TIFF Review: 'Ninth Floor'

Ninth Floor
(Canada, 80 min.)
Written and directed by Mina Shum
Programme: TIFF Docs (World Premiere)
Photo courtesy of TIFF
Acclaimed director Mina Shum (Double Happiness) delivers an eye-opening wallop with her first documentary feature Ninth Floor. This timely and relevant production from the National Film Board of Canada chronicles a relatively obscure, but significant episode of Canadian history as Shum probes the student protests at Montreal’s Sir George Williams University in February 1969. Shum’s hand at drama propels the film as she interrogates history through interviews with participants and with meticulous archival footage: the film plays like a conspiratorial thriller and exposé in one. The film proves very effective, as Ninth Floor could easily recount a present-day story.

Shum contextualizes the incident with a healthy dose of irony as Ninth Floor first revisits the glory of Montreal’s Expo ’67 and the promise of progress it brought. Ninth Floor features old images of politicos extolling the new age of diversity and multiculturalism the event would bring to Canada by uniting nations in one massive trade show. Pitches don’t breed reality, though, as a group of black students at SGWU discovered when they realized that their biology professor, Perry Anderson, graded black students on a different scale (re: lower) than their white classmates. (Some of the students have since earned PhDs and positions in public office.) The film explains how they formally charged him with racism, but the ineffective politics at the school rendered it a futile effort.

The film’s next act chronicles how the students took their actions to the next level by going nine floors up and commandeering the school’s computer lab to aid their cause. Both the participants and the archival snippets agree that this occupation proved to be a harrowing turning point: elements of civil disobedience, mischief, and vandalism on some students’ behalf changed the tone and spirit of the protest and inspired police brutality, rather than effective results. The participants whom Shum interviews recount the range of emotions—horror, pride, anger—they felt (and clearly still feel) as they experienced this collective stand. The voices Shum brings to the conversation offer a case study in the pros and cons of radical action and they illustrate the very fine line one must tread between slapping the opposition with a wake-up call and simply punching them in the face.

The sense that both everything and nothing changes as the years go on becomes rightfully distressing. Even though this specific incident inspired the creation of ombudsmen offices on campuses and anticipated official multiculturalism, Nine Floor puts the ineffectiveness of institutionalized multiculturalism in the hot seat: what good, Shum asks, is policy if white Canadians resist change? The interviewees speak of inspirational moments in which they recognized prejudice in the streets of Montreal and took action against it only to see history repeat itself day after day. As one participant observes, Canadians are racist, but they apologize for it. Ninth Floor thus tackles this seemingly polite perception of “Canadian-ness” to reveal how dangerously it perpetuates the status quo.

Similarly, Ninth Floor urgently evokes the spirit of the Occupy Movement and the 2012 Maple Spring protests in which Quebec students rallied against tuition hikes. The causes are different, but Ninth Floor underlines the ongoing wall of indifference that populates the country’s institutions. Universities should be sites of progress, but this episode and others like it show how Canadians like their rosy mental image and prefer to keep it an idealized one, rather than a practical one, for the sake of comfort.

Ninth Floor rejects comfort, though, as Shum puts the viewer on edge using a fine bit of cinematic espionage. Feel like an object under surveillance as Ninth Floor observes its interview subjects through a TV monitor or through an interrogation room window. Shots taken in the streets linger and zoom like the eyes of a detail mission. The film re-creates how it feels to be looked at and scrutinized, or even be made to feel like a criminal, as the unnerving aesthetics unfold this chapter of history in the present tense. Canada looks very different from this perspective, but Ninth Floor paints Canada in a fair, if unflattering light. It’s a compelling and vital film.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Ninth Floor screens:
-Saturday, Sept. 12 at Scotiabank 3 at 7:15 PM
-Monday, Sept. 14 at TIFF Lightbox at 4:00 PM

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