Film trilogy of mental illness nears completion

Homeless and living rough in an alley, Robert Payne hugs a cat he found and named Friendly. The indie film Poetry of Payne documents his struggles.

By Peter Evanchuck

The final installment of real and raw documentaries exploring mental illness, Poetry of Payne, is now entering the international film festival circuit.

The first two, A Short History of Poverty and IN SANE, have been recognized and awarded at international festivals in Los Angeles, Florence, Rome, Slovakia, Moscow and Canada. Then along came COVID-19, and the invites to live screenings were cancelled.

We all know that life isn’t always predictable, so one has to bite the bullet and move on.

Instead of basking in the glory of success, Helene Lacelle and I burrowed into the final installment of our bipolar trilogy. For the last 10 years, we have driven from Ottawa to Toronto frequently to capture Robert Payne’s ongoing homelessness, his decline and his poetry. Homeless, living rough and hoping for subsidized government housing to live a normal life, he is doggedly determined to survive despite all odds.

His only friend, an elderly Jamaican immigrant, Augustus Larrow, the subject of our earlier film A Short History of Poverty, accepts Robert as his Canadian son and encourages him to “carry on.”

Robert Payne stands in Graffiti Alley, Toronto after tagging a slogan

The endless wandering, going nowhere, the search to avoid winter’s cold, to stay alive – that’s what dominates Robert’s days. Worn, weary, alone and sick, he seeks refuge in his makeshift cocoon assembled from scraps in a deserted alley. All around him, Toronto becomes a condo nightmare, every space filling with high-rise madness that foreshadows an end to Robert’s way of living rough.

Poetry of Payne, the final documentary of the trilogy, marks a major alteration in Toronto’s way of life as greedy condo entrepreneurs litter neighbourhoods and introduce a harsher, more intolerant replacement – “Toronto the Not So Good.”

Peter Evanchuk is a local photographer and filmmaker specializing in indie films, with his partner Helene Lacelle. (

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