"This is what they tell me," says David "Sudz" Sutherland from the office of his production company in Toronto. "This is the first time that they see something that looks like it took place in their neighbourhood. In a Canadian context instead of an American context."
Sutherland is talking about Doomstown, the film he wrote and directed for CTV. It's had a life far beyond its initial broadcast on the network last spring. The director screens it at schools and for community groups, and he says many kids identify with the film's tale of the effects of inner-city violence and the drug trade on families and young people.
"There's the same things going on," he says. "You've got kids wearing Stop Snitchin' shirts, there's this whole code of silence thing going on that these kids are a part of." And though it's clearly Canadian, Sutherland has seen the effect of his project travel across the border as well. "I got a call yesterday, this guy wants to show the film in Connecticut. Hartford. So, a lot of people respond to this, a lot of people in this type of situation."
Sutherland is bringing Doomstown to Halifax—the film will screen as part of Viewfinders on Friday, April 27, with Sutherland talking about it in the afternoon following the morning screening. Sutherland also plans to show the film to kids at the Gottingen Street YMCA, in Spryfield and in North Dartmouth over the weekend.
The film opens on a typical summer Saturday afternoon in a low-income Toronto neighbourhood. It could be troubled Toronto 'hoods Jane and Finch, Jamestown or Regents Park. Two young black men, Kevin "Jedi" Barrows (KC Collins) and Mike "Twist" Twistleton (Mark Taylor) are going about their community business—selling drugs—and dealing with both the resentment of their families for the kind of work, or lack of, that they're into, and the disrespect they earn from other pushers, whose territory they pass through. Someone is murdered, and for the cycle of violence to end, there needs to be justice: A witness must come forward.
But this isn't just a crime drama involving two men—it takes in the entire community, from grandmothers to the younger generation of kids whose eyes are opening to the kind of options they have in life. At the core is a message about self-respect and responsibility told in a very direct way: Not to speak up about violence is a big mistake. Don't choose silence.
"In some ways it's a dangerous message," says Sutherland. "You're all of a sudden not cool. Some people are saying if you rat these guys out it's somehow bad. Well, if you're not trying to make the communities safer, then you're part of the problem. And that's where the argument ends. For me, anyway."
Sutherland, who grew up in Scarborough and went to film school at York University, was inspired to write and direct Doomstown by actual events—a series of shootings that took place in Toronto in 2002, which he condensed and dramatized for the picture. Already a veteran documentary and feature filmmaker—he directed Love, Sex & Eating The Bones, which won Best Canadian First Feature at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2003—he is well into pre-production on a miniseries for the CBC called Guns, about how illegal firearms are trafficked to Canada from the United States and what happens to them on the street.
"It's a fictional piece based on real cases as well," he says. "It about the cops, the gun traffickers and the victims who get caught in the crossfire."
Sutherland, with his continuing interest in inner-city stories and social justice in urban centres, hopes that when he has a chance to screen Doomstown at Viewfinders and around the HRM, and talk to young people about it, it might do some good. The film, after all, is about communication.
"There's a lot of violence that happened recently in Halifax," he says. "It's a chance to have a discussion. It'll be interesting to hear what people have to say."
Doomstown screens as part of the Viewfinders International Film Festival for Youth on April 27 at Bayers Lake Cinema, 10am, $6.50. Sutherland will speak at the theatre at noon, $6, 422-6965.