11/28/2012 05:47 EST | Updated 01/28/2013 05:12 EST

What Are the Poor's Most Valuable Items?


As part of the "Why Poverty?" campaign, TVO presents documentaries by filmmakers who are passionately committed to shining a light on the human condition and all of its successes and struggles. As it is with their films, the views expressed in TVO's "Why Poverty?" blog series are solely the opinion of the filmmaker.

I never thought that I would be thinking about treasures while making a documentary about poverty. But life is full of surprises, and last August I found myself scrupulously examining the most-prized possessions of Toronto's poor. And I must say, I was impressed.

This auditing of a poor man's treasures began because I was desperate to break into the small, but well-fortified universe of film and television in Toronto. I was told that all I needed was to prove that my 20 years of experience with the world's largest and internationally known media outlets stood for something.

Just as I was going crazy from too little work, my dear friend and mentor, the accomplished Canadian filmmaker Shelley Saywell, mentioned that TVO was looking for strong ideas for short documentaries on a subject which seemed rather gloomy -- poverty. It was for the global Why Poverty? initiative, designed to get people talking about various sides of the lives of the disadvantaged. I wouldn't say this subject was on my list of priorities, but work is work, and I ventured out onto the streets of Toronto. Shelley instructed me, "The idea for your film should be very unusual and radical."

I should have known that in the city often rated as the happiest place on earth, even the lives of the poor have a magical reflection. There are many homeless people in Toronto. Some of them are drug addicts or alcoholics; others are lost and depressed souls. Some sip Tim Hortons coffee in the mornings, others prefer Listerine (and not because they are concerned with the cleanliness of their mouths, but because of its high alcohol content). Some venture onto grandiose drinking sprees when their welfare cheques arrive, others think of how to spend this unimpressive amount of money ($500-$800 a month) wisely. Also, there are many poor people who have homes and even jobs -- the only problem is that their pay is so low that they are officially the "working poor." So I came across nothing unusual or striking, until the day when I walked by the corner of Bathurst and Queen Street West.

Sitting on a blue blanket was a woman, with a fresh manicure. Instead of busying herself with the usual routines of the poor, she was drawing a colorful dragonfly. In her bag she had a collection of crayons and paints. While scribbling something in her journal, she was smiling. As I observed her, I suddenly recalled the day when I was forced out of my beloved country.


Back in the winter of 2009-2010, when Nazi symbols and threats to "liberals and faggots" appeared on the door to my home and scary looking guys were loitering around my building, I suddenly realized that leaving my home country was now inevitable. With that decision, the need to pack my whole life into pretty much two suitcases appeared.

Why was I thinking about that winter on that busy Toronto street corner? It's simple: when stepping into the road, you can only take a few of your most valuable things. When living on the street, there are only a few things you can possess, so this homeless woman, and I an accomplished journalist, had to face the cruel reality which stripped us of almost everything except a few real treasures and sentiments.

Back in that winter of 2009-2010, I knew exactly what to take. I had a couple of hours for packing. At first there was nothing unusual in terms of what I thought I needed most on the road: documents, credit cards, and money. And out of all my very expensive possessions, I chose to put into my bag, my teddy bears.

I could never imagine that my 34-year-old stuffed teddy bear named Frankie would become a refugee. He got his nickname from Frankenstein because of scars left on his body after endless surgeries I performed on him when I was six (I wanted to become a doctor, like my mother). I simply could not leave him behind.

Then two other white bears, called Busiki, jumped into my carry-on backpack. They were given to me several years before by one very special friend and quickly became my travel companions and talismans. Such a choice is perhaps, puzzling, and weird, but to me was the only logical one. It happened, I guess, because of similar reasons for which crayons and the journal have become the link with dreams and aspirations for this homeless woman (her name is Amy).

Once I realized we had this interesting connection, I struck up a conversation with her. She was so positive -- it was unbelievable! This is how the idea for a short documentary about the most valuable things of the homeless was born, and this is how my short doc titled The Treasure came about.

After Amy, I spoke with a dozen of homeless people in Toronto. Almost all had treasures of some sort: a photo of a daughter, letters written before life on the street, a cherished dream about a slice of cheese cake or a bowl of salad. It was uplifting when people on the streets of Toronto told us that mostly they valued things of a non-material nature. But the most amazing of all was that homeless Amy. Watch it and be inspired by a person we are so used to looking down on.