TIFF 2022 Women Directors: V.T. Nayani – “This Place”

V.T. Nayani is a director, producer, and writer. She is a recipient of the UN Women Yvonne M. Hebert Award for filmmakers and photographers. Most recently, she completed her residency in the Directors’ Lab, as part of the Canadian Film Centre’s Norman Jewison Film Program. She is a two-time recipient of Inside Out’s RE:Focus Fund post-production grant and the Indigenous Screen Office’s Solidarity Fund Development Grant. In 2021, Nayani was a Commissioning Editor for Reel Asian’s 25th Anniversary Anthology (re)Rites of Passage, and since 2018 has served on the board of directors for Breakthroughs Film Festival, the only festival in Canada dedicated to showcasing short work by women and gender-diverse filmmakers.

“This Place” is screening at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, which is running from September 8-18.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

VN: “This Place” is a multi-generational love story exploring how we’re all continuously coming of age, at every stage of life. It is a film that looks closely at both the precise moments we fatefully cross paths with others and the frustrating moments we are continuously bumping into ourselves. It is a film where multiple stories are woven together intimately, from different perspectives and through different people.

It is a film about the beauty and chaos of love; the ongoing complications of family; the unavoidable mess of coming of age; and the courage inherent in both forgiveness and faith. I hope when audiences watch this film, it will make them want to fall in love, to hug their elders, and find their community, whatever that looks and feels like for them.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

VN: I am the daughter of two mighty-spirited and tender-hearted Tamil refugees. As members of a persecuted minority community, my parents escaped a decades-long armed conflict in Sri Lanka almost 40 years ago. They arrived in Toronto, a city which is home to one of the largest populations of Tamils in the world. Over a decade ago, in the wake of global protests against the genocide of Tamil people in Sri Lanka, a dear friend of mine posed this question to me: “What does it mean to protest on Indigenous land that has been stolen, for a homeland we have been denied elsewhere?” This was a question I’d never been asked before. It was an inciting moment that started me down a new path, to reflect carefully on our relationship with — or lack thereof — and critical responsibility to Indigenous communities. Colonial legacies of violence and oppression specifically connect countless Indigenous and racialized immigrant communities, not just in this place, but throughout our histories, and across land and water. I am grateful to friends and family, who have continuously held space for me to learn beyond the standard education system, beyond the narratives we’ve been fed, beyond what systems and structures of oppression do not want us to learn. 

From the moment my friend asked me that critical question, I started reflecting on what a film could look like, set in a city like Toronto, with Indigenous and immigrant communities at the center. I’d never seen a story like this, where the intersections of our communities are explored, where difficult conversations are had, and where we can come together through what is shared. Knowing that it was not just my story to tell, I started thinking about who I could collaborate with.

In 2016, through mutual friends, I was fatefully introduced to my now dear friend Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs. I shared my early ideas with her, for a film focused on the friendship between an Indigenous woman and a woman of color born to refugee parents. Somewhere along the way, my dear friend Golshan Abdmoulaie, a refugee herself, joined us on this journey of writing. From there, a story of friendship grew into a story of love.

Together, we created the world of “This Place,” one that is informed by our own experiences and that of our elders, out of love for our communities and care for each other’s. What started as something inspired by a critical question of responsibility became a continued practice of building relationships, of better understanding each other, and of believing in the possibility and power of solidarity work through storytelling.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

VN: When people watch the film, I want them to think about the faces they’ve just seen on their screen, the faces they likely don’t see enough of and especially not on-screen together. I hope they reflect on why that is and how they can contribute to changing that.

For those from our multiple communities, I hope they feel seen and heard in some way, that they feel reflected in the stories and the people they see. For those who come from different communities, I want them to feel the privilege of being invited into our communities, to learn about us through our own words and experiences.

For everyone, no matter their background, where they come from, or how they identify, I want them to think about the distinctness of our collective narrative, a space where multiple histories and legacies intersect. I also hope everyone thinks about how we can continue to explore what falling in love can look like on screen, how we can be more nuanced in our approach at telling stories about love, how we can be more honest about the complications of love and how the rest of life can sometimes get in the way of it.

Ultimately, I also hope folks think about how we tenderly and thoughtfully explored themes of grief, trauma, and displacement, while also creating space for hope, faith, and joy.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

VN: The biggest challenge in making the film was financially getting to the finish line and the steep learning curve where it concerns the business of filmmaking. At so many points, the lack of access to immediate funds was our biggest barrier. But what was the biggest challenge also became the most important learning curve.

Through this experience of not only directing and co-writing the film, but also helping produce it, I have learned how critical it is that artists and storytellers learn the business of filmmaking. As creatives, of course we want to be removed from the business of it, so that we can focus on the craft. That being said, I do believe there is inherent value in understanding the more administrative and less fun — though that depends on who you speak to — side of the work. Finishing a film not only requires creativity and craft, but also strategy, foresight, and resourcefulness.

I feel deeply that there is a part of you that has to be thinking multiple steps ahead, so that you are moving forward with clarity and focus, ultimately making it easier on yourself and your team when you arrive at each new step. Please, fellow artists and filmmakers, learn the business side of things! Make friends with legal, accounting, strategic planning, and all of their friends! These skills are invaluable and you’ll be better for it as a storyteller.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

VN: Our funding for “This Place” came from a varied mix of sources. I believe it’s important to be transparent where possible and share how we got here, so that other filmmakers are not left feeling alone and confused. We all know what that feels like, and I’d rather nurture an abundance mindset, where we practice mutual care and support.

As someone who didn’t go to film school or have the usual film world contacts to start with, I knew I had to find my own way to access traditional film funding in Canada. In 2017, I applied to the Emerging 20 Program at Reelworld Film Festival in Toronto. This program was designed to help prepare BIPOC filmmakers in developing and pitching new original work, film and web series. While I knew the program would provide me with a new experience to learn and grow, as well as help me build new relationships with those working in the Canadian screen industries, I also knew that participation in the program would make me eligible for Telefilm Canada funding. And that was part of my plan to fund this film.

In 2018, when Reelworld, a partner of Telefilm, was taking submissions to put forth recommendations for funding, I did what I had planned and submitted our film for consideration. Later that year, the film was selected for its initial financing of $125,000, amidst a group of other wonderful projects from across Canada. Still, that barely got us through principal photography.

Alongside my dear friend and ace producer, Stephanie Sonny Hooker, we leveraged our support from Telefilm, a rough assembly cut of the film, and our relationships with mentors and peers, to continue raising funds slowly. We looked to arts councils, our national broadcaster, smaller film finishing funds, and private investors to help finish this film. One thing I will say to everyone is that our relationships got us to this end. I don’t just mean a network of people, but people we have real relationships with, people we break bread with, people who are part of our community. Without those relationships, those champions, those vouches of support, we would not have reached here and now. 

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

VN: Since I was a kid, I’ve always found and felt an inexplicable magic in reading, watching TV, sitting in a cinema, and listening to my elders tell oral stories about home and the time before we came along. My late and beloved uncle used to work at a book factory in Toronto. He’d bring home books that were considered defective and unsellable, and put them in a big old cardboard TV box. Between running down the five flights of stairs from our apartment to his, to dig for books in the box, and running back and forth from the community library, to search for stories in the stacks, I truly felt like the luckiest girl in the world.

We didn’t grow up with much money, but I always felt that life was abundant. When I wasn’t nose deep in my broken and borrowed books, I was sitting in front of an old TV with my brother, and sometimes with our parents, watching Friday night family sitcoms and Saturday morning teen comedies. I loved “Saved By the Bell!” And then, on the rare occasions we could afford it, we were at the cinema, often on half-price ticket Tuesdays, watching a random assortment of movies with our parents, either preceded or followed by a sit down at the food court eating Taco Bell. All of it may seem so simple and unspectacular now, but you couldn’t tell me it wasn’t magical then. My elders fostered my imagination and encouraged it to run wild. I felt such pure joy from reading words on the page, watching TV in our cramped living room, sitting in too-big cinema seats with my family, where my feet couldn’t reach the floor – though to be honest, at 5’2, they still don’t always touch the ground.

Through my parents and elders, I was given my passion for and reverence of storytelling. It is my greatest inheritance, birthed through a desire for generations of stories lost to us through war and displacement. Based on my childhood, it is no surprise to anyone that I am a storyteller and filmmaker. The combination of word, sound, and picture is the amalgamation of all that I love. To create and experience a full story, through collaboration and community with other folks, is who I am. And I am who I am because of who I come from. 

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

VN: Best advice: To stay grateful, keep wonder alive, protect and preserve the child in you, and take no shit. Also, don’t listen to folks who’ve stopped dreaming and believing in better.

Worst advice: “Don’t get too excited about things.” Nope. No, thank you. I will continue to let excitement and awe take over me, every single time. In this wild and heartbreaking and maddening world, to still feel and express excitement is healing and life-saving for me.

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?

VN: I’ve shared these three pieces of advice before and I will continue to share them, over and over again. Because for me, they’ve remained true, amidst the highest and hardest seasons of my life so far.

Find your community. One that you trust, that you love and respect deeply. One where you champion each other, where you support and lift each other up. This industry can be incredibly isolating and lonely. But with the right people around you, with others of your own heart, mind, and spirit, it is beautiful and magical and ever affirming. I am so deeply grateful to and for my community of filmmakers. To be witness to their journey and for them to testify to my own, it is a mighty, powerful, and life-affirming privilege.

Trust your gut. About people. About projects. About your purpose. About the possibilities you can’t always see, but know deeply are there waiting for you, just beyond the bend. Learn to hone your intuition, strengthen it, trust it, and believe it. You know what’s right for you. Hear people out, listen with care and openness, but don’t let anyone convince you of what’s not right for you. Only you should hold power within you. No one should hold it over you – ever.

Hold faith in your vision. And be open to that vision shapeshifting, with new learning and blossoming. When you know why you’re doing what you are doing, and what your purpose is in that process, you cannot fail in the long-game. You can be questioned, challenged, and doubted, but that abundance of inherent knowing within you, however quiet it is sometimes, will always prevail when you believe in your vision. 

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

VN: Ugh, this is very hard. To be honest, I don’t know if I can say that I have one favorite woman-directed film. But I can tell you about a woman-directed film that had a profound impact on me at a time when I still could not process all the reasons why. That film is Gurinder Chadha’s “Bend it Like Beckham.” Seeing Parminder Nagra on-screen quite literally changed my life. And so many others can attest to this, I’m sure of it. That’s my first memory of seeing a Brown, South Asian girl on screen, leading a movie. She had a close-knit family just like me, and a big and complicated community just like mine. Her dad believed in her and supported her dreams, just like my appa. Her mom loved her in all the ways she knew how, just like my amma. She was chasing dreams her extended family didn’t understand, just like me. And in the end, she found a way to stand up for herself, keep dreaming, and go after the life she desired, with the loving support of her family.

Now I’m crying thinking about that movie, as I answer this. Gurinder Chadha gave us all a gift that keeps on giving. I hope she knows that. That film caused ripple effects around the world, specifically for South Asian girls. And I want to take this opportunity to give Parminder Nagra her flowers in my own way. She changed something inside of me, seeing her on-screen, replaying that movie over and over again. “Bend It Like Beckham” was a rare moment in time, which not only helped me feel seen and heard and understood, but also helped me believe that I could be a Brown woman in this world telling her stories and making films that overflow with love.

W&H: What, if any, responsibilities do you think storytellers have to confront the tumult in the world, from the pandemic to the loss of abortion rights and systemic violence?

VN: For me to be a storyteller who is creating public work is an immense privilege that I do not take lightly. With that privilege, I feel a deep responsibility to create work that reflects real life, which speaks to the experiences of people I consider community. Sometimes, that looks like confronting the tumult and turmoil directly, diving into the chaos and grief and violence of this world. More often, I also feel my responsibility is in creating and holding more space for joy, for love, for hope, for escape, and maybe for a little delusion too.

Coming from where I come from, raised by the communities who raised me, living in the body that I have all my life, I know intimately what systemic violence, health crises, the denial of individual autonomy and collective rights, and other violations look and feel like. I come from people who have been fighting for their rights for centuries, people who know intimately what it means to keep the light of hope and faith alive, even amidst the most dire and oppressive of circumstances. I still carry that light of theirs inside of me. And I believe that light is just as critical to my work.

I’m not interested in solely leaning into the trauma and chaos of life, without also holding space for tenderness and joy too. Ultimately, I deeply believe we need all kinds of storytellers, who bear the responsibility they alone choose to carry. There are countless ways to approach this work of unearthing and creating and telling stories, each that holds its own responsibilities, each a reflection of real life in some way, each needed in this mad and wild world.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?

VN: I believe that this question will beget an ever-evolving answer, which varies amongst Black, Indigenous, other filmmakers of colour. I feel overwhelmed trying to pull together an appropriate answer, because I am just one woman of color, with one experience of the world, different from even people in my own family and community. At this moment, a few things come to mind as very basic requirements to foster change that is not only needed, but which is rooted and healthy gives way for more bloom. And these are points for those specifically in decision-making positions.

1. Listen to us. Too often, I find the gatekeepers do not trust the expertise of our experiences; they don’t honour the inherent and intimate understanding we have of our communities; and they don’t hear us when we speak with conviction and clarity. There is no way you can know better about our communities than us. Remember that.

2. Let us control things. We see clearly what happens when BIPOC storytellers control their own narratives, when we are given the space to fully express our agency and innate knowing through our work. Help us build our houses, instead of assuming we have to — or want to — join you at your table. We don’t need you to create space for us, because that implies you are giving us something that cannot be given. It is our birthright too. Our capacity and right to tell stories is given to us by virtue of our birth into this world, just like anyone else.

And that leads me to 3. Stop with the paternalism. Let go of your attachment to this idea of being some kind of benevolent gatekeeper. You are not doing us favors. By supporting our stories and our right to tell our own, you are doing what you should have been doing all along, which is supporting all work, no matter where we’re coming from or what we look like. Funding and supporting the work of BIPOC storytellers is not some grand gesture you are making, it’s just what you should be doing, plain and simple.

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