Register Thursday | October 18 | 2018
By Any Other Name Production still by Chris Romeike and John Tran.

By Any Other Name

In Alias, director Michelle Latimer uses hip hop to shed new light on a troubled Toronto neighbourhood—and on the documentary as an art form.

Alias (Streel Films) opens with a YouTube clip of its titular subject, a Toronto rap artist, performing in a hallway. It’s not a music video; there’s no lavish lifestyle backdrop or semi-nude women gyrating. Instead, it’s just Alias, leaning into the camera and pouring his words out, surrounded by concrete under harsh fluorescent lights. Then the documentary moves into a rapidly edited sequence of security-camera footage of an alleged crime—images too often connected with hip-hop culture. This short, crucial beginning sets up the intention behind director Michelle Latimer’s first feature-length doc: to subvert the visuals typically associated with the inner city.

But Latimer’s intent runs deeper than merely taking on stereotypes. In interviews, she has said that her concerns about being perceived as a white person dropping into a minority scene are complicated by her Métis background. She knows what it is like to have expectations projected on you because of your cultural heritage and, because of this, to feel as though you are living under an alias. The title of the documentary not only refers to the profiled rapper but also invites questions about how we represent ourselves—and, more importantly, other people. Set in the Regent Park housing project in east-end Toronto, Alias follows four neighbourhood rappers, all connected by hip-hop promoter Knia. Eschewing documentary filmmaking convention, the film toys with the questions of perception and observation that are central to the genre—and is richer for it.

On the surface, Alias’ stories aren’t particularly remarkable. Alkatraz struggles to produce a music video; Trench aspires to go on a European tour; Keon Love dreams of a better life for herself and her son; Alias is forced to start again after a run-in with the law; and Knia juggles school and fatherhood along with his desire to help local artists. Their lives intersect to varying degrees, from collaborations to brief encounters at concerts, but Alias is no story of happenstance or universal connectivity. Latimer keeps the rappers’ stories fragmented, which reinforces their individuality.

This is precisely the point. So often, the media narratives surrounding Regent Park residents reduce their lives to news bites, voided of any real meaning or personality. (Latimer was inspired to make the film after reading a profile of Alias in the Toronto Star.) The director shifts the focus from crime stats, dropout rates and other hooks that frequently frame discussions of urban black youth. Instead, she trains her camera on her subject’s dreams, capturing their interiority.   

Latimer’s aim—interrogating how we depict other people—runs throughout the film. She examines not only the artists’ stage personas but also their personal lives by using small details to communicate a sense of intimacy. Alias washes his shoelaces before a show and hangs them to dry on a fan; a glue stick rolls across an inspirational collage that Keon Love is making; Knia sports a University of Toronto T-shirt and backpack while using a notepad branded with the institution’s logo. These moments speak to Latimer’s keen cinematic eye and point to each subject’s individual prides and passions. Instead of laying out their lives with on-screen text or narration, she allows their personalities to unfold through subtle cues.  

This subtlety ensures there is nothing didactic about Alias, a refreshing shift from so many “issue-based” documentaries—no talking heads or conventional sit-down interviews here. Latimer largely sticks to voiceovers, sometimes confusing the temporality of the scenes, leaving it unclear if her subjects are speaking in the moment or if the audio was previously recorded. This infuses the present with the past. As Knia plays at a pool with his daughter and her friends, the audio of the on-screen scene is lowered and he begins to talk about the paralysis of his father, who was beaten up at a dance some twenty years prior. “You can hurt somebody now,” he says, “but their grandkids can feel it.”

Latimer trains her lens on both her subjects and the city around them. For the rappers in Alias, hailing from Toronto is more than a point of pride; it’s a formative part of who they are. Alkatraz is introduced driving in his car, ruminating in voiceover about the difficulty of chasing his dreams. The urban skyline is reflected on the windshield; superimposed on him, the city is inseparable from the man. Latimer recognizes this connection between space and people, addressing the cityscape as another character in the documentary. Like the subjects of the film, Regent Park’s story is all but over-determined; the neighbourhood’s name is a synonym for inner-city poverty and crime. (The recent reconstruction of the area has started to change this perception, but history isn’t forgotten as easily as a building is rebuilt.)

Latimer paints Regent Park in a more nuanced light. At one point, Alkatraz talks about fearing for his safety in his own home as the camera pans a full 360 degrees in a housing-project courtyard. Coupled with Alkatraz’s words, the sense of entrapment is overpowering, but the moment is also marked by serene beauty. The sharp lines of the buildings against the clear sky, birds flying overheard—these concrete high-rises are not just structures but homes.

Latimer’s eye for unexpected beauty is the anchor of Alias’ strength. Although the documentary is largely shot in a cinéma-vérité style—allowing the camera to observe while the subjects go on with their lives—in two key moments it shifts, adopting a subjective (and subversive) tone. During a rap concert, the footage suddenly slows and the beats are replaced with an ambient synth track. The camera weaves seamlessly between the stage and the crowd, creating a surreal feeling of immersion. Similar footage returns at the end of the documentary, as each performer describes the power they feel onstage. “It’s like I’m floating,” says Keon Love.

This is a simple statement, but, when combined in voiceover with the slow-motion visuals, it becomes a relatable sensory experience. The sequences transcend musical genre and even physical space, capturing the power that art can grant an individual. As Alkatraz says, “Black people have been the first at being last for a long time ... I want options, I want options.” In these freeing, hallucinatory scenes, such options at last seem tangible.