By Liam Lacey
Jaren Hayman’s documentary This Is North Preston is a kaleidoscopic look about Canada’s oldest black community, a town of three or four thousand in the metropolitan Halifax region, which was founded by several migrations of loyalists, freed slaves, and other immigrants in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. The population is stable and residents enjoy an income slightly above the provincial average.
But this historical haven for freed slaves has developed a reputation as a centre for sex trafficking, a modern form of enslavement. Some North Preston residents have protested that negative media coverage has been racialized and inaccurate. CBC, which was compelled to run corrections on an earlier story, ran a celebratory profile of the “resilient” community last September on its Now or Never podcast.
Hayman’s film is in a similarly sympathetic mode. It has a busy MTV documentary style (stuttered edits, slo-mo, musical breaks) as it canvases a range of North Preston’s stakeholders — clergy, politicians, a community activist, local and federal police, the curator of the Black Cultural Centre — who speak of a closely knit, racialized community that has an history of conflict with the police, shortages of economic opportunities and racial stereotyping.
And the crime? We hear from two women, one interviewed in shadow, who were forced into sex work by men from North Preston, their stories seem awkwardly secondary here, as if they were inserted to fill a balance requirement. The locals dispute that the group of young men known as “North Preston Finest” are a gang and the local history of pimping is even rationalized: “If it wasn’t for the pimp game, we may not have made it this far.”
While it’s understandable that Hayman gives the residents the mic rather than interrogating them, it would be helpful to hear more critical or dissenting voices. But the main frustration with This Is North Preston isn’t the content but the lack of focus. Even at a brief 77-minute running time, there are too many scenes of men in front of the local fire hall, hanging out – drinking from open cups, a close-up of a handgun in a waistband or a fat roll of cash on a card table — that makes this more like a rap video than a documentary. A couple of times, the film simply relinquishes its social documentary ambitions and turns into a music video, with local success story, crooner-rapper Just Chase, offering direct-to-camera performances.
This Is North Preston. Written and directed by Jaren Hayman. Opens May 17 in Toronto (Cineplex Cinemas Yonge-Dundas) and Halifax (Cineplex Cinemas Dartmouth Crossing).