How to Enjoy Yourself in the Downtown Eastside
by Clint Burnham
Screened recently at the Toronto and Vancouver film festivals, Luk’Luk’I is the first feature by Métis-settler director Wayne Wapeemukwa, a stunning hybrid that mashes up documentary, fiction, and re-enactment to tell the story of Vancouver’s skid row denizens during the 2010 Winter Olympics. An unblinking portrait of Vancouver’s marginalized – from the disabled to sex trade workers, the Indigenous to a transwoman, drug addicts to fractured families – the film accomplishes this, incredibly, not so much through gritty realism as through a depiction of how these subjects imagine their worlds. Even the film’s title –the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ word for Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside – in its homonym-like proximity to “luck lucky” suggests the role of the contingent, the accidental, the sheer luck on which both life, and art, depend.
Early on, for example, we meet Eric, a white drug addict, hanging and playing video games with his Indigenous buddy Mark. The camera cuts back and forth between these two fellows and the computer screen on which they play their race car game. Suddenly, with little explanation, Eric decides to send a text on the game’s message board to his estranged son. This scene, with the two half-drunk dudes trying to text using a video game controller, is brilliant, sort of a digital pathos, a remake of Allan King’s 1957 documentary Vancouver’s Skid Row for millennials. So, too, the courtship between Ken, a severely disabled actor in a wheelchair, and a young guy he plays bingo with, has amazing dignity. Then we have Angel, an Indigenous sex trade worker (who plays herself, and appeared in Wapeemukwa’s short Balmoral Hotel in 2014), turning tricks between trying to get together presents for her daughter and keep her little dog from biting clients. And of course Roller Girl – a well-known East Van personality – mouths off at hockey fans, argues with a hapless animator, and has a run-in with the cops.
Shots again and again show us mirrors, windows, screens, not simply as accidental features of urban interiors and exteriors, but as if to suggest that the fantasy images of everyday life are as relevant to existence as so-called reality. Other shots are almost like stills, framed, to allow the rich colours of exteriors – lit-up Downtown Eastside architecture that recall the photography of Arni Haraldsson or Stan Douglas, or tight shots of a bingo caller that with sparkling lights and tinsel drapery, remind any viewer who has been in such venues of their glam dignity. In an early sequence in Angel’s bedroom after a john leaves, we see out her windown into other apartments, to remind us, via these portals, how the sex trade is not somewhere “else”, but is right “here,” with us. So, too, a scene where Angel is shopping in a dollar store for presents begins shot in an convex mirror hanging in the corner of the shop, as if to remind the viewer that Lacan’s mirror stage is, for many of these residents, more of a surveillance technique than a vanity set-up.
Indeed, the policing, and incarceration, of DTES residents on an everyday basis is a through-line of the film. Two scenes in particular stand out. A voice begins: “Jeff, Jeffrey Dawson, is that it, Jeff, is that your name?” And we see Roller Girl in the back of a police cruiser, a female officer speaking to her. “My name’s Angela Dawson, OK,” Roller Girl replies. The cop and her male partner call her Jeff a couple more times, to which Roller Girl retorts “screw you.” And following Roller Girl’s altercation with hockey fans, the film shows that this “misgendering” takes place in a clear situation of the neighborhood’s gentrification: “people are trying to have fun,” the cop tells her, “and you’re causing problems.” Later, in a jailhouse medical room, Roller Girl tells the staff that she needs her dilator. Denied this, we then see Roller Girl in a full-on dream sequence, complete with burlesque female cops on rollerblades, to EDM beats. And what is amazing here is that not only are these scenes based on actual encounters, but Roller Girl won $15,000 in a human rights complaint with the Vancouver Police Department in 2015. Such mixtures of fantasy and realism accomplish a politics that unsettled, rather than reassure, audiences.
Which isn’t to say the film doesn’t push buttons – or, to use the parlance of the day, trigger viewers. In one scene, Eric shoots up while we hear a broadcast commentary on Sidney Crosby’s winning goal in the hockey game – once in a lifetime in that breathless way sports commentators hyperbolize. And of course, we have seen scenes of drug use all too often in cultural and media representations of the Downtown Eastside. And yet the juxtaposition here is telling: on the one hand we have sanctioned enjoyment – the spectacle of millionaire chasing a puck around the ice; on the other, we have a jouissance that we are either to squeamish or too politically correct to admit still goes on. Like the cop tells Roller Girl, “people are trying to have fun.”
The film’s final scene – where Angel is picked up by a murderous trick – is similarly troubling. Not a visual representation of Canada’s national tragedy of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls – this scene is perhaps harder to take, for in effect we hear, but do not see Angel’s murder. And yet, again, one can perhaps see the value in such an aesthetic choice. Like much of the film’s disjunction between diegetic sound and visuals, the death of Angel, like the death of so many, from opiates, from violence, from, let us be frank, social neglect – is what we both see and hear, and yet do not. It is the obscenity of what philosophers calls “moral luck” that some of us can watch this film, while others are doomed to live it.