‘On Me’ is about free expression in a society that systematically represses it. Neutral street portraits of everyday Torontonians are sequenced with mural faces painted on cement walls. A deliberate contrast is added to the murals, drawing a distinction between the face and the wall itself. This poses the question of whether the characters represented by the faces are separable entities – from the foundation that holds them. The mural faces and neutral portraits watch as dancers transgress society’s rules with a taboo public performance. Freed by the dance, the neutral portraits are able to smile and laugh.
Music: ‘On Me’ by Crimdella // @blackzeusx
Dancers: Jazzy-J, Snoop, Lua Shayenne
Toronto has been good to me.
That was hard to admit, since my high school self wants to claim Vancouver as Canada’s best city. My memories of Toronto as a university student in London, Ontario, were not very fond either. Having spent the majority of my elementary school days in Seoul after a 4 year stint in small towns across the USA, I developed a rather snobbish view of so-called ‘big cities’. I remember looking at Toronto’s skyscrapers through the window of the Megabus, thinking: ‘Wow, this could be it!’
But as I ventured around the city, I realized how disappointingly square it was. Toronto looked like any other city that I’ve been to in North America. My university friends born and raised in Toronto swore that their city was fashionable and internationally distinguished, but to me it blended in – I’ve already seen a space needle in Seattle.
Recently, I was forced to move (that is, deported) to Toronto from New York City after my US work visa was rejected at the Toronto/Buffalo border. This came as a huge shock, since I believed that my visa would be processed with ease given the time and effort I put into building my case while working in NYC. Worse, the rejection also came with a gruesome lecture from an ageing redneck posing as a border control officer, informing me that immigrants like me should be ‘honoured’ that America has even let me stay there to study and work for a brief time. I wonder if he saw in his computer screen that our family had been invited to his country in the 90’s, but was appalled to see that my patriot Korean pops had rejected the green card (thanks a lot, pops).
That was late March, a month filled with anger and confusion. April was a month of denial – I tried to rebuild my case to return to NYC. June was acceptance. I wasn’t going to be let back into the USA and that I had run out of money. To top it all off, a collections agency found out that I was back in town and started calling me every day demanding that I pay my student loans back. For a moment, I tried getting an entry level job in the creative and fashion industry in Toronto, with no luck. So I desperately started to work part-time as a bartender, and full-time at a copy centre making minimum wage. The only thing that kept me going was the hope that I would save enough money to have my visa processed for the UK, where even if I had to start all over again, I can at least do so in a city with a bigger industry.
I was lucky. I had childhood friends from Vancouver, and old university friends in Toronto to support me through this hellscape. A meal here and there, words of encouragement, and the occasional spliff to ease the pain. I kept my head up and kept working.
In mid-June, my good friend Crimdella sent me early mixes of songs from his EP, ‘Bury Me in Gold’. I would listen to it while commuting between my makeshift room in Kensington Market to my soul wrenching job at the copy centre. ‘On Me’ was the particular song that I was obsessed with since it dealt with themes of moving on from past negativities – a situation I related to a lot during that time. So with a notepad in hand, I would draw out pictures and write ideas that came to mind. At home, I finger painted on dollar store canvases to see where the song took me. Eventually, the song envisioned itself to me as a short film with the statement mentioned above. I dedicated the small amount of spare time I had off between work to capture footage of the city that held me in limbo. I stopped people in the streets for portraits, but also backtracked on people that I was briefly acquainted with to capture them in their environment (My favourite one being the Filipino kids at the summer basketball courts). I asked friends to pose for me when they got off work. I setup countless meetings with dancers that I wanted to collaborate with until finally I met Jazzy-J, Snoop, and Lua Shayenne who all graced me with their talents. This went on well into the last day of October.
By November, I had received my UK visa, had moved out from my room in Kensington Market, and was settling in at a friend’s couch in City Place (that 15 Fort York shit). I gave away my editing PC, so I had to use my 2 hours/day pass at the media room of the public library. Slightly over a week in, the film was ready to go, and I was left astonished at how fast time flew as this project swallowed my life in Toronto. After getting kicked out of the library for using my daily 2 hours at the media room, I lay on my friend’s bed, not knowing how to spend the rest of the day. I wasn’t working at the club or the copy centre anymore, and my project was complete. I called up a friend and went to have a cigarette with him on his balcony. With my mind at peace, I silently zoned out staring into the Toronto skyline, then glanced over at my friend who was heating up dinner for me with his wife. It seemed like it was yesterday when homeland security gave me 3 days to pack my stuff and leave NYC. Exactly one week later, I would be flying to London to do it all over again. My friend came out on the balcony and we smoked.
Thank you, Toronto. You been real nice to me.
Shy mural artist dude, the lil homies at the Dufferin basketball court, chill skater dudes next to the ball court, smoke shop dude next to Kensington, Mr. Lewis Hwang the newly wed, the homie Jerry Asamoah, the amazing Julia Crimson, Sarah Fenwick & Thea Acierno, Jazzy-J’s crew (Jonathan & Meighan), the random citizen in the construction worker dude, old sunglasses lady that smokes in Kensington Market everyday, yawning Rottweiler puppy doge, MORBA Toronto for letting me shoot inside their store, old Chinese dude smoking in Chinatown, Andrew Vaz for letting me shoot him when he had tacos ready to eat, Sarah Choi for being patient and a dope brother, Kevin Devereux for looking so tough, Snoop’s crew (Dannah & Altisha), annoyed biker dude that still let me shoot him, Miatta Aminata & her friend that came to help out after work, random street encounter with Bana Kidane, lawyer dude Iliad Nazhad, monk ladies from France, Desroy & dancing friend in Kensington Market, Ali Asghar for the car ride around Toronto, Mark Grimsrud & Emma Tanaka on top of Spider Bridge, and Aubrey Graham.