The following article was written by Robert McTavish as part of a series of articles about filmmakers coming to the Salt Spring Film Festival on March 4-6, 2016. Filmmaker Selwyn Jacob will be attending the festival and leading a discussion about the film following the screening. The Filmmaker series is sponsored by Stonehouse Bed and Breakfast.
At the time of the 1969 riot at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia) in Montreal, Selwyn Jacob was fresh from his Caribbean home attending university in Alberta. He, like the rest of Canada, watched it unfold on the news. Protesting students had occupied a ninth floor computer lab, angry with a full year of university inaction to racism charges against one of its professors. The images echoed those familiar south of the border: riot police, vandalism, fire and racial violence. “Remember, this was the Montreal of Expo ’67,” says Jacob of Canada’s squeaky clean image and how the riot changed that both at home and abroad. “It was so against the grain that even though I was in Edmonton, my mother called from Trinidad to see if I was okay.”
He was fine, but seeing several fellow black Caribbean students at the heart of the matter worried him. “I was ambivalent,” says Jacob, as he watched police storm in and arrest 97 of the protesters in what would become known as the largest and most violent student uprising in Canadian history. “This was the simplicity of what was given us,” he says. “But behind the headlines, what was really going on?”
Jacob’s questioning nature would prompt a career digging behind the headlines as a filmmaker, with the Montreal riot a beacon in his documentary mind. “I would have to have a serious track record,” he says of his plans to return to the topic. “I knew that all my previous films would lead to this film.” But in 1997 he joined the National Film Board and would now produce films instead of directing. Still, after seeing a book about iconic events of 1968 that neglected to even mention Montreal’s race troubles, he brought it up at a story meeting only to find the passing years had all but erased the riot. “No one had even heard of it,” he says, but they wanted to know. They asked him to find a director for a film, “and as they say, the rest is history.”
That history was buried though, so much that even the director he chose to unearth it, Mina Shum, was initially unfamiliar with the events. A theatrical filmmaker, what Shum did know was storytelling and Jacob knew she could put ownership to the story. “As a Chinese-Canadian woman in the feature film industry her experience was not dissimilar to the students.” Shum’s ability to identify subtle and less-than-subtle racist overtones would point to authoritarian and surveillance motifs and a dramatic documentary style: interrogation-like interviews and chilly, washed-out palates that invoke paranoid spy thrillers of the early seventies. Jacob wanted her creative metaphorical approach to what could have simply been played straight, and Shum did not disappoint. “She even went another step and wanted to preview Montreal. You know, a director of a documentary does not talk about scouting locations!”
Yet bringing people back to those locations was not an easy sell. “This film was very emotional for me,” says Jacob. Imagine then the students’ feelings, including those from the Caribbean who had since gone home, on reliving those traumatic days and their subsequent jail-time decades ago. Many refused, or like Roosevelt “Rosie” Douglas – who later became Prime Minister of his native Dominica – were no longer living. But the key players did speak, such as human-rights advocate and Canadian Senator Anne Cools, to help Jacob and Shum present the whole story. “It came down to trust,” says Jacob. “And we felt this was our last chance.”
Some change actually did come in 1971 as administration adopted new regulations and rights, including an ombudsman’s office for students’ concerns. But today as police and political prejudice – and the resulting anti-racism protests – once again put America in the world spotlight (including the Occupy movement), Jacob says the time is ripe to reassess the riot which “was the culmination of a whole bunch of stuff that was swept under the carpet.” Ninth Floor is part of Canada’s story and the issues are not as foreign to us as most would wish. As Jacob says, there’s one obvious way to address it: “We have to set the record straight. We have be well informed.”