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Maya Bastian discusses her film about a woman contemplating life fighting with the Tamil Tigers and the reaction to Deepa Mehta's Funny Boy
TIGRESS (Maya Bastian) as part of the Reel Asian International Film Festival. 13 min. Tamil with English subtitles. Screens through November 19 at reelasian.com.
Tamil-Canadian filmmaker Maya Bastian’s previous short film Air Show was resonating with people before it was even made.
The film, currently streaming on CBC Gem, is about a Tamil father and his daughter living in Parkdale, where so many refugees land, and being re-traumatized during the Canadian National Exhibition, when roaring war planes fly above and trigger memories of genocide in Sri Lanka.
Bastian was making the film with no money but was getting community support. Sterling Studios provided gear and equipment for free because they believed in the project. CBC’s The National came to visit the humble set in an apartment rented out by Bastian’s sister, because, especially with the recent arrivals of Syrian refugees, people were getting louder about their dismay with military display.
Bastian, tapped into the zeitgeist, putting on screen an anxiety over the air show that was being felt beyond the Tamil-Canadian community. She even got supportive messages from Canadian veterans. And now the filmmaker hopes to find the same empathetic connection among Canadians with an even more personal story.
Bastian’s latest short, Tigress, is a poetic and intimate rumination on what her life would have been had her family not fled war in Sri Lanka. The lush, sensual and poetic film, which is making its Toronto premiere at the Reel Asian International Film Festival, stars Anne Saverimuthu as a Tamil-Canadian named Trina who looks in a mirror during a night of hard partying and is confronted with an alternate version of herself, the one that never left Sri Lanka.
On one side of the mirror is a diaspora girl. On the other side is a young soldier fighting alongside the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), aka the Tamil Tigers. Reflections abound in Tigress, literally, when light hits the ocean waves or the fragments of glass that decorate jungle scenery, and figuratively in a story about someone from the diaspora taking in the weight of their privilege.
Tigress has not been getting the same overwhelming support as Air Show, likely because it lunges into far more specific, politically loaded and divisive subject matter. Portraying the Tamil conflict, and the Tamil Tigers in particular, can be a minefield, as Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta learned last year when she released an adaptation of Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy. The controversy around that film largely focused on the casting of non-Tamil actors who butchered the language in a story about queer Tamil trauma in Sri Lanka. The issue was covered extensively in a roundtable discussion with Mehta, Selvadurai and Tamil academics.
Unlike Funny Boy, Tigress was not shot in Sri Lanka – not for the lack of trying. There’s something to be said about the access a Tamil filmmaker has when it comes to telling their own stories. On the eve of Tigress’s premiere at Reel Asian, Bastian discussed the complications in telling a story about Tamils and the war in Sri Lanka, the importance of capturing the nuances in conflict zones and why she was hurt by Mehta’s arguments defending the casting in Funny Boy.
Filmmaker Maya Bastian’s film Tigress contemplates what life would have been if her family stayed in Sri Lanka.
NOW: Let’s start by discussing the initial inspiration for the movie.
Maya Bastian: I was working for an NGO as a videographer in Sri Lanka in 2009, just after the war ended. That was my first time really being on the ground in a post-conflict situation. It was tough, especially because it’s my own people. Working with the people who had experienced war firsthand, all the traumas came crashing down on me. I would look at myself in the mirror and ask who would I be if I was born there.
Just a small twist of fate or less money, less privilege, we would have been there. I questioned whether I would have joined a rebel movement as a teenager. I think I would have as a teenager, because I was really rebellious. I was an activist. I had a really strong voice as a teenager. A lot of these people were very young. They joined when they were 14 or 15. That’s really where Tigress came from.
In no way am I looking to support the actions of the rebels. But what I do think about a lot is these young teenagers who joined: some of them willingly, some of them not so willingly, some of them indoctrinated. You would see nine-year-olds with AK-47s. Tigress came out of the question of who would you be if you were born in a conflict zone? What choices would you make differently?
NOW: Can you be more specific about what you were doing in 2009?
MB: One of the things I had to do sitting at the NGO was just read first-person accounts for days and days on end. I read accounts from some women who were my age. It was so intense and awful. It started this whole journey looking at conflict and post-conflict in a way that I did not see represented in media: On-the-ground voices instead of some white reporter going in and learning from the people. That really elevated my need to get it right and to tell the stories from the people’s viewpoint and to look at the nuances of conflict and not just say this side against that side. That’s what we’re told by the media. It’s the Sinhalese against the Tamils. It’s not that at all. There’s so many nuances to what’s happening in these places. And if we don’t look at the nuances of it, then we don’t get a full picture. We sit in our privileged easy chairs and make judgments. I don’t think that that’s fair to anyone involved.
NOW: School me a little here. What do you mean about the nuances, that it’s not just Sinhalese versus Tamils?
MB: I traveled around Sri Lanka a lot from 2009 until about 2013. I talked to people everywhere. You can’t say the Sinhalese hate the Tamils or vice versa. That’s not really what it is. At that point, it was the government against the LTTE. The way people feel is all individualistic. We were talking to a man when the Tigers bombed a sacred tree and a nearby market. He was telling me, “When these rebels put bombs on a bus, who’s on the bus? It’s not just Sinhalese. Everybody’s on the bus.” He was talking about how they were not specifically targeting the army. Their actions were targeting a lot of different civilians. The same goes for the government. They aren’t just targeting the LTTE.
We were in small villages in the east. A Tamil guy came up to me and handed me a flier promoting the president Rajapaksa. I asked the NGO workers I was with, “He’s Tamil. Why is he doing that?” And they were like, “There’s a lot of Tamils who change sides, are supportive of the government and can be the eyes and ears of the government in Tamil villages.”
Even in war zones, when you go in Jaffna after the war, there’s no communal feeling. Everybody’s out for themselves. War makes you very individualistic. It makes you just want to survive and take care of your family. Even within the communities in Jaffna and in the north, they’re all struggling on their own, doing their own thing. How they interact with each other is really interesting. Not everybody gets along. There’s all these different factions. This person supports the police. This person supports the rebels. This person supports this political party. It’s very nuanced.
NOW: Let’s talk about this big wide gulf between diaspora Tamils and Tamils on the ground. There’s so many complications in that sentiment where diaspora Tamils are probably more pro-LTTE than Tamils on the ground. You know this gulf. You lived this gulf.
MB: I don’t think that you can blanket statement anything. Even within the diaspora, there are those who are pro-LTTE and there are ones that aren’t. Again, it’s very individualistic based on their own experiences. Even within my own family, there’s family members who had their own family killed by the LTTE. So obviously they’re against them. Then I had other family members who are more vocal and outspoken and want to support them because in the beginning they were freedom fighters. Tamil people needed someone to help them because they were being extremely put upon. They had no help. And then all these rebel factions sprouted up. We’re like, “Oh, they’re freedom fighters. They’re going to help us.” The LTTE started getting more corrupt and not really caring about the Tamil people in the same way. We all saw that happen. Anybody’s perspective, whether it’s diaspora or in the country, it’s very individualistic.
The film, for me, looks at the layers of privilege the diaspora have here in the West. And not just Tamil diaspora. The layers of privilege we all carry. I can choose as a teenager to rebel by doing drugs and partying and raving all night. That’s my rebellion and nothing really bad is going to happen to me. But, in Sri Lanka, during the war, how do you rebel? How would you rebel if you were a Jaffna Tamil or a northern province young person who was feeling like you had no choice? What were your options? Your options were to die, try to get out, which a lot of people who don’t have money couldn’t get out, or join the movement.
NOW: How did those experiences from 2009 influence the making of Air Show?
MB: When I came back in 2009 and was there was a garbage strike in Toronto. There were piles of garbage everywhere. It was so hot. It stank. Everyone was complaining. And I was like, “the privilege that we have to complain about a garbage strike after coming back from a war zone.” I was just really in that mindset. And I was struggling a lot. I did have a mild form of PTSD. I was a dog walker. As I’m walking around, I’m re-experiencing all these things that I had seen and witnessed. And the air show happened and I was so frozen in fear from these planes flying overhead that I had to call my partner at the time to come and get me. I could not move from the sidewalk. This was 2009. I didn’t make Air Show till 2016, but that’s where it started in my head. Every year, the air show is happening and I started to think, “What the hell?!” These same planes fly and kill people in multiple places in the world. How can we sit here and say we’re welcoming and open to immigrants and refugees, when the planes fly directly over Parkdale, which is where a lot of refugees and immigrants land when they first get here? I was just infuriated.
Anne Saverimuthu plays a girl from the Tamil diaspora and her alternative version fighting alongside the LTTE.
NOW: And Tigress is your next big project after Air Show.
MB: Tigress is the biggest short film that I made. It was funded by the Ontario Arts Council, the Toronto Arts Council and CBC. CBC pre-bought it, which I normally don’t do. It was just on the success of Air Show.
NOW: But you couldn’t shoot in Sri Lanka.
MB: I wanted to shoot in Sri Lanka. I tried to get it made there. I did approach people and no one wanted to touch it. Even the idea of us putting an actor in an LTTE uniform was not something that we could do. The government needs to approve scripts. They need to have a script rep on set. As a Tamil person, it wasn’t something that was going to happen. Perhaps if I was Deepa Mehta and I went and said I wanted to make a movie about the LTTE, they would have allowed it. But I’m not that. She’s one step removed from the whole situation. I honestly don’t know if I can ever make any of my films there.
NOW: Let’s talk about that. While you were trying to get Tigress programmed at film festivals, Mehta was confronting criticism about her casting choices by asking why Tamil people didn’t make a movie out of Funny Boy if we are so concerned about getting the language right in films that represent us.
MB: For a long time as a filmmaker, I revered Deepa Mehta. I even got the opportunity to work on her set and shadow her a little bit on Midnight’s Children when she shot that in Sri Lanka. I thought she was brilliant.
The things that she said about Tamils when she was put on the spot about not casting Tamils in a film about Tamil trauma were horrific. They were offensive. And they were very misinformed. It hurt me because I’m a Tamil filmmaker and because I could not make my own film in Sri Lanka. And because I know that even with the release of Tigress, I might have issues. It hurt me deeply. And I saw how it hurt the community.
When you’re telling stories about trauma, people are going to get outraged. People are going to get upset with you. That is the nature of trauma. You’re never going to tell a perfect story about someone else’s pain. You’re never going to do it. I can’t even tell a perfect story about Tamil pain, because it’s all individualistic. The best thing that you could do is community consultation – a lot of research. Try your best and then if people call you out be humble and apologize.
We are past the time where someone should be making a film about someone else’s pain. Unless you’re doing heavy consultation, and unless you’re doing deep research, don’t do it. There are so many amazing Tamil filmmakers right now. There are enough of us to tell our own stories.
But I also watched Funny Boy with my parents and my daughter. I have confusing feelings about it because it was monumental to see Black July on screen with my 10-year-old daughter and with my elderly parents. For multiple generations to sit there and watch this on screen: It was a moment. Have there been any other films that have shown this? No. That was a moment. It was beautiful to see onscreen. And I wish that it had been done better.
NOW: Let’s get back to the struggle of telling your story, getting it played in festivals and such, and the struggle your actors may face in Sri Lanka for a story portraying Tamil Tigers.
MB: I cannot promote this film in Sri Lanka. I don’t know that it’s going to get played there. There’s many emails that have gone unanswered in terms of just even seeking support there. I have a wonderful community of people that I love in Sri Lanka but right now with the political climate there, I don’t think it would be allowed to be shown. It’s a nuanced situation and we have to be very careful.
I’m not promoting the LTTE. I’m not promoting violence. All I’m talking about is my perspective as a diaspora person who is questioning the life I’ve been given. It can and may be misconstrued. But I’ll bang that drum till I’m dead. I don’t support violence. I just want to talk about the reality of my ancestors.
Every Tamil person knows someone who was either in the LTTE or was killed by the LTTE. It’s just always going to be a part of us and we should be talking about it. I’m going to keep doing it. It’s not been easy. We applied to many, many, many top tier festivals, but did not get in. TIFF has never supported my work, ever. It was hard. It was disheartening. I wondered, is it because of the political nature of the film or is it because it’s not a good film? Ultimately, it found its home at Festival de nouveau cinema in Montreal, which was our premiere, which is a fantastic festival.
NOW: I see some symbolism. Tamils struggled to find a home. Your film struggled to find a festival. But even people within the Tamil community can be divisive with a film like yours.
MB: I was in Cambodia. I was in Palestine in 2020. I’ve been in a lot of different conflict and post-conflict zones. What I have learned is that it is divisive by its very nature. Like I said, it’s very individualistic. When you are in a war zone, your choices become every man for himself. And that extends past the life of the war.
You go to Jaffna now, you’re still going to see that very individualistic atmosphere. It’s not something that you can just turn off. When you get to a place where you are fighting for your very life and the life of your family, that comes first. Any culture, any diaspora that has been through what Tamil people have been through, are going to be divided. You’re never going to get a warm welcome from everyone. That’s something that I carry with me all the time.
I’m never going to be fully supported all the time. And that’s their right. I want to hear all the sides. It makes me a better filmmaker and makes me a better storyteller. I’m okay if someone hates it and tells me all the things I did wrong. It’s not going to make me stop doing what I’m doing. It’s just going to make me better. I really do take community consultations very seriously.
I think we should be critical of the things that are going out that are about us. I’m so glad the Tamil community rallied around and got critical around Funny Boy and said, “Hey, we don’t want to be represented like this.” Because for the first time in a long time, we came together. That’s not something you see when you’re coming out of war zones and there’s trauma. If we can come together and say we don’t like this as a group, then it gives me hope that we can continue to come together to support the things that are important to us.