By Johnny Papan
The outside world sees Vancouver as a brochure. A place ridden with greenery, storied architecture and a beautiful snowy mountain backdrop. It’s vibrant, multicultural, and never short of hip happenings. It’s a place to develop your career, to have a family, and it’s a place full of unique and interesting inhabiting characters.
But with vibrant beauty often comes dark secrecy. Vancouver indeed has secrets, much of which it tries to hide away near the shadows of Gastown. As these words are typed, rain pours onto the Downtown Eastside like liquid gloom, gray clouds pissing onto a man laying on the sidewalk, trying to shelter himself with a soggy, deteriorating cardboard box. East Hastings is an area where people and places are often viewed as dirt ready to be swept under the city rug. A place where our own moral compass can be shut off, and we can ignore the human within the raggedy clothing or behind the jangling cup. Most of us would call it a hell. But to some, the East Hastings community is their “home.”
This is the theme of V6A, the documentary by Italian filmmaker Ruggero Romano. It explores “home” as a concept beyond four walls within Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Home is an energy, an atmosphere shared by those who are open to one another. Though many people on the Downtown Eastside are considered “homeless” by general standards, their sense of comfort, freedom, and genuine connection is far stronger than the privilege of structured shelter.
“Sometimes we need those waves that just wash everything and remind us what it means to be human,” Romano says about making this film. “I came across the noises of love and beauty that is the Downtown Eastside. My instinct was to go and seek the substance of what it means to be human through this community.”
Romano withdraws a notebook from his backpack, each page signed by the many inhabitants he encountered before and while filming his documentary. Some people wrote letters, some wrote poems. Near the front of his notes was a snapped guitar string, gifted to him by one of the local musicians featured in his film.
V6A introduces us to a plethora of unique characters including Rainbow John who swears to live until the day he sees peace in this world. Ghost Dancer, an Indigenous man, walks the streets with a self-made stick that represents his life, dreams and family. The end of the stick branches out into two points, one point shorter than the other. The shorter end represents “good,” while the larger end represents “the bad” because “it’s easier to do bad rather than good.” Brendan, a young man who moved here from Toronto, appropriately refers Vancouver as a city with “an abundance of culture… and an abundance of ignorance.”
“Whenever you give yourself to a community and dig down deep enough, you’ll see that we all have depth,” Romano says. “I find many people are afraid of really diving into their deeper meanings of life. Sometimes you need a mirror to look yourself in the eyes and say ‘What do I think about life? What are my opinions about life?’ People are great mirrors too, so whenever we find that connection with other human beings, we have the chance to open up, be vulnerable, and explain our depths.”
The film opens with a dog viciously ripping apart a stuffed animal. In a way, the stuffed-animal represents many inhabitants seen in this Downtown Eastside documentary. Pure, vulnerable people who, in a lot of ways, are simply just helpless as the rabid dog of Vancouver chews them up and spits them out by ways of ever-increasing rent-prices and shutting down the few shelters they have. One scene in the film follows a protest incited by the forced evacuation and closure of the Balmoral Hotel, which housed many low-income inhabitants.
V6A is a raw, eye-opening experience showcasing the humanity within people who would otherwise be shoved off by general society. These are people with unique points of view, philosophical opinions, and glowing, open hearts. We witness touching relationships, and deep internal reflections. We see people in their rawest form, unafraid to say and do as they feel, even if what they say or feel isn’t pretty. It’s a respectable trait missing in so many of us. While the general populous would rather isolate themselves in company of friends and family to scroll through a handheld digital vortex of self-curated information, the people seen in V6A have nothing but each other. And it’s that shared connection that makes the Downtown Eastside their home.
Romano concludes: “This movie is a mosaic of all the different meanings and different values that people bring with themselves, what they think, and what they feel about their home. I could ask any human being what it means being home to them, and you will see that every meaning is different. If you take it one step further you will understand the substance behind those feelings, and those reasons for calling it a home, is actually universal for everybody. So that’s what makes home equal and different for all of us as human beings.”
V6A is screening at the Rio Theatre March 23 at 12:45 p.m. and March 31 at 1:00PMRio Theatre, v6a