Filmmaker Michelle Latimer has long been a fan of hip-hop music — her first concert was a Maestro Fresh Wes gig in Thunder Bay, Ontario — but researching and filming "Alias," her new documentary exploring the Toronto rap scene, she became much more than a fan. In getting to know the artists that make up the city's homegrown scene, their families, their art and their struggles, she became one of Toronto hip-hop's most passionate defenders.
Latimer was first inspired to look deeper into the scene when someone told her about Alias Donmillion, a MuchMusic Video Award-nominated rapper whose promising career had been stalled by a prison sentence for shooting his gun during Caribana.
"He was actually framed in the same sentence as Tupac and Biggie and I thought that was really interesting," she recalls.
The filmmaker contacted Donmillion after his release from prison and he welcomed her — and, eventually, her film crew — into the fold.
"I reached out to him and he sort of brought me into the rap world and the Toronto scene and I started hanging out," she says.
Latimer spent the next four years getting to know the artists and promoters that made up the scene and convincing them to be a part of the film she was planning. The documentary, she promised, would be an honest representations of their lives and their art. She had no interest in playing into any tired stereotypes about crime and violence, especially as it related to rap music.
Some artists were more eager to get on board than others. Trench, who met Latimer a couple of years into her research, was always eager to be a part of the project. Despite being a quiet and mild-mannered person who prefers to express himself through his music, he was more than willing to open up his life to the cameras for the sake of the film and its vision.
"Most definitely it was a go for me right away," he says. "If I was able to be in the film, I was definitely down from the start."
Alkatraz was far more wary about his involvement.
"I felt like it was kind of an intrusion into my life," he admits. "I was real skeptical about doing it at first, and I had to run some background checks on Michelle and her team just to make sure. She pretty much had to convince me what the film was targeting and what it was about, because I didn't want to be a stereotype of any type. But she said it was going to be breaking barriers where we'd show stuff that's different than the regular stereotype that comes with the hip-hop industry and the artists involved in that."
"I remember, very early on, he was very upfront," Latimer adds. "He put me on the spot and said ‘What is this film about, really?' And I said I can't make this film without knowing that I'm safe and that I can have my crew there. He said ‘I'll tell you what, I'll give you safety if you promise not to sell me out.' and we did a handshake deal. It was a really interesting moment of the filmmaker trusting the person who's going to be in the film and vise versa. It was a huge trust and I feel like it paid off. I feel like we made the film together."
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The film they made is a remarkably personal and unflinching portrayal of the hardships of its five subjects (Alias Donmillion, Trench, Alkatraz, Keon Love and Mr. Knia) that explores their lives as a whole. It tackles both art and family. It juxtaposes public personas with private lives. It even manages to document both legal issues and LSATs. Throughout it all, the documentary lives up to its original promise: it really does break barriers and challenge all sorts of preconceived notions about Toronto hip-hop.
This representation was incredibly important to Latimer. Coming from a First Nations background, she knew firsthand what it felt like to have her community misrepresented in the media and constantly derided in the court of public opinion. As such, she wanted to help challenge that perception in any way she could.
"Growing up mixed, First Nations and not and sort of straddling both worlds... I think, actually, with Idle No More, it's gotten worse. For instance, you go to an Idle No More article and you see the readers' comments. It's awful," says Latimer. "You're really seeing the dredge of what's coming up. And I feel it's the same with the black community, especially rap, because every time there's some gun violence or something that happens in Toronto, I watch these things and they set it to rap music or they'll slip in ‘Oh, he was a rapper.'"
"I was just wondering..." Alkatraz adds wryly. "When you listen to rock music, these guys are eating snakes and stuff like that. When a cult is formed in Oklahoma, I don't really hear that Pink Floyd's got a problem. And I was just wondering, why is that? Something happens in the streets and all of a sudden the media finds every single thing on YouTube and puts it up."
While Alias hasn't managed to completely turn the tide on Toronto rap stereotyping, at least not yet, "Alias" has been inspiring a lot of discussion and receiving its fair share of praise since debuting at the Hot Docs International Film Festival this past weekend. Latimer is absolutely thrilled with the response to her work so far.
"I have to tell you, when you make a film, you never know how it's going to be received. You just don't know until it's out there and I was so worried, especially right now because the climate is so hot for gun violence. I thought maybe the message would be missed. But I'm actually really happy that people seem to be embracing the fact that it's trying to show another angle and I'm so relived. We worked for four years. It makes me feel that it was worth it, that it's doing something."