South Hill inside Stories opens up a community
// Claire McGillivray

Imagine if you knew all of your neighbours by name. Now, imagine if you knew their life story. South Hill Inside Stories is a project that was created to showcase personal anecdotes from residents of Vancouver’s South Hill neighbourhood, which spans across Fraser St. from around 33rd Ave. down to Marine Drive. The project was partially inspired by active community member Susan Faendrich-Findlay and brought to life by award winning documentary filmmaker Shannon Wild, with the talented brother-sister team of web designer Jeremy Mendes and photographer Shannon Mendes.

The project aims to address a challenge which had been put to them as artists, which was, as Wild puts it, “How are you going to break down barriers between neighbours in South Hill?” The answer to this question came in the form of candid and emotional story-telling from the residents of South Hill, as featured on a multimedia website.

In her opening remarks at a special screening of these videos on Nov. 3 at the Vancouver Public Library Central Branch, Wild quoted a gentlemen who regretfully refused the offer to be included in the collective. His words were as follows: “Fear sits right here on my shoulder, everyday. I’m not afraid of what will happen to me here in Canada, but I am afraid of the long arm of the country and the government from where I came from, and I am afraid of what will happen to my family. It makes me a conservative Canadian. I will never speak out against anything here.” Wild highlights this as “a real moment of insight” for her.

Wild describes her sadness at the loss of a story, reasoning that the loss in most cases was “because of fear … I was so sad to lose that story because I thought it gave tremendous insight into what some people feel is a kind of conservative thread that runs through immigrant communities.”

Guiding individuals to a place of vulnerability was no small challenge for the team, especially when it came to the work of photographer Shannon Mendes. During the discussion on Nov. 3, she noted one of her greatest obstacles: “There is definitely something inherently scary about the camera and when it’s pulled up and it’s pointed at you … The first hurdle in the way that I approach my work is to try to diminish that … the wall that goes up when the camera goes up.”

To create a sense of comfort, both Mendes and Wild made a point of getting to know their story-tellers on a personal level before introducing the camera or the audio recorder. “We made the point of meeting with our brave participants,” says Mendes.

For web designer Jeremy Mendes, the challenge was in the creation of an interactive space that did the storytellers justice. The visual layout for Inside Stories’ webpage, represents “that idea when you drive down a Vancouver street and all the doors are closed and there’s nobody in the yards, but you know if you could just open those doors there’d be extraordinary high-stakes driven dramas, you know it.”

The resulting design is a virtual street that gives the viewer an opportunity to open those doors. Scrolling a computer cursor down the street, the names of individuals will pop up in front of certain buildings: their homes, their businesses, or other public spaces. Clicking on any of the names will bring up a link to their story.

The individual’s narration, arranged by Wild, is accompanied by poignant black and white photographs of themselves and their environment, taken by Shannon Mendes. Each story represents a different history, composing the multitude of connections that make up a neighbourhood.

Stories showcased at VPL event included those of Erwin Cornelson, retired Mennonite pastor and German immigrant; Sherry Loof, a language buff who exchanges English tutoring for Mandarin Chinese classes with her friends; Hardeep Singh, a struggling high school student who overcame bullying; Jinder Johal, a VPL employee who struggled with family issues; and Nasrin Jamalzadah, an Afghani refugee and supportive mother of the first female Afghani- Canadian pop star, Mozhdah Jamalzadah.

Inside Stories explores the past, but also focuses on the present. At the event, they shared the stage with their neighbouring community arts groups, such as Instant Coffee, an art group that rallied businesses to let them decorate a vacant alley with bold neon pink and black stripes. Other community initiatives include the creation of a vibrant mural by artist Renée Van Halm, facilitated by Barbara Cole at the VPL South Hill branch.

Wild had two requests for audience members at the Inside Stories showcase. The first is simple: “It would be wonderful to see the stories on our website and in the park reach 1,500.” The site is being continually built upon and is open to contribution from residents of all Vancouver neighbourhoods. Wild explains the format of submissions: “You fill out a postcard … according to your country of origin and what neighbourhood you’re in now. There is a slider at the bottom where you put where your home is in your heart.”

Wild then speaks to the greater picture: the importance of creativity and fostering community. “The second request I have for you as you head out into the night,” she says, “is go forth and make art.”

// Claire McGillivray, Writer
// Illustration by Kailey Patton

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