Africville featured in unconventional 'live documentary'

Africville church commemorated, 50 years after demolition

Cyrus Sundar Singh's latest piece has all the elements of a traditional documentary — a narrator, interviews, archival footage and a musical score. The difference is it's being performed live as part of Toronto's Hot Docs film festival.

Sundar Singh will be conducting the piece in two locations simultaneously beginning at 8 p.m. AT Wednesday at the Africville Museum in Halifax and the First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Toronto.

The performance is free for audience members in Halifax and $22 per person in Toronto. 

The 90-minute piece, called Africville in Black and White, tells the story of the night in 1967 when the City of Halifax bulldozed the Seaview African United Baptist Church to the ground.

"When people woke up in the morning, the heart and soul of the community was no more," Sundar Singh told CBC's Information Morning.

Unconventional format

Sundar Singh said he plans to interview four people in each location, using Google Hangouts, interspersed with short screenings of archival film. The narrator will help stitch the pieces together, he said, and live musicians will set the mood, including a singer who will perform traditional hymns.

"It's a lot of moving parts at any one time," he said. When asked about tackling the unconventional format he said, "For me as a storyteller, I always look at not the story as much as ways of telling the story." 

Sundar Singh experimented with the "live documentary" format before, when he presented Brothers in the Kitchen at last year's Hot Docs. That production, which took place in a fully functional restaurant, told the story of Tamils fleeing civil war in Sri Lanka and finding asylum in Canada.

Sundar Singh said he does plan to film the production — "I am documenting the documentary" — but the focus will be on the experience for the audience. "The audience, for me, is complicit in any story," he said.

Why Africville?

Sundar Singh said he met many Nova Scotians with roots in Africville as a touring musician, and the story "sat with me for decades."

In 2014, he visited Halifax with his family and made a point of visiting Africville, which was an off-leash dog park at the time. "The penny dropped," he said, adding that the apology and subsequent attempts by city officials to make amends didn't go far enough.