Ninth Floor Doc Explores Racism Accusation, Student Protest On Montreal Campus In 1969

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In 1969 some 400 hundred students at Sir George Williams University in Montreal, Quebec staged an occupation of the school's computer lab on the ninth floor. The reason: six students of Caribbean descent had accused professor Perry Anderson of racism, citing things like lower grades for the exact same work that white students did, and took their complaint to the school administration.

When the school failed to respond adequately they staged their sit-in, creating a nationwide media frenzy that resulted in vandalism of the school's computers, an attack on the students by riot police, a suspicious fire in the building, spy novel-worthy accusations of agent provocateurism, and, eventually, charges against many of the students.

Vancouver-based filmmaker Mina Shum tracked down many of the principle figures for the documentary Ninth Floor, which premiered recently at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Included in the film are Anne Cools, who'd go on to become the first black senator in Canada; Terrance Ballantyne, who later became a lawyer in Trinidad; and, through found archival footage, the late Rosie Douglas, who'd go on to become the prime minister of Dominica. Additionally, professor Anderson's son Duff and Nantalia Indongo, the daughter of pivotal protest figure Kennedy Frederick, explain how these events from 45 years ago are still affecting their families here and now.

In the immediate aftermath of the Sir George affair a national multicultural policy and a human rights complaints office were created, but there was a human cost. In particular, key figures Frederick and Anderson would both face subsequent bouts of mental illness.

Samaritanmag spoke to Shum about Ninth Floor and what we might learn from it right now.

How did you come up with the idea to do Ninth Floor?

Selwyn Jacob, my producer, has been sitting on this story for 45 years. He was a student at the University of Alberta back then. He's Trinidadian and the event happened in Montreal and he felt tension in his own university because of what happened.

He told me about these events at a meeting and I immediately went, "Oh my, this should be a fictional feature film." And he went, "Oh no, we make documentaries." And I looked into a couple of facts that really got me hooked — the charges of racism. The actual charges of racism are there on a piece of paper and I've actually never seen that in my life.

I just thought it was so bold. And then on top of it he told me that all the students were under surveillance. So immediately I started to think about metaphors for power, vision and fear. I'm not really interested in just a historical document because a journalist can do that. What I'm interested in is trying to bridge the conscious and the unconscious and trying to reveal what might not be in the headlines of the story. And I was really excited when I started talking to some of the key figures in the protest because they were super, super-articulate and intelligent.

I could tell right away from the phone calls that they would be great in terms of recounting their story. And it also felt ripe. They felt ripe to tell their story.

This strikes me as a very historic, very important event, but I've never heard of it before. Is that just me? Why don't people know more about this?

I had never heard about this either. And actually that's another reason why I wanted to make this film. Why had I not heard of this? I grew up in Canada in mandated multiculturalism. We emigrated here in 1966. I was a year old, so with mandated multiculturalism wouldn't you know about this from the beginning? But we didn't. Nobody did.

I think they were uncomfortable, we didn't feel the need... we're so dirty laundry, we don't talk about it, we'd rather leave things pleasant. I mean, I think it's super-important to talk about unpleasant things to raise any issues. Like, if you and I had a problem with each other I think if we're going to work together and we're going to grow together, we've got to talk about it. And not in an accusatory way. I know when I talk about this film I talk about the world "we" as if I have something to do with the cause and effect and everything of it. Because I do believe there's no us versus them, it's just us. The good, the bad and the ugly, we all live together.

After I said to myself, "Why didn't I know about this before?" I didn't have a good answer. Was part of it because most of these students were from the Caribbean?

Yeah, well, I take personal ownership when stuff like that happens. It's great because then you can change yourself. But I do think it was the way media portrayed it at the time. One of the things with the story is that the same day that the fire happened was the first of the two FLQ bombings. It was the beginning of the FLQ crisis so it completely overtook the news. Like, Sir George went from page one on the day the fire broke out to page four the next day. So suddenly it went from, "Oh my god it's a bunch of Black Panthers in Canada..." because all the black students, all the white students, everyone connected to it was labelled a Black Panther, right? Even though they had nothing to do with it. Even if they were good fourth generation Canadian kids and black families from Montreal. Immediately they were labeled. And because the FLQ crisis happened it went to page four. And by the time we got to the trial they were three inches of newsprint on pages 10 and 20. And that had to do with the dismissive nature of the story back then. I think people just didn't want to talk about it. Well, one, there was a bigger crisis happening with the FLQ, and two, they didn't want to hang up their dirty laundry. It was such an ugly thing.

When I was watching the film, one of the things that really struck me was how many parallels there were present-day troubles, whether it be things like the institutional racism African-Americans face in Ferguson, the Quebec student red square protests from a couple years ago, the accusations that agent provocateurs caused disruptions during the Toronto G20 Summit... even though the film's events were more than 40 years ago they feel very "now."

Yeah, I'm sitting on a porch right now talking to you from Chinatown and I'm pretty sure there's a camera pointed at me from somewhere. And we've gotten a little laissez faire about it, and though it feels a bit like a '70s spy movie motif, it's so true right now.

We spoke at a a TIFF conference [Sept. 12] about music in the film and the score, and I was picking out clips to show off the music and sound design. And I got to the section where all the characters are in Trinidad and they're all carrying suitcases and traveling — it's this metaphor of being an immigrant — and I'm watching it and I'm getting pretty choked and pretty teary-eyed because I'm thinking about Syrian migrants. I'm thinking about that metaphor of immigration and not belonging. And I wasn't thinking about that when I shot those images because it hadn't happened yet.

In the film's press material there's mentions of "clandestine filming locations." What does that mean, because it certainly evokes some secretive spy film suggestions?

Well I wanted to create an environment where the participants could feel the paranoia of the time, of '69, without making it a period piece because it's obviously present day. But I wanted them to feel like it was a remote location where they were taken to tell their story. And I wanted the tension of "Are they telling their story to a friendly ear or an unfriendly ear?" So it was the environment that created that. When we were in Montreal and in Trinidad we were in places that you'd never film in. Basically, we took over a couple warehouse spaces, like real warehouse spaces, not film sets. And we painted the windows so you couldn't see in or they couldn't see out. It did two things, it provided atmosphere and mystery visually, but also for the participants they felt they were — because I showed them everything: here's the hidden camera, here's the surveillance, here's this, here's that — so they were part of the filmmaking process, and they felt they were in a safe space to talk, to talk as long as they wanted and I would just listen. And so it's funny because the surveillance aspect of it is threatening, but because the participants knew they were being watched for the film they felt very safe. It was almost like by including them in the collaboration it empowered them, I think.

The conclusion of the film feels very open-ended to me. Do you think Perry Anderson actually was racist? Or did he even conceptually understand that he might be racist?

The first question my editor asked me when she looked at the footage she was like, "What do you think happened?" And this is my attitude: I believe the best intentions in people. Like, I believe even the worst criminals think they're doing good. Like, there's a reason why. It comes from my acting/directing background. Like, an evil person never thinks they're being evil.  

So I actually think Perry Anderson was in some ways trying to welcome the students in the old British system by calling them "Mister" instead of by their first name. Because that was the way. In Hong Kong you never addressed people as "Mina," you addressed them as "Ms. Shum." So that's what I found there. And then he probably wasn't even marking those papers. Who knows who was even marking those papers? I've read reports where it could have been a T.A. [teacher's assistant], it could have been Perry Anderson. He probably wasn't marking his own papers. He might not have even been aware. Not to absolve him of his actions because clearly something could have been handled better in terms of the administration. And I think the administration hung him up to dry a bit there, too. He just became the scapegoat. Because one person can't be the evildoer while just everyone else watches. I just don't buy that.

When you zoom out the focus from these events, the one thing that feels very clear that, sure, even though things like multicultural policies and human rights complaint offices were created, there were no winners from all this. Everyone involved suffered and nobody looked good. Are we only just now starting to be able to extract the good from this?

Yeah, there's a lot of space in the film for people to make their own decisions because there's such a lot of information. I wanted to make sure that we had emotional moments where people could just be part of the whole process and not just be fed information. And through that I hope that we can actually reflect on ourselves. I'm not trying to make a film for anti-racists to say, "Hell yeah, we hate racism." I'm trying to make a film going "Oh my god we're all in this together. How can we do better?" I want to inspire us to good. And that's everybody, that's from the keenest most soliloquy-minded person to the completely ignorant, unaware, unselfaware person. I want to include all of us in that conversation. Because it's not an empowerment to go, "OK, just urban artsies who are into documentaries will come see this film to rally around a cause they're already behind." I'm really not into preaching to the converted. I want it to be effective emotionally. And what I'm seeing right now is we're just starting, the film is just premiering, but you and I having this conversation... that's really good.

Watch the trailer for Ninth Floor:

Ninth Floor by Mina Shum, National Film Board of Canada

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