Ninth Floor director Mina Shum: In Canada, “We’re racist but we like to apologize about our racism.” Shum discusses Canadian racism and her new documentary.
In Canada, “We’re racist, but we like to apologize about our racism,” Ninth Floor director Mina Shum told me. But not talking about it is what makes the Canadian brand of racism so pernicious and so hard to combat. Shum continued, “We grew up with mandated multiculturalism. I really am a child of that. I’m a Chinese Canadian immigrant from Hong Kong. Even though the kids were calling me all sorts of names on the playground, as soon as I walked into a classroom it was like, you know, ‘We’re a mosaic! We’re all inclusive!’ …We’re identifying the problem, but we don’t like to also look at ourselves. How does that trickle down to me on the bus? How does that trickle down to the way my mother is treated because she doesn’t have language?”
By focusing her film on the crucial but under-discussed Ninth Floor protest against racial discrimination, Shum aims to shine a light on race relations not just in the past but today. In February 1969, students at Montreal’s Sir George Williams University (now Concordia) held a peaceful protest against racial discrimination at the university on the ninth floor of the school. The protest was in response to the university’s inaction regarding a complaint against biology professor Perry Anderson of racial discrimination 10 months before. “If you’re talking about peaceful,” Shum noted, “when the original charges were laid, there was no protest at that point. There was just sort of a trust that due process would occur. When that didn’t happen, they upped it by having a peaceful protest — very Canadian. We will try to make peace before we make war,” said Shum.
The protest lasted two weeks, ending violently when the riot police, who had never been called in to Montreal to deal with a protest, arrived. The students were arrested, beaten, and some were even ultimately deported. “When you’re in denial,” Shum explained, “the violence is how it manifests in the end. I wonder what would have happened if they’d said, ‘You know, you’re right. Let’s have a look at our system and see how there’s institutional racism.’ It would have been a very different story. But denial is one of the worst things you can possibly do, personally and as a society. I think Canada, we’re really aware of that. I don’t know that we’ve solved that problem, but we’re really aware of it.”
Unlike the Civil Rights protests in the United States, Shum noted, “The peaceful protest wasn’t there to provoke brutality. Brutality happened. From a psychological point of view when you’re scared, and that fear reverberates back and forth, often our only recourse is aggression. And I’m like, ‘Is that really our only recourse? Is that the only possible solution to this?’ It’s very primal, really. It’s fight or flight, often. And this is a perfect case of throwing that lens on this situation. It was ‘who’s afraid of who[m] first?’ ”
Shum added that “analysis on this event now is that because the riot police were so green, and they’d never even practiced dealing with something indoors, they actually were confounded. They were as scared as the students were, because they didn’t know what was going on. They’d been trained to march around outside and to isolate a situation if it was happening outside. But something that was happening inside, they really didn’t know how to control.”
Through a mix of historical footage and present day interviews with the protest participants, Shum reconstructs the events of the ninth floor protest. Shum noted, “I do think that Expo [‘67, the World’s Fair in Montreal], in some ways, started that conversation in that it was trying so hard to be inclusive. It put its own foot in its mouth in terms of how they addressed people from other countries. There was definitely a language of ‘othering’. But at the same time, it put the question of what kind of country do we want to be in 30-40-50 years on the table. I think [the] Sir George [Williams University protest] was a reaction to that, because it happened in the same city. Just as you open the doors and say ‘Hey, everybody come on. We’re officially going to invite everybody and treat everyone equally.’ Sir George was a manifestation of ‘No, actually we’re a bit uncomfortable’: too much too fast. And a dialogue did have to happen.”
Perhaps one of the particularly Canadian qualities of the protest was the fact that people of all races were present in solidarity from the start, without having to be explicitly recruited. Shum focuses on a white Jewish student, Robert Huxure, in particular, who was one of the spokespeople for the protest. Shum explained, “He joined because of antisemitism in his life. He joined because there was injustice — not necessarily injustice to his kind at that point, but he could relate.”
I didn’t want to get into a question of right or wrong. If I had focused on the administration, if I’d added their voice, it might have been a film about the case. I didn’t want it to be about the case. I wanted it to be about how we see each other now.
Throughout the film, Shum’s focus is on the victims, the students who participated in the protest. Shum elaborated, “I’m mostly wanting to hear the unheard voices, because if you look at all the press, it was crazy how the students were demonized at that point. Really, they were labelled Black Panthers. When Lynn Murray says, the woman who was burned by the cigarette [in a police interrogation], she told me at one point, ‘I was on the front page of The Gazette, labelled as a Black Panther! My family freaked out! No, I was not a Black Panther. But because I was wearing a leather jacket, I was immediately put into that camp.’ ”Shum continued, “I didn’t want to get into a question of right or wrong. If I had focused on the administration, if I’d added their voice, it might have been a film about the case. I didn’t want it to be about the case. I wanted it to be about how we see each other now.”
By watching the film, Shum wants us to look inwards to see how we’re each culpable, even despite good intentions, and inspire us to do better. “We really don’t need to make a movie where all the anti-racist people are saying ‘I’m anti-racist,’ ” said Shum. “That’s not going to help.” Racial discrimination happens, in part, “because capitalism is here, and it’s here to stay. We’re taught that we don’t have enough, and we’re not good enough. To counteract that, we often try to find a place of power in our lives. That might be in me judging another woman’s jeans. How is that helping humanity? I don’t think it is. Am I acting from the right place? If I really want an inclusive world, is that an intention to correct? And to be able to be that self-reflexive, that’s hard work. But I’d rather have you committed to that than not aware of it.”
In order to draw our attention to these unconscious judgements we make, Shum shot the interviews in an interrogation environment, inspired by films like All The President’s Men, The Parallax View, and Clue. Set in a run-down building, each interview involves a subject sitting on a metal chair whom we often see through surveillance cameras that were set up around the space. We’re constantly aware that the subjects are being watched and that we’re watching them. “I hope that the audience is seduced by some of that spy imagery and enjoying watching it,” said Shum.
“I very deliberately have each character look into the lens at one point — look at us — so that suddenly we’re watched, and the tables are turned. I really wanted to bring that tension to the table. How does it feel to be watched? How does it feel to watch? And when we’re watching, what are we looking for? What is that all about? I think it is as basic as how we see. If we could actually be aware of how we see, that’s a first step. If I see something that’s threatening or I can’t read it, if I can stay open to another person, that’s going to help the situation instead of me seizing up in fear.”
I very deliberately have each character look into the lens at one point — look at us — so that suddenly we’re watched, and the tables are turned.
Shum also turns the tables on us in the way she sets up the story about the racist professor, Perry Anderson. Anderson starts out as two-dimensional to us as the black students were to the administration until we’re forced to contend with a more complex reality. “Throughout the film, up until his son shows up, we pretty well hate Perry,” noted Shum. “We pretty well think he’s bad. We pretty well don’t think about him. And then when the son shows up, we see the two interviews of Perry going, ‘I was really depressed during this time, because this thing blew up.’ I’m not asking whether he was racist or not. I’m going, he’s another human being that got caught in this institutional event. I think we feel a little bit of sympathy for his son who lost his mother during this event.”
“We’ve made all these assumptions. That’s one of the big dangers of the film,” Shum cautioned. “Everybody was assuming. The event that happened, they were assuming the black kids were bad, and they weren’t telling the truth. And then the black kids were assuming that the white administration were bad. In a way, somewhere in the middle is always the truth.” “For me,” Shum elaborated, the film is “really about why do we judge each other? Why do we look at someone, make an assessment, and judge them. It’s because, often, if you look at the roots, it’s because we want to have power over them. So then I ask, why do we want to have power over other people? Why is that important? Why can’t we share the space with everybody?”
Ninth Floor screens in TIFF Docs on Sat. Sept. 12 at 7:15 p.m. at Scotiabank and Mon. Sept. 14 at 2 p.m. at TIFF Bell Lightbox. For details and tickets, visit the TIFF website here.