When I first started at Concordia University in Montreal, news magazine Macleans had ranked the school as an embarrassing 11 nation-wide. The only Macleans measure on which we could chant “We’re number 1! We’re number 1!” was student activism. (Im)famous at the time (I have no idea if this has held true 15 years later) for its student protests, the Concordia Student Union refused to keep quiet on issues of social justice. During my undergraduate orientation, some sneaky CSU reps took some of us aside and told us their side of their conflict with the university’s administration. They told us one story (which, as I recall, they neglected to mention happened 32 years prior) about blatant racism on the part of one professor and the administration in general and how several students held their ground and seized the Sir George Williams campus’ computer room for two weeks until their demands were met.
This incident that I now know happened in early 1969 is the subject of Ninth Floor, which premiered Saturday night as part of the TIFF Docs program. Director Mina Shun makes her documentary debut and at times fails to ask the questions I would have liked to hear the answer to. Even onstage she seemed to still be adjusting to her new title of documentarian- accidentally referring to her participants as “cast members” more than once and even referring to one partipant’s tearful interview as his “Oscar moment”. Overall though, this is a POWERFUL film about an important two weeks in Canadian history and gets bonus points for searching for the roots of racism instead of taking the easier road of labelling some as the Bad Guys. Even professor Perry Anderson- who was the subject of the students’ original complaint- is treated with some compassion. The screening concluded with four of the film’s “cast members” – three participants in the occupation (one of whom later went on to become Canada’s first black Senator) as well as Professor Anderson’s son- taking the stage to a standing ovation in one of the most moving of my TIFF moments.
Both onstage and onscreen, the interviewees often speak of their actions in 1969 as those of young naive kids. I never speak up during question periods but what I wanted to tell them- but didn’t dare- was the ongoing tradition on campus of retelling against injustice and the pride with which my generation- all these years later- speak of their actions.