documentary filmmakers for an adaptation of her novel. She pitched the idea to them, with her as the screenwriter, and they agreed.

What followed for Hernandez was a two-week crash course in screenwriting, including the ins and outs of formatting a script and needing to write to your budget. “The learning continued up until the very end where I remember Shasha said, ‘Tomorrow we’re going to try to find some seagulls in a parking lot.’ I remember [asking], ‘why do you need seagulls in a parking lot?’ and she says, ‘because you wrote it!’ I didn’t even realize,” says Hernandez. “The carelessness of a writer!”

The filmmakers, on the other hand, were deeply impressed with her skills, with Nakhai saying that the script was almost production-ready after two weeks of writing. The financing for the film later came through Telefilm’s Talent to Watch in 2018, as well as from the Toronto Arts Council.

Hernandez says the process of writing the adaptation of her novel was made easier due to her experience as a playwright. “I wrote [the book] out loud like you would do in theatre where you workshop it to make sure the dialogue sounds right,” she says.

Hernandez adds that she left a lot of room for improvisation for the child actors, in part because they didn’t want to put too much pressure on first-time child actors to memorize lines, but also because of the difficulty in trying to write authentic dialogue for a child. “They have their way of saying things and you just have to let that magic come through,” she says.

That decision fit well with the documentary-style filming of Scarborough, allowing actors to be more natural rather than constantly needing to hit specific marks, and using a smaller crew. Nakhai says while classroom shots allowed approximately 30 crew members on set, certain location shoots only required four crew members.

The filmmakers handled the casting themselves, using non-union actors for roughly 60 speaking roles, according to Nakhai, which involved approximately six months of looking at local comedians, stage performers and performing arts schools. The cast includes experienced actors such as stand-up comedian Aliya Kanani and stage performer Cherish Violet Blood working with first-time actors Liam Diaz, Essence Fox, Anna Claire Beitel and Felix Jedi Ingram Isaac.

That work translated into a raw authentic viewing experience for its audience, according to levelFILM head of distribution John Bain.

“It’s rare to see a film that hits you emotionally as hard as this one does. I teared up multiple times, which I don’t do very often,” says Bain, adding that levelFILM recognized the opportunity to work with Nakhai and Williamson as part of the new generation of Canadian filmmaking.

He says the distributor is currently planning a theatrical release in spring 2022 with the hope of collaborating with a U.S. distribution partner. Bain adds that they’ll need to see what the situation is in the theatrical space is at the time to determine the windows for later distribution on VOD, streaming and with broadcasters.

A key factor in the release is also incorporating the community. Nakhai says Scarborough Arts and Kerry’s Place Autism Services were partners in the film, so they’re planning a community screening for the organizations, with the hope for other community screenings in the future.

“The filmmakers care deeply about the community, so absolutely part of the strategy will be [ensuring there is] access to the film,” says Bain.