Reflexive Hybrid Realism in Da Vinci’s Inquest, Part II: “Pretend You Didn’t See Me”

by Rachel Walls Volume 18, Issues 11-12 / December 2014 35 minutes (8653 words)

Part II: “Pretend You Didn’t See Me”

“Pretend You Didn’t See Me” is the eleventh episode of season four and is directed by Haddock. 1 In many ways, the episode is atypical of Da Vinci’s Inquest, yet it references recurring themes crucial to the series as a whole. “Pretend” is one of only two episodes filmed entirely in the Downtown Eastside area, although the location is not named. Over half of the episode takes place on and around the Hastings and Main intersection in the heart of the Downtown Eastside. The remaining scenes occur in an apartment building near to Port Metro Vancouver. Each location is shot in distinctive styles. While on the streets, the episode uses a consistent direct cinema style of filming that is only present elsewhere in brief scenes across the series. While at the apartment complex, the episode uses more classical conventions of shooting for continuity. These two audiovisual strategies intersect with characters’ conversations about scopic regimes: in the street scenes the characters discuss surveillance; in the apartment scenes there is a thematic concern with voyeurism and racial (in)visibility. Alternating between these locations, their attendant aesthetic strategies and their associated themes is a reflexive strategy that invites the audience to consider the implications of how televisual style intersects with the very real social issues in play within the storyline.

In “Pretend”, Dominic is in the Downtown Eastside to find a woman named Rita Samuels because her brother has died and he wants to be the first to inform her. In the course of the episode he never finds her, although he only ever seems to be one step behind. The plot revolves around Rita, yet she is completely invisible. Dominic, in contrast, is highly visible as the coroner and as a bearer of bad news. Hoping to prevent Rita from anticipating his sad tidings before he can speak to her personally, he tells Jackie, a mutual acquaintance of Dominic and Rita’s, to “pretend you didn’t see me”, should she run into Rita. Dominic’s pursuit of Rita is interrupted by a call to attend a death in a nearby apartment complex. A young man is dead having apparently fallen or jumped from the roof, and it emerges that the victim is Alexander Winchester, an illegal immigrant living with his brother John and using John’s name to work and acquire medication for schizophrenia. Dominic assesses the scene of death before Leo and Mick arrive and try to ascertain the events that led to Alexander’s death.

“Pretend” takes place on one day and starts and ends at the Ovaltine Café. Leo and Mick eat breakfast there and return with Dominic at the end of the episode, fictionally several hours later (Dominic exclaims, “I haven’t eaten all day!”) The episode thus focuses on a relatively short period of time in contrast to the majority of other episodes that represent the action of several days. Moreover, the episode is unusual in that there is minimal parallel editing: for the most part, we accompany Dominic on his morning at work rather than seeing multiple parties (coroner, detectives, pathologists) playing their respective roles in an investigation, as is typical of the series. We only leave Dominic halfway through the episode when Mick and Leo arrive and start their own investigations; even then, the three of them work in the same apartment complex together until Leo and Mick visit a restaurant in nearby Gastown, reconvening with Dominic on Hastings Street shortly after. In focusing on a short period of time and reducing parallel action, Haddock plays with the conventions of his series, which typically makes more temporal and spatial leaps within the course of an episode. The simplicity of this episode’s form allows for detailed debate about surveillance – an issue relevant to the fictional location and its non-fiction referent – and permits a more comprehensive visual representation of the geographical location.

The opening shot is over nine minutes long and the camera appears to be handheld. The lack of editing requires that the camera spin rapidly when the focus of action moves abruptly. This creates a sense of immediacy and authenticity, as though the camera is moving with the action, rather than the action occurring for the camera. Typically of Da Vinci’s Inquest, the location is marked for local viewers as East Hastings Street by the bold signage of the Savoy Pub and the neon façade of the Ovaltine Cafe. Noises of cars driving through puddles, sounding horns, a car alarm, and the falling rain are audible almost to the point of distraction, and this too is characteristic of the series’ outdoor scenes, especially those shot in the Downtown Eastside. The streets are busy despite the rain and people stand around chatting, smoking and eating. Adding to the direct cinema effect is Leo and Mick’s banal conversation about what they ate for lunch and the resultant hot sauce stain on Leo’s shirt. The conversation has the feel of improvised dialogue, and fans have speculated that this is a regular feature of Da Vinci’s Inquest: the occasional hesitations and repetitions in this episode suggest this might be the case. Alternatively, it might signal that the writers and actors are working hard to achieve the effect of natural conversation. 2 An indication that these conversations are at least loosely scripted is the tendency for the dialogue to serve a purpose: Leo’s concerns about having to iron another shirt update a long-running story arc about the deterioration of his wife Lana’s health as a result of Alzheimer’s disease.

The direct cinema style used for the lengthy street scenes of “Pretend”, and shorter Downtown Eastside scenes in other episodes, has a generic antecedent in the 1960s series Wojeck. Mary Jane Miller describes Wojeck’s aesthetic as reminiscent of direct cinema and Da Vinci’s Inquest bears many of the same hallmarks:

The NFB style of “direct cinema” used by the Wojeck crew, whose experience was in documentaries and news, was the antithesis of the slick, hard-edged look that Nelson rightly associates with most filmed Hollywood copshows though the direct-cinema style was rediscovered by the producers of Hill Street Blues.

Miller suggests that direct cinema “tends to focus on unknown or forgotten people in a more personal treatment of subject matter” and the focus on the marginalisation of Downtown Eastside residents and an illegal immigrant in “Pretend” demonstrates an ethos in keeping with that of the genre. Miller lists the use of “hand-held cameras, awkward framing, ragged editing rhythms, harsh lighting and imperfect sound, grainy film stock, and sometimes a sense of improvisation in dialogue” as characteristic of direct cinema (Miller, 48). “Pretend” uses all of these elements and connotes authenticity in that it gives the appearance of minimal intervention – less scripting, editing and manipulation of sound and light than usual. Of course, this appearance masks the considerable effort likely put into achieving this effect.

Crucially, Miller notes that direct cinema “typically shows the filming process within the film itself”. It was in this respect that Canadian direct cinema differed from Canadian Candid Eye cinema and American direct cinema, which aimed to use handheld cameras and synchronised sound to “record life as it happens” (Koenig, 15-22). By implicating themselves in the images they produce – by mixing fiction with documentary conventions, for instance, or revealing the microphone onscreen – direct cinema filmmakers make sure that viewers know that this is not life as it happened, but rather life as affected by the presence of a film crew. Miller does not mention if or how Wojeck showed the filming process, but it might be argued that the hybrid of direct cinema with televisual drama in itself draws attention to the filming process, by confounding the expectations of viewers used to the conventions of televisual realism. In Da Vinci’s Inquest, this might also be the case, particularly since the direct cinema style is used only occasionally.

I suggest that the number of people who look directly at the camera in “Pretend” reveals the camera’s presence and draws attention to the filming process in a manner comparable with direct cinema. Although these instances are potentially an incidental by-product of taking a film crew into a busy location, they might be read as reflexive moments in Da Vinci’s Inquest. The stares of the individuals – potentially non-actors reacting to the presence of the camera or employed extras asked to look at the camera – effects a confrontation with the television audience.

The audience’s comfortable one-way perspective on the Downtown Eastside is disrupted and the viewer may become self-conscious at his or her fascination with these streets and their inhabitants. The stares of passers-by prompt viewers to wonder if these people are acting, and if not, if they mind the seasonal surveillance of the Da Vinci’s Inquest cameras. The hybrid realism of this scene is achieved by placing actors in what appears to be an unstaged street scene – the reverse of many reality-based formats where “real” people are placed in staged scenarios. The sheer volume of people and traffic suggests that this is a “real” image of the Downtown Eastside and its residents, although arguably the very presence of the actors and the camera, which the direct cinema aesthetic draws attention to, automatically casts a reflexive shadow over the proceedings. 3

A Panoptic View of the DTES

The conversation between Mick, Leo and Dominic subsequently turns to the issue of surveillance after Dominic berates a councillor who “is in charge of putting in the new surveillance cameras down here”. 4 As Mick, Leo and Dominic start to discuss this plan, the camera rotates around the three of them. It is positioned at roughly the same level as the characters’ faces, showing the heads, shoulders and chests of the three men from outside their small circle, so that periodically one of the characters is excluded from the frame or shown from the back. The camera is outside, looking in. This manner of filming has been used before in Da Vinci’s Inquest, as in “Shoulda Been a Priest”, just a few episodes prior, when Angela talks to Rae, a sex worker and informer, on the streets of the Downtown Eastside. In “Pretend”, the effect of the rotating camera intersects with the subject matter. It might be read as symbolic of Dominic’s concerns about the invasion of privacy that occurs through use of surveillance cameras. The over-the-shoulder shot puts the viewer in the same position as someone watching surveillance camera footage, uninvolved in a situation but able to observe it from outside.

The constant rotation of the camera around Mick, Leo and Dominic enacts encirclement and is suggestive of the three hundred and sixty degree enclosure of Panoptic architecture. Of course, Panoptic surveillance emanates from the centre in its most literal manifestation, but if we are to take Foucault’s suggestion that Panoptic society describes the more general proliferation of surveillance as a means of discipline, it is instructive in the analysis of this scene. Foucault writes that “discipline fixes; it arrests or regulates movements; it clears up confusion; it dissipates compact groupings of individuals wandering about the country in unpredictable ways; it establishes calculated distributions” (Foucault, 219). Mick, Leo and Dominic’s encirclement can be read as symbolic of the restricted movement and the positioning of bodies in space that occurs as a result of surveillance as a disciplinary strategy. Of course, here we see the bodies of the police and coroner who are encircled by the camera, although the conversation concerns the surveillance of marginalised residents. The camerawork might, then, be symptomatic of the series’ interest in turning the gaze onto the authorities, as Da Vinci’s Inquest often investigates the implication of police or political figures in crimes and emphasises the pressure on the detectives and Dominic to meet the demands of their supervisors. Although less controlled than marginalised populations, Leo, Dominic and Mick are also subject to disciplinary measures.

The idea that a television camera replicates surveillance strategies raises questions about the effect of Da Vinci’s Inquest as film production in the Downtown Eastside. Do these cameras similarly invade the privacy of residents by creating visual data of their lives that they might not want to be seen? Dominic notes his concern for heroin addicts for whom safe places to inject are limited enough without the fear of being captured on surveillance camera, and the same might be said of television cameras. Kim Elliot notes the contradiction of “progressive representations of marginalized people that nevertheless exploit people in the process of filming”, and cites a DTES resident’s perspective on the film and television industry: “It’s big money for the city of Vancouver. It’s big money for everyone except the marginalized…But they get some of the handouts” (Elliot, 28). The disproportionate benefits and inconveniences of the filming process are evident. While media reports suggest that the filming of Da Vinci’s Inquest is something exciting to witness, and that Nicholas Campbell, the actor who plays Dominic, has become a familiar and well-loved face in the Downtown Eastside, the probability that television crews disrupt Downtown Eastside residents’ day-to-day existence is less well publicised (Gee).

Dominic notes that the Downtown Eastside is being singled out for surveillance, thus highlighting the inequality of visibility. The character’s criticism might ironically extend to Da Vinci’s Inquest itself, which uses many locations other than the Downtown Eastside, but none as much as the Downtown Eastside. Dominic implies that the city would not attempt to install surveillance cameras in any other neighbourhood because the residents would object. Similarly, the poet Shannon Stewart, whose poem Inquest reflects upon her husband’s research as art director for Da Vinci’s Inquest, taking photographs of DTES rooms he enters with the police, implies that people like herself – comfortably middle-class, one presumes, in contrast to people in low-income accommodation – have the opportunity to “hide the clutter” when they are photographed. 5 Meanwhile, her husband is complicit in police checks on single room occupancies that invade resident privacy. 6 The process of representing the Downtown Eastside, even in fiction, is intrinsically connected to police surveillance. Stewart’s poem is thus an interesting reflection on the role of all those involved in producing and watching Da Vinci’s Inquest who, consciously or not, contribute to an inequality of visibility by regularly scrutinising the Downtown Eastside and endorsing the invasive procedures of the police and art director. There is a parallel between surveillance cameras, the art director’s camera, and the television cameras that all invade the privacy of residents.

There are advantages and disadvantages to visibility, and the media attention and surveillance that create visibility. The Janus-faced nature of visibility is evident in Da Vinci’s Inquest. Representation is often linked with making the marginal visible, and in recent cultural theory representation has been implicitly linked to power (Phelan, 1). 7 Canada’s National Film Board and the CBC have encouraged an ideology of visibility as democratic and have aimed to represent as many diverse Canadian experiences as possible. However, increased visibility can also bring unwanted attention: the social control that is implied by surveillance. As Foucault noted in his discussion of Panoptical surveillance, “visibility is a trap” (Foucault, 200). Drawing on Foucault, Peggy Phelan argues that “In framing more and more images of the hithero under-represented other, contemporary culture finds a way to name, and thus to arrest and fix, the image of that other” (Phelan, 2). The plethora of images of the Downtown Eastside in the media in recent years might be seen as an example of Phelan’s claim. The presence of a population with a concentration of Othered people – the poor, elderly, racial minorities, mentally ill, drug addicted – is feared by the “normative” majority in Vancouver. The media overexposure of the Downtown Eastside represents an attempt to contain the Other.

In/visibility in the DTES

Academics studying representations of the Downtown Eastside have noted that some of the neighbourhood’s most marginalised groups experience both visibility and invisibility negatively. Jennifer England identifies a “trope of visibility/invisibility” in the experiences of aboriginal women living in the Downtown Eastside who feel inadequately represented, “invisible” in media representations but “hypervisible” to police who harass them on the basis of stereotyped assumptions that they are participating in illegal activities (England, 118-119). Dara Culhane and Leslie A. Robertson’s volume of narratives by Downtown Eastside women highlights a similar paradox, as Laurie explains why she chose the title “Hiding in Plain Sight” for her story:

“Hiding in Plain Sight” is an excellent title. See, the buses come and go down here, and you see people looking. But they don’t see nothing. All they see is the dope […] They look at you but they’re not looking at you, they’re looking through you (Robertson and Culhane, 60).

Media representations of the Downtown Eastside such as Da Vinci’s Inquest increase the representation of a marginalised community. However, as storylines frequently feature characters involved in the drug or sex trades they run the risk of reinforcing stereotypes that contribute to negative experiences of visibility and surveillance.

“Pretend” does not feature characters involved in either the sex or drug trade and thus potentially helps overturn stereotypes about the Downtown Eastside. Moreover, the storylines reflexively deal with issues of visibility. The elusiveness of Rita, whom Dominic seeks throughout the episode, is symbolic of the invisibility of many people in the Downtown Eastside to those in the outside world. Dominic’s criticism of the imposition of surveillance cameras on the Downtown Eastside illustrates a similar point: “It’s the same old story down here, these people don’t count, their vote doesn’t matter, it’s just a transient neighbourhood and it’s the same old assumptions all over”. The implication is that when their rights as citizens are at stake, people “down here” are invisible. 8 The phrase “down here”, which is used as a substitute for the name of the Downtown Eastside throughout the episode, suggests a place below the line of vision, out of sight. Haddock’s decision to leave it unnamed in this episode also suggests invisibility.

The use of a direct cinema aesthetic combined with the discussion of surveillance draws attention to the paradoxes of visibility and challenges the reliability of images. Dominic suggests that surveillance is “not about truth. It’s about the illusion of truth. You get your picture or your sound. You watch the news, you know that much”. Dominic’s comment suggests that recorded images and audio create an illusion of reality rather than a reliable representation, whether they are recorded for surveillance purposes or for the television news. Moreover, as Dominic questions both surveillance images and media representations of the neighbourhood, one might extend this logic to the images created by Da Vinci’s Inquest cameras and read this as an indication of reflexivity. This intersection of dialogue and aesthetic invokes the direct cinema principle explained by Michel Brault, as quoted in my epigraph: “We can’t think we’re creating truth with a camera. But what we can do is reveal something to viewers that allows them to discover their own truth”. Brault’s suggestion requires that viewers accept their interpretation of direct cinema as their own truth(s) rather than an objective reality. However, Dominic fears that police watching surveillance camera footage will be fooled by the illusion of truth and treat images as objective evidence. His dialogue serves as a warning to viewers of Da Vinci’s Inquest to be wary of recognising the apparent authenticity of its images as truth.

While Dominic is right to suggest that people lose their opportunity to explain their actions if filmed by surveillance cameras rather than attracting the attention of a police officer on the street, he neglects to question whether direct confrontation between officers and citizens necessarily leads to a true outcome. Since the Da Vinci’s Inquest creators suggest elsewhere in the series that the coroner was once an undercover police officer, the character is portrayed as someone who is not against surveillance per se but specifically the “remote policing” of cameras. He assumes that an investigator can understand an incident by “looking at the situation, eye to eye with the guy on the street”. This fails to acknowledge that even though the police officer is directly present his behaviour may be shaped by pre-existing judgements. An individual arguably only knows reality through one’s own mediated perspective: “Just as surely as representational technologies – the camera, the canvas, the theatrical frame, language itself – order visual apprehension to accord it with a (constructed) notion of the real so too do human eyes” (Phelan, 14). In Da Vinci’s Inquest, police officers often refer back to their notes in order to verify a situation, demonstrating that early methods of surveillance described by Foucault are still very much in use. 9 These notes are just as subject to interpretation and potentially just as likely to misrepresent a situation as any surveillance camera images that might supplement them. Similarly, when Amanda, a police constable who challenges Dominic’s views on surveillance cameras, points out that Dominic takes photographs at the scene of death “because you can’t trust your memory to tell the truth”, she fails to consider that although the photographs might record something Dominic initially ignored, they will likely replicate his existing perspective.

Dominic in the DTES

The use of dialogue between two characters as a means of presenting two sides of a debate is typical of Haddock and his Da Vinci’s Inquest co-writers. Amanda is a one-off antagonist for Dominic; he is more regularly paired with traffic detective Zack McNab, who argues with him about everything from fishing (later in this episode) to the assessment of crime scenes, to wider issues of public health and law enforcement such as the merits of safe injection sites (as in “It’s Backwards Day”). This technique seems to be a rather obvious and sometimes pedagogical method of representing multiple perspectives on an issue and avoiding the appearance of an absolute position. 10 In presenting multiple perspectives, Da Vinci’s Inquest is reflexive about its own role in shaping opinions. Audiences are presented with arguments and encouraged to join in the debate. Inevitably, Dominic’s arguments gain more credence. In spite of, or perhaps because of, his personality flaws (impetuousness, a weakness for women and alcohol, a tendency to hold grudges, an attraction to power) he remains a strong and sympathetic protagonist. His arguments are often emotional and include badly expressed ideas or leaps in logic, yet this emphasises the humanity and realism of the character rather than detracting from his opinions.

Representation of Dominic’s physical presence in the Downtown Eastside also builds his credibility in matters relevant to that community. He is the only character shown to know and to be known in the community among people who are not offenders, snitches or victims but activists, support workers and business owners. He is thus connected to this place through his associations. In “Pretend”, Dominic is in the Eastside to deliver some bad news to Rita Samuels, a woman who never appears on screen. Nonetheless, the search for Rita motivates Dominic’s tour through the Downtown Eastside, from the Ovaltine Café to the Carnegie Centre, to a nearby hotel, towards Pigeon Park, and almost down an alleyway before a page calling him to another scene of death takes him away from the task. Although the Downtown Eastside remains unmentioned, these landmark locations act as signposts in the dialogue, reference points for those familiar with the city or for fans that have subsequently come to explore. The invisibility of Rita and the writers’ decision not to include detailed information about this character facilitates the visibility of the location. The search for Rita becomes a guided tour of the DTES with Dominic as tour guide.

Along the way Jackie, a character new to viewers but familiar with Dominic, joins him. Dominic learns from Jackie that he has just missed Rita and the two of them set off to try and catch her up. They chat about Jackie’s progress on “the programme”, which previous references lead us to associate with a methadone programme (for instance by Angela, addressing Sue, in “Shoulda Been a Priest”). Da Vinci’s Inquest writers also take a second opportunity to mention the possibility of a pilot safe injection site, which Jackie thinks will be well used. Dominic then seeks Jackie’s opinion on the prospect of surveillance cameras “down here”. She jokes, “I don’t care as long as I look good”, emphasising the relationship between television cameras and surveillance and implying that cameras only reveal appearances rather than substance. There is also a hint that, as Dominic subsequently suggests to Amanda, people change their behaviour for the cameras. If one can make oneself “look good” on camera – and we might consider “good” as meaning honest as well as attractive – one can also mask illegitimate behaviour.

Jackie then suggests that the cameras are part of a “big money conspiracy to chase us out from down here and turn this into some Las Vegas of the north”. 11 Las Vegas is widely recognised as a city developed with the express intention of appealing to tourists. The implication of Jackie’s comments is that surveillance cameras can be employed as a tool of spatial exclusion, ridding urban space of residents like Jackie in order to make room for tourists, transforming the DTES from a home into a destination, from a lived reality to a simulation. With its imitation Eiffel Tower and Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas is the ultimate example of superficiality for Jean Baudrillard: an “absolute advertising city” (Baudrillard, 91). Yet it might be remembered that while Dominic and Jackie are critical of a potential Las Vegas-ification of the Downtown Eastside, Da Vinci’s Inquest is simultaneously implicated in transforming the Downtown Eastside into an attraction, effectively advertising Vancouver’s sin city image to an international audience, to the extent that tourist guide Lonely Planet suggests visitors should try to catch the filming of Da Vinci’s Inquest in Downtown Eastside alleyways between June and November (Zimmerman, 21).

In response to Jackie’s suggestion of a conspiracy, Dominic claims, “Jeez, I’ve been saying that for damn years” and Jackie replies, “Yeah? Maybe that’s where I heard it”. This light-hearted exchange highlights one of Da Vinci’s Inquest’s key representational strategies. I have noted that the character of Dominic is woven into the representation of the Downtown Eastside community by references to the people he knows in the neighbourhood. Yet it is rare for Da Vinci’s Inquest writers to include characters that speak as representative residents of the Eastside community. Instead, Dominic is identified as “a hell of an advocate for the Downtown Eastside”, as lawyer Richard Norton suggests in “Ride a Crippled Horse” (7:10). On the rare occasion that an Eastside resident features unconnected with any crime, as Jackie does in “Pretend”, their views are shown to be complementary, if not parallel, to Dominic’s. In subsequent seasons, there is a notable shift in Dominic’s relationship to the neighbourhood and social causes associated with it. For instance, his involvement with the safe injection site becomes more pronounced. In “Pretend”, both Mick and Jackie ask him about the injection site, implying his involvement in its initiation; in season seven Dominic is shown to be the principal force behind the plan’s realisation and continuation.

Season seven also shows the increasing complexity of Dominic’s relationship with the people for whom he professes to fight. “A Delicate Bloodbath” (7:11) is also directed by Chris Haddock and is the episode after Dominic has been called “a hell of an advocate for the Downtown Eastside”. Dominic is persuaded to run for Mayor by two different political parties and Chief Coroner Bob Kelly. As he begins to strategise with Kelly, he is pointedly shown to ignore a panhandler. Moreover, this episode sees the return of Jackie, who is now a “squeegee kid”, washing windows and asking for money at the traffic lights. She argues with Dominic about a new law against “aggressive panhandling”, accuses him of sitting on the fence, and runs off with his wallet. A later scene reconciles Dominic with Jackie (and symbolically with the people of the Eastside) and is clearly orchestrated to justify Dominic’s Mayoral candidacy. Jackie and Dominic agree that the aggressive panhandling law is “bull crap” and she tells him “You’re the only person I know that can do something about shit like this”. He denies that he can, although he agrees to make some calls. The programme implies that as Mayor, Dominic could “do something”. In an interview about Da Vinci’s City Hall, Haddock describes how Dominic has railed at the political system from the outside for long enough, and decides he needs access to the halls of power to make the social changes he wants. While this narrative of “taking responsibility and stepping into political action” is inspiring, it is also problematic in that it emphasises that only a sympathetic outsider in a position of power can help the Eastside (Gee). Although the television series is fictional, it threatens to mask the achievements of grassroots activism and resident political leaders in the historical Downtown Eastside, particularly since 1973. Inevitably, visibility of the Downtown Eastside in these shows is limited to its assistance in telling the story of Dominic Da Vinci.

Reframing the Aesthetics of Continuity

“Pretend” features a second narrative strand that continues the exploration of in/visibility in the Downtown Eastside. Following the nine-minute opening shot where Dominic searches for Rita along Main and Hastings Streets, talking to his colleagues and Jackie along the way, the episode finally cuts to a new location, an apartment complex where a man has died after falling or jumping from the roof. At this stage the aesthetic becomes more conventional and fewer qualities of direct cinema are evident. The long take of the previous scene is replaced by continuity editing in this second narrative strand, although handheld camerawork and diegetic sound remain. Indeed, music that appeared to be non-diegetic at the end of the last scene is shown to be part of this scene: a stereo playing loudly in the apartment of the deceased. Haddock uses long shots, medium shots and close-ups from a number of perspectives to represent the dead body, the layout of the apartment complex, and the police officers and residents present. He and his editors employ eyeline matching: in one instance, as Dominic looks up towards the third floor of the complex, they cut to a shot of a resident watching Dominic and then looking up to see what the coroner is looking at, followed by an overhead shot of two other witnesses being interviewed by a police officer, with Dominic looking at the body below. The overall effect is that attention is drawn to the process of looking and seeing. Continuity editing symbolises the logic of human curiosity: if one person looks, others follow their glance. This effect, so conventional as to go unnoticed, is exposed in contrast with the previous direct cinema scene, which, with its appearance of minimal manipulation, reframes our appreciation of continuity editing as contrived. In turn, the audience is invited to think of the direct cinema effect as equally contrived.

The location also contributes to the emphasis on looking and seeing. At this point the apartment complex is uncontextualised within the rest of Vancouver with a focus on the interior courtyard, surrounded by transparent balconies on which a number of residents stand, observing the police, coroner and corpse. With dramatic music echoing throughout the complex, it is evocative of an auditorium or, as Dominic suggests, “the coliseum”. This reference to the Pacific Coliseum, former home of the Vancouver Canucks hockey team, will be recognised by local viewers, while international awareness of the Roman coliseum means that the dialogue nonetheless holds meaning for distant viewers. He comments that residents “got the good seats, they’re not gonna give them up”, criticising the residents’ blatant voyeurism and asking a woman to take her child inside before he uncovers the body.

However, a number of lingering overhead shots of the corpse highlight the fact that Da Vinci’s Inquest habitually reveals dead bodies and that this is part of the programme’s appeal. The architectural setting, the stylistic emphasis on looking, and Dominic’s disapproval of the “looky loos” on the balconies can be read as a reflexive comment on the viewer voyeurism that Da Vinci’s Inquest depends on: looky loo is a slang term sometimes used to describe people who hold up traffic by slowing down to look at an accident. The recent coining of the phrase “car crash TV” for compulsive but uncomfortable viewing reiterates the parallel between watching traumatic events directly and on television.

The exterior location of the apartment complex is subsequently established as near to Vancouver’s port and thus only blocks away from the Main and Hastings intersection where the previous scene took place. Mick interviews one resident on the rooftop patio of the three-story complex and the port’s cranes are seen in the near background. Vancouver’s Harbour Tower is also visible in a long shot from another perspective. In other episodes of Da Vinci’s Inquest, establishing shots of the city are often part of the continuity editing, or interspersed between scenes for aesthetic effect and to fill time. In later seasons stylised filler shots are infrequent. Once the programme establishes a loyal audience, and as storylines become more complex, there is arguably less need and less time for establishing or filler shots. In “Pretend”, the background of the port and Harbour Tower, as the camera follows Mick moving towards and away from the witness, is the closest we get to an establishing shot, but adequately functions as a reminder to viewers of the Vancouver setting and of one of the city’s defining features: the port.

Arguably, the portside/Eastside location is irrelevant in this plotline, as most scenes take place within the complex. However, the apartment complex is a striking juxtaposition to the busy streets of the previous scene and might be read as a comment on different modes of urban life. The compact but pleasant, light apartments of the complex, with landscaped courtyard and rooftop patio appear favourable in contrast to the dingy hotels represented in other episodes set in the DTES. However, the isolation of the residents, who know little about one another but for culinary smells and foreign accents, forms a less desirable contrast with the initial scene of “Pretend”, where Dominic’s search for Rita through the streets of the DTES, facilitated by the helpful people he comes across, suggests a friendly and integrated community.

Both the programme and my reading of it risk romanticising community and street life in the Downtown Eastside. Yet there is an undeniable contrast between the neighbourliness of the two locations. The isolation of residents in the apartment complex is emphasised by the glass architecture. The glass balconies, large windows, and central courtyard of the apartment complex enable everyone to look at each other but interaction remains minimal. The apartment complex might have been designed, like the Pompidou Centre, as a “space of deterrence, articulated on the ideology of visibility, of transparency, of polyvalency, of consensus and contact” but it results in “total disconnection” (Baudrillard, 62-63). Architecture, like surveillance cameras, is liable to cause exclusion in the urban environment by increasing visibility, instead of encouraging interaction.

Questions of visibility also relate to the identity of the man, Alexander Winchester, who jumped, fell, or was pushed from the apartment complex roof. He is an illegal immigrant from Jamaica, forced to share his brother’s apartment and identity and strive for invisibility so that he does not attract the attention of the authorities. The colour of his skin results in a paradoxical in/visibility as he is recognised by one of his neighbours as “that black”, yet simultaneously remains invisible and without value to her to the extent that, when she sees him fall from the roof, she does not call the emergency services. There is a parallel here between racial invisibility/hypervisibility and the similar paradoxical experience of Downtown Eastside residents who are all too often seen as drug addicts or prostitutes. Furthermore, Alexander has schizophrenia. As a result of his mental illness he experiences another layer of in/visibility: Leo comments that immigrants known to be schizophrenic are not granted visas and even after Alexander’s body is found, it is evident that presumptions associated with his illness will mask the circumstances of his death.

Business As Usual?

Although the programme has championed the rights of often invisible members of society, the last few minutes of “Pretend” show Dominic, Zack, Leo and Mick, four white, heterosexual males walking along the streets of the Downtown Eastside. We are reminded that Da Vinci’s Inquest reinforces the power relations of society by foregrounding relatively powerful figures and relegating difference to the backdrop; minorities to minor roles. In contrast to many television programmes, Da Vinci’s Inquest features several women and racial minorities in crucial roles, for example Sergeant Sheila Kurtz, Dr Sunita Ramen, Dr Patricia Da Vinci. Moreover, it is reflexive about the dominance of white males in the professions: in “Little Sister”, Dominic suggests the case would benefit from sending a First Nations policewoman undercover, before sarcastically asking if the Vancouver Police Department has any First Nations policewomen. However, the writers emphasise the banter and clashing egos of the male leads, echoing conventions of older police procedurals as a strategy to attract and reassure audiences, who potentially forego alternative visions of society for familiar representations.

The end of the episode highlights how institutions use digital surveillance to monitor one another as well as to control the general population. Moreover, the ambivalent conclusion to the Alexander Winchester storyline holds a lesson about Baudrillardian simulation and the politics of representation. Mick and Leo update Dominic on the Winchester case: they have visited Alexander’s workplace, a nearby Gastown restaurant, where the owner informs them that the restaurant was raided by immigration officials hours before Alexander’s death. Although the restaurant owner prompted Alexander to leave when immigration officials arrived, they seized the papers of all the workers. Consequently, Mick and Leo deduce that these authorities chased Alexander onto the roof where he threatened to jump if they did not leave him alone, then followed through on his threat. This scenario is supported by witnesses that heard him shouting, but the fact that Alexander has schizophrenia casts doubt on the liklihood of events. As Dominic points out, “maybe he was hallucinating”. The only evidence that someone else was involved in his death is an unidentified handprint found next to his body.

Alexander’s brother insists that Alexander was taking his medication and showed no signs of psychosis, yet the hallucinations stereotypically attributed to people with schizophrenia are a convenient explanation. The suggested hallucination might be compared to simulation: the consequences of hallucination and simulation can be the same as a “real” cause – Alexander jumps from the building if he is chased by immigration and if he imagines that he is chased. Yet if we believe in the hallucination/simulation, there is less opportunity for criticism of those responsible for his death: the alleged methods of intimidation used by immigration officials in tracking down illegal immigrants.

Finally, Zack suggests running a CPIC (Canadian Police Information Centre) search; if immigration officials ran their own search on Alexander prior to knocking on his door it will show up in the system. This implies a transparent system where it is possible to check on how others are using an information database for their own surveillance. However, since CPIC is restricted to police communities there is a limitation to transparency. In the closing scene, an image of an unequal surveillance system, yet one with the potential for more democratic visibility, is presented. A more democratic, transparent system would allow citizens, as well as police, to monitor the behaviour of law enforcement officials to prevent human rights abuses or misconduct. The digitisation of information hints at a movement towards Baudrilliardian simulation – the doubling of the world through automatic computerised records. However, the circumstances of Alexander’s death emphasise the importance of discerning between illusion and reality.


Da Vinci’s Inquest is a significant example of hybrid realism programming that straddles “the border between reality and fiction” and thus fulfils the CBC Mandate to reflect the city in which it is set and issues particular to that city and surrounding region. Indeed, in alternating between a direct cinema aesthetic and the continuity editing associated with conventional televisual realism in the episode “Pretend You Didn’t See Me”, it demonstrates reflexivity in exposing the considered artifice within the series’ representational strategy. Nonetheless, this alternation between direct cinema aesthetic and continuity editing is related to, and reinforces, the thematic content and encourages the audience to engage with the social issues depicted in its stories and in the real world location – the Downtown Eastside – to which these stories refer. Not only that, the programme’s reflexive hybrid realism underlines the power of television to critique power structures that enable voyeurism and inequalities of surveillance, whilst contributing to and endorsing them through both its means of production and its reliance on the white, male figure of Dominic Da Vinci to articulate critique.

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  1. More than twenty directors have worked on Da Vinci’s Inquest, with Stephen Surjik the most regular contributor having directed ten episodes. Chris Haddock has directed eight, and Anne Wheeler, a Vancouver filmmaker, directed seven (including the debut trilogy). Local filmmakers Mina Shum and Lynne Stopkewich guest direct an episode each, and Da Vinci’s Inquest actors Nicholas Campbell, Mick Leary, and Donnelly Rhodes, have directed four, two and one episode respectively.
  2. The realism of street scenes and dialogue is fairly typical of the programme and the question of whether actors improvise or whether it is an effect – in other words they “went to a lot of trouble to make it look unrehearsed” – is discussed by fans (savas-3).
  3. The Canadian tradition of direct cinema is characterised by the filmmaker accepting “that the presence of crew and equipment must effect the reality being filmed, and the film is a record of this intervention in the way things are”. Giannetti and Leach, 318.
  4. The airing of this episode coincided with a dispute over a proposal for twenty-three fixed and two mobile surveillance cameras in the neighbourhood that began in 1998. The plans were only officially abandoned in 2005.
  5. “You think of him / standing in doorways, / the flash of his camera / making bright instants / of mugs, cans and boxes. / You think of your own / rooms, the time you take / to hide the clutter (Stewart, 66). See also Patty Jones.
  6. “Lawyer Laura Track, who is Pivot’s lead person on housing issues, pointed to a city bylaw that calls for operators to conduct room checks every 24 hours. Police officers may ask to be appointed a hotel’s ‘agent’ to do room checks, if staff is unavailable to make the necessary visits” (Howell).
  7. Although Phelan was responding to the particular methods of identity politics in the 1980s and early 90s, the continued relevance of Phelan’s observations, and their particular applicability to the Downtown Eastside, is demonstrated by citations in England, 314 and Lauzon, 160. Both England and Lauzon are keen to stress that visibility does not necessarily equal power, and that excess or overexposure of minorities in visual culture might encourage an objectifying gaze.
  8. The phrase “down here” is often used colloquially to refer to the Downtown Eastside. Also, Down Here is the title of a documentary film about the neighbourhood and local poet Bud Osborn, who wrote a poem called “Down Here” (Mannix).
  9. Foucault describes the organisation of the eighteenth-century Paris police. Surveillance functioned via “thousands of eyes everywhere”, including those of police officers, observers, secret agents, informers and prostitutes, whose observations were recorded in “series of reports and registers; throughout the eighteenth century, an immense police text increasingly covered society by means of a complex documentary organisation” (Foucault, 214). In the contemporary era one might consider the expansion of an even more immense digital police text.
  10. In the CTV movie The Life, written by Da Vinci’s Inquest collaborators Chris Haddock and Alan Di Fiore, the tactic of using dialogue between characters to explore debates about representation of the Downtown Eastside is employed even more frequently. The protagonists, two police officers working in the DTES, argue about the morality and practicality of filming neighbourhood drug users to show to school children as a deterrent. Arguments that have been associated with documentary filmmaking and with using cameras in police work, ever since Jacob Riis accompanied police on visits to tenements, are exchanged by the characters: the advantages and disadvantages of visibility, of giving voice, of exploiting the subject’s pain and of getting consent.
  11. Jackie’s comment harks back to the opening scene of the first episode of Da Vinci’s Inquest, where Da Vinci criticises the fact that “they” (presumably the city and developers) want to build a casino and a new cruise ship terminal adjacent to the port (and the Downtown Eastside), despite the increasing numbers of bodies washing up in that location. Da Vinci tells Winston, “Vegas is coming to you”. In Da Vinci’s City Hall, Da Vinci’s earlier disapproval of plans for a casino and cruise ship terminal is put to the test as he negotiates with developers in order to gain support for his red light zone and to keep Hastings Racetrack open. The television programme fictionalised a developer’s attempt to build a casino on Vancouver’s waterfront, a proposal that was eventually rejected as a result of public opposition. More recently, Vancouver council rejected a second, similar proposal (Lee).

Volume 18, Issues 11-12 / December 2014 Essays   da vinci's inquest   location shooting   television   vancouver film