Toronto , Canada

The World in Ten Blocks

Lost Time Media

April 29, 2017

An interactive documentary provides a unique window into the lives of immigrant entrepreneurs in one of the most diverse neighbourhoods, in the most diverse city in the world.

When childhood friends Marc Serpa Francoeur and Robinder Uppal moved to Toronto to study Documentary Media at Ryerson University, they found inspiration in their new neighbourhood. Unlike other parts of Toronto known informally by their predominant (or former/historical) ethnic group, like Little Italy, Greektown, or Chinatown, Bloorcourt  is a unique island of diversity within the diverse city. The immigrant entrepreneurs who line Bloorcourt’s main commercial artery became their documentary subjects.

After five years of embedded film making, the result is “The World in Ten Blocks,” a documentary film in two formats: a standard documentary film, and a ground breaking interactive online documentary. The standard film follows the story of immigrant entrepreneurs along a seven-theme narrative that mirrors the immigration experience. Viewers discover the richness of the immigration experience through the film’s conversations.

These are immigration and entrepreneurship success stories, although not without struggle. The businesses inevitably become important community hubs, places of mentorship and support for other immigrants. Businesses may seem like unusual hubs for immigrant inclusion and sources of settlement. Not in the typical immigration narrative:

From national to neighbourhood

The interactive documentary brings you onto the street itself. You follow the film makers, from business to business, with historical snippets about immigration in the neighbourhood along the way. You’re on the street with them, getting to know the community. It’s a bit of a choose your own adventure; you decide how much or how little of each subject you want to view and learn about.

Online attention can be notoriously short. But, when your attention is captured, it can also be long. Serpa Francoeur says that “one of the strengths of the project is that it’s not predicated upon a linear viewing or experience of the community. Our intention was to allow for different levels of engagement.”

Viewers can “snack” the community, and come back later for more. Or, they can go through every nook and cranny of the interactive film in an experience that mirrors a Netflix binge.

You can’t help but dive in.

Viewers come away with a deep sense of the resilience of immigrants, and independent community entrepreneurs. It’s an overarching theme in both films. Serpa Francoeur says the idea of resilience was not easy to broach with their interview subjects: “To get at that more meta expression of resilience, you come to it in a round about way. That was part of our role, to stitch things together. That might even be the single most substantive and overarching theme and commonality between peoples’ stories. Whatever your trials and tribulations are, the challenges, but also the victories and successes, resilience is common to them all.”

The approach

You can’t help but want to know more about Serpa Francoeur and Uppal’s subjects. The film makers not only lived in the community, but spent much time with their subjects, over five years. As the connections deepened, people became more comfortable and more open. “There’s an inherent value to speak to people who aren’t normally spoken to, or asked for interviews,” says Serpa Francoeur. “Those people who are so confident in the immateriality of what they have to say. A lot of people would say ‘Why do you want to talk to me? My English isn’t good.’ Or ‘Go talk to the community leader.’” The results illustrate how every immigrant’s experience is inherently interesting.

Spending five years to film, produce and learn a new technology (Uppal learned how to code to create the interactive version!) requires resources, connections and support.

They credit their professor, Richard Lachman, at Ryerson University’s Documentary Media MFA Program as a major influence and support. Ryerson’s Transmedia Zone gave them access to gear and other support to set up mobile screenings at Hot Docs and Nuit Blanche, and this year, Making Peace. Along the way, they won a small financial award at Ryerson, Partnership for Change: The RBC Immigrant, Diversity and Inclusion Project at Ryerson University, to continue the work.
It’s also no small task to get it in front of an audience. They partnered with the Globe and Mail, giving them a national reach.

The result?

The result is not only a great film. Francoeur and Uppal have created an innovative storytelling approach that enlarges our understanding of immigrant entrepreneurs, their experiences and how their businesses shape our neighbourhoods. The viewer travels through and truly experiences the world in these ten blocks.

There are lessons for documentarians, but, also for the immigrant and refugee settlement sector. It’s a model that can be easily transplanted and replicated in any city. City actors already see possibilities in how the interactive approach communicates the local to viewers.

There is interest in bringing “The World in Ten Blocks” to cities across the world. A city actor in Rome sees a market, not a street, as the focus. In Delhi, internal rural-urban migrants would be the focus. The possibilities are endless to showcase local place-based diversity and community.

The immigration conversation everywhere has its ebbs and flows. Currently, it’s a Canadian obsession. Serpa Francoeur and Uppal’s contribution is to showcase how neighbourhood prosperity can be built on a foundation of diversity and inclusion. It’s a lesson any city can look to for inspiration.

Making it Work for You:

  • Be present in the community you want to document. Building relationships takes persistence. Build on their sense of individual or community pride. Take the time to let them express themselves naturally. Instead of having them sit down for a short interview, follow them along their day, let the conversation unfold.
  • Concision is important in the narrative story-telling, especially online. Even though the subject matter of immigration is complex, work hard to keep your narrative simple.
  • Spending 40 minutes is a tough sell for a viewer. However, if you design things so there are different levels of engagement, from snackable to deep dive, the viewer may end up taking the time to view the entire project.
  • Don't be intimidated by the technological component. Online platforms are becoming easier and easier to use. There are so many stories to be told. There are a lot of ways to do it. The advent of cheap digital cameras, and good cameras on phones, has democratized things dramatically. And also made things like editing on your phones incredibly accessible. Utilize your skill set. If you're a photographer, start with photos. Augment from there.

For this Good Idea contact:

Marc Serpa Francoeur, Lost Time Media
Toronto, Canada,

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