Film Discussion Interviews & Profiles

Union Street – An interview with director Jamila Pomeroy – VIFF 2023

Head shot by Tyler Scomazzon.

50 years ago, the construction of the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts in Vancouver destroyed Hogan’s Alley and the neighbourhood surrounding it, displacing the Black community that lived there and forcing many families to leave the city. Local filmmaker Jamila Pomeroy’s new film Union Street shines a light on the history and present day community of Hogan’s Alley.

Set The Tape’s Nicholas Lay sat down with Jamila at VIFF 2023 to discuss the legacy of Hogan’s Alley, the continued impact of its destruction, and the African-Canadian experience in Vancouver.

Nicholas Lay: As an African-Canadian Vancouverite in 2023, what inspired you to document the history and legacy of Hogan’s Alley?

Jamila Pomeroy: My dad immigrated to Canada from Kenya as a refugee and we lived in the suburbs, so I did not have direct ties to the people who would have lived in the historic neighbourhood, but growing up in Vancouver I always had this looming thought: “Where are all the Black people?”. I did not see myself represented in media in Canada and there were no Black cultural events while growing up in the ’90s and 2000s. We’d see events celebrating cultural elements from elsewhere in the world, but the whole continent of Africa was always missing as part of this multi-cultural conversation.

I remember thinking, “Why doesn’t anyone look like my family; why are people treating us differently?”. Then in 2008, I learned about Hogan’s Alley. I left the suburbs and started to look into the history of the neighbourhood, and it became clear that the city had committed cultural genocide not just within a two-block radius, but against the wider Black community. The residents of Hogan’s Alley faced the same issues as Black residents across a much larger geographical area, from the tail end of Chinatown down to Hastings-Sunrise. The city has made a very large effort to hide the history, belittle the experience, and make it as small a tragedy as possible.

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NL: The film covers the past, but also spends a lot of time in the present. Was that the plan or did it evolve organically?

JP: I wanted to make a contemporary documentary in a poetic structure with a non-linear story that bounced back and forth across different eras between history and the present. I wanted it to be a film about the Black experience in Vancouver and not just a historical film. Had we just leaned on the history, it would have been easier for people to check out from the issues and look at it as just a thing that happened in the past. It’s harder for people to take action when they don’t see the communities in questions, and the people, who are perhaps into the same things as they are. It would have had a very different impact if we stuck an older professor in there as our historian and did it in a less modern way, sitting in the library or an archive.

Instead, we had our community consultant Josh provide the history, and that helped us lean on the present to show how this series of events continues to impact us. I wanted to showcase that history, but also to ensure people understand that history is not only the past. When it comes to Black history, it’s vey easy for people to think about this terrible thing that happened long ago, but this really wasn’t that long ago. We’re talking about things that were happening in the ’60s through to the late-’70s, so it was important for me to bring people in who did not have a historical connection to the neighbourhood, to prove that the the effects the city’s actions had on the original community are still being felt by Black residents today.

NL: You highlight several local residents of the current neighbourhood. What drew you to them and their individual stories?

JP: I already knew a couple of people who appear in the film. One person I obviously know very well is Abdul, who’s my dad. In Kenyan culture it’s important to have an elder present when telling a story, and my dad also does the intro and outro voiceovers, which is another typical aspect of Kenyan storytelling.

The Black community in Vancouver is quite small, so even if I didn’t know everyone directly they were usually friends of friends of friends in some way. It was important to create an ensemble of Black community members from different intersections with vastly different upbringings and cultural experiences, whether they be first generation, Canadian, or have just moved here during the last few years. I wanted to showcase the diversity of where people are from across the massive continent of Africa and tell a story that demonstrates the different experiences of people in the Black community.

NL: Did you have a particular audience in mind as you were making the film?

JP: There’s not many African-Canadian films out there to begin with. There’s a lot of African-American films, but I don’t know of any that are focused on the African-Canadian experience. The films I do know of are very geared towards the white gaze or educating people who are not African-Canadian, instead of being made for, or celebrating the African-Canadian community. I wanted this to be a celebratory piece for that community and allow them to actually see themselves represented in an authentic way. It’s not just about helping people understand the history from an outside perspective, it is more both sides of the coin.

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NL: How do you perceive Vancouver’s attitude towards the historical and present day Hogan’s Alley?

JP: It’s quite disappointing and disheartening how the city has interacted with the original families who lived in the area. The city’s actions triggered a mass exodus of families to the point where that history is all but gone. When I first started thinking about the film, I wanted to find the original families and have them involved, but as I researched them I found that most had moved to Seattle.

The homes of some families were completely destroyed with their belongings still inside and they felt so unwelcome in Vancouver that they packed up what they had, got on the train by Main Street, and went down to Seattle, which was one of the next stops on the line. What happened in Vancouver is partially responsible for Seattle having such a large Black community, and I don’t think the city of Vancouver wants to acknowledge that mass exodus. In fact, the exodus allowed the city to paint its own version of the story, because there aren’t people here to explain what really happened, or that things were much worse than they have been portrayed.

It’s so sad that we are still having to try and prove to the city that a whole new generation of African-Canadians and the African diaspora are still feeling the effects of this. It is not a historical thing, it is about how people now do not have access to their own community because they have been systemically denied spaces to share together. You see pockets of it elsewhere in Vancouver, like Commercial Drive that’s known to be an Italian community, Chinatown, and areas of Kitsilano that are known to have lots of Greek families. Yet the Black community has been denied not only any sort of space to congregate and celebrate out culture, but cultural sovereignty in general, which is so important to protecting and passing down culture.

NL: What can Vancouver do to end systemic racism against its Black community? Is there any hope of real progress?

JP: It’s a much bigger issue than people realise, and with this film I hope people will be ready to start having that conversation around reconciliation for the Black community. It’s not just about putting up a statue or a historical banner referencing Hogan’s Alley. Instead, we should be asking how do we encourage the Black community to take up space, continue ancestral teachings, and have a place for African culture in the city.

Our ensemble of residents in the film are inspiring and there are a lot of great community movers and shakers that prove there is a way forward, despite the adversity they have faced. Roger, the owner of Rise Up Marketplace, is an example of someone who is really crafting community. I have definitely seen a positive shift within the Black community since I started making the film, and there is self-empowerment there, but I have not seen the same from outside the Black community.

When I look at the city’s redevelopment plan for that area, there are systemic factors that put the bulk of the the work on the Black community. Not only do we need to advocate, but we need to fundraise and plan, and these roles add up to a lot of unpaid labour within the community. It would be beautiful to see an effort made that doesn’t lean on free Black labour, which defeats the purpose of trying to right this terrible thing that happened, and still negatively impacts the community today. We shouldn’t need to ask permission for space and then have to bear the brunt of the work required to get it.

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NL: This is your debut feature as director. What else have you got in the pipeline?

JP: I’m starting on a new feature this fall, which I’m really excited about it. It’s called Muzizi, which means “roots” in Swahili, and it’s about the African-Canadian food scene. I went to culinary school and studied food anthropology, and food and community are really central to the work that I want to do in the film industry. Union Street made me think about so many other subjects, so I think this will be the first of many African-Canadian documentaries that I work on. Muzizi will look at the lack of African-Canadian food in our grocery stores and restaurant scene, and will help people understand why we don’t see African-Canadian food compared to other foods that are more readily available. We’ll be going to home cook kitchens and highlighting the aunties, mums, and grandmas who’re keeping the traditions alive behind closed doors.

NL: Finally, are there any films or filmmakers you want to shout out at this year’s VIFF?

JP: Definitely. The cinematographer I worked with on Union Street, Liam Mitchell, has another film at VIFF called Hey Viktor! I watched Smoke Screens as a kid so I’m very excited for that one, it looks like a very funny film and Liam’s an amazing cinematographer. Another BC film to look out for is Seagrass and I’m also looking forward to Physician, Heal Thyself with Gabor Maté. I’ve loved his work for a long time so I’m excited to see that one.

NL: Great chatting with you, Jamila.

JP: Thank-you so much!

Union Street is playing at VIFF 2023 and will be available on streaming and cable in Canada later this year.

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