When Catherine Hernandez set out to bring her beloved novel Scarborough to the big screen, she turned to Compy Films—a media production company run by directors Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson—to give the film its raw, fly-on-the-wall aesthetic. Despite a rookie cast and a microscopic budget, the poignant coming-of-age story became the breakout hit of TIFF last year. Here, festival CEO Cameron Bailey reflects on what the film’s success means for Canadian cinema.
“I first met Catherine Hernandez five years ago, when she was a guest at Reel Talk, one of our subscriber events. Her novel Scarborough had just come out, and her dream was to have it made into a movie. Her passion for the project—and for cinema in general—was palpable.
“You never know how a film is going to turn out. There are thousands of decisions that go into the final product. But, when Scarborough was submitted to TIFF, we were thrilled. It premiered at the festival last year, and the theatre was packed. People came from Scarborough and other suburbs to see their experience reflected on screen. The response was electric. There was a sense of finally—finally a story that feels like something we recognize. Toronto’s inner suburbs haven’t been part of the cinematic imagination of this country the way that rural Quebec or the Atlantic Coast or the Prairies have. But Toronto’s suburbs—which are where I grew up—are really rich with culture. And having a movie named after your neighbourhood? That’s a big deal.
“It’s not uncommon for filmmakers to go into a community that they don’t know well. That’s not the case with Scarborough. The film feels like it’s entirely of that place. Catherine lived there for many years, and you can feel that authenticity on screen. It’s also in the filmmaking. Shasha and Rich come from a documentary background, and you can see that in how close the camera gets to the characters. You’re in their spaces, in their apartments, in the social services offices with them. You can’t keep their world at a distance—you have to embrace it.
“It used to be that small-town, rural stories were seen as the most Canadian. But Scarborough reflects the rich mix of cultures and the immigrant experience, and in a city where half the residents are born outside the country, that’s really central to who we are. This is just one of countless Scarborough stories, and everyone involved with the film knows it doesn’t say everything. But it’s a start, and it’s an inspiration. And now we can say that a story from an immigrant suburb is a Canadian story too.”