This is North Preston – A Review
by Ralph Lucas – Publisher
(May 16, 2019 – Toronto, ON) There are critical differences between feature films and documentaries. Movies are supposed to entertain, documentaries are supposed to educate. Movies have plots, subplots, scenes, beats, characters. Documentaries have POV (a point of view). What that means is that while a movie is fictional, even when it’s a biopic about somebody famous, documentaries are, in a way, true to life. By that I mean, that while the events, people and scenes are real, everything is shot from the director’s point of view, which means few documentaries can be balanced. There is always the weight of the production’s vision that influences what side of any particular story is going to be told.
This is North Preston is Producer-Director Jaren Hayman’s third film and second feature-length production. I’m not quite sure what his point of view was on this project, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’ll come back to that, but would prefer to use some broad strokes to begin.
There are levels of grime below gritty, so to say this film is gritty doesn’t truly reflect what you’re going to see on-screen. If hearing the “n-word” is going to upset you, even when it is used by Black Canadians talking about each other, then you’re going to have trouble with this film. If having women referred to as bitches or “hoes” is going to make you angry, this film is going to make you angry. If hearing people talk about how the benefits of becoming a pimp outweigh the consequences of that life, or how the financial opportunity pimping provides takes precedence over what becomes of the women often coerced into this profession, then chances are This is North Preston isn’t for you. If documentaries are supposed to shine a light on a problem or situation, then what the spotlight shows in this film is a truly grim reality, one many of the citizens of North Preston may not agree with. Which is precisely why you should see this film.
Hayman’s POV seems to waver. Is this an insightful look into the current state of Canada’s oldest and largest Black community, a town of some 4000 people about 25 minutes from downtown Halifax that can trace its beginnings to the Underground Railroad? Or is it a profile of rising singer Just Chase who grew up in North Preston? There are extended scenes set in the town, many shot at night, many on the street, many that do nothing to enhance the profile of a city that, based on what you’re seeing, is in real trouble. If balance can be found, it might be in the scenes where the focus is on the singer, his rise from childhood to gun-toting thuggish behaviour to aspiring star. In some places that focus loses perspective as we follow Chase to auditions in Toronto, New York and L.A. and you begin to wonder what any of this has to do with North Preston.
Meanwhile, life back in the ‘hood seems to carry on unchanged, except for the rise of gun culture and the number of people getting shot. Many of the daylight scenes show a rural community with bright houses, yet these scenes are overpowered by the bleakness of life as expressed by the people in this documentary. Many feel that if things aren’t exactly hopeless, the choices available to them are few and the only way to move up in life (have money, a good car, and “bitches”) is to embrace what seems to be a way of life unique to North Preston.
I think what Hayman tried to do by essentially shooting two different stories within one documentary was to use Just Chase as a metaphor. He is the bright shining light rising out of a dim and sinister background, showing that despite the odds, terrible choices and a life punctuated with personal loss, success and freedom from history can be achieved. There’s a line in this doc, a truism about there being only one road into and out of North Preston. Just Chase found his way out.
This is North Preston is not your average, clean, uplifting documentary yet it has a special message and deserves your attention even as it sticks a gun to your head and threatens to destroy your sense of what is right, what is fair, what is normal and what is Canadian. Approach it with caution, but be prepared to learn things you didn’t know you needed to learn. In that This is North Preston achieves its goal, the goal of all good documentaries.
This is North Preston opens May 17, 2019 in Halifax and Toronto.
Also see: The cast, crew & trailer for This is North Preston.
Ralph Lucas is the founder and publisher of Northernstars.ca. He began writing about film and reviewing movies while in radio in Montreal in the mid-1970s.