Prince Rupert is mentioned in this article.
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Hangin Out ‘On the Corner’
By Angela Baldassarre
After completing film studies at Concordia University in Montreal, budding filmmaker Nathaniel Geary returned home to Vancouver where he took a job at Canada Post. But being back in his hometown was a shock to the young man, who used to hang out in what is now the city’s grungy downtown eastside.
“As a kid I shopped with my family at the neighbourhood landmark Woodward’s,” remembers Geary. “When I got home in the mid-'90s I was shocked. Nowhere that I’d been - Montreal, Toronto, or even New York - had a scene like that of Vancouver’s. Alleys were covered in garbage, buildings falling apart, people stumbling in the street, and hundreds of people on the sidewalks selling or doing drugs. It was fascinating to me that a situation like this could exist in the middle of a prosperous Canadian city. So I got involved - I wanted to learn more about this place.”
Geary decided to do a documentary on the neighbourhood, but while researching the project he met a group of people who ran the Portland Hotel Society, which operates a housing facility for those with mental health and substance abuse or addiction problems. This prompted the young man to change careers.
“When I told the managers at the Portland that I’d like to work there I could sense their skepticism. Quit the Post Office to work here.? I assured them I did, and they hired me,” says Geary who’s still employed there.
A new job did not fan his love for the movie business. While at the Portland he struck a friendship with poet and activist Bud Osborn, whose poem “Keys to Kingdoms” became the subject of Geary’s short film.
But Geary still wanted to make a film about the Eastside. “Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is a very compelling place; it’s the oldest part of the city, so it really stands out amongst the steel and glass that typifies the new Vancouver, and it’s been left to decay - along with the folks that live down there,” says the director. “As a result of this and many other reasons, day-to-day survival is a real struggle for many of the residents of the neighbourhood. Life is lived in the open, on the streets. This was all such a contrast to my middle class, loving family upbringing that I was immediately attracted to the rawness of it all. And it wasn’t a voyeuristic kind of interest for me, it was an opportunity to experience and learn more about the truth of living.”
The result is the feature-length film “On the Corner.” The story focuses on Randy, a teenager living in a foster home on a reserve in **Prince Rupert **who goes to Vancouver to find his older sister, Angel. Angel ran away from home to the city five years previous and now lives at the dingy Pennsylvania Hotel in the downtown eastside where she survives as best she can, supporting her heroin habit by working as a prostitute. Angel tries to convince Randy to return home, but he is soon seduced by the quick money that the streets can provide.
“Many people I’ve met in the downtown eastside have either lost or never known their families,” says Geary. “I can see how easy it might be to lose hope in this situation, of feeling so alone that nothing matters any more.”
In order to make the film, Geary took time off from Portland, but got permission to work in the hotel’s older location just blocks away.
For the role of Angel, he cast Alex Rice, who had a role in the Jackie Chan megahit “Shanghai Noon.”
“I remember reading the script the first time around and shedding a lot of tears,” says Rice. “I immediately thought ‘If they want me, I’m going to do it.’ I had my fingers crossed and was holding my breath. I called my agent every 10 minutes. Once I got it I was totally committed and devoted. I was going to do whatever it took, no matter how scary, horrible and awful it might be, cause I’ll tell you man - the story is dark and sad.”
For 16-year-old Randy, Geary looked at Simon Baker, an aboriginal actor who starred in “The Sweet Hereafter,” “Smoke Signals” and three seasons of TV’s “North Of 60.”
“This role has been great for me. It’s given me the opportunity to not be the stereotypical Indian with braids and a feather in his hair,” says Baker. “This is new ground for me, something that has allowed me character development and a chance to see what life is like for kids who come down from places like (Prince) Rupert only to live on the streets in Vancouver.”
Although he’s a familiar face in the neighbourhood, Geary needed the help of an expert to complete his picture. “I brought in a consultant from the downtown eastside, Dean Wilson, and he spoke to us about drugs,” explains the director adding that Wilson also acted as liaison with the community on the nights he shot in the neighbourhood.
But working in a building where hundreds of people died terrible deaths had its toll as certain members of the cast and crew talked about feeling affected by the presence of spirits and ghosts.
“It’s true, a lot of people did die in their rooms at the Portland,” says Geary. “On my second shift working there, I found a body while doing a room check (the woman had been a chronic alcoholic and died in her sleep). There was a lot of emotion on set, and I think that manifests itself in all sorts of different ways for different people. That said, the building has seen many people through its doors and halls in the last hundred years and you can feel that.”
“On the Corner” opens in Toronto on June 18.