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Tamil-Canadian filmmaker V.T. Nayani wants people to ask what it means to be colonized while benefitting from colonization
Director and co-writer V.T. Nayani and producer Stephanie Sonny Hooker bring This Place to TIFF.
With This Place, V.T. Nayani became the first Tamil-Canadian filmmaker to bring a feature to TIFF. But what’s remarkable about her Toronto-set love story is that it doesn’t come off as the work of a singular voice. Instead, This Place feels community made. Nayani wrote the film alongside Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs and Golshan Abdmoulaie, who all bring their people’s stories to screen.
This Place centres on lovers in the midst of working through their own identities. Jacobs stars as Kawenniióhstha, a Mohawk woman searching Toronto for her Iranian immigrant father. Priya Guns plays Malai, a Tamil-Canadian woman who is working through her feelings about her own alcoholic father. A flirtatious glance shared between them at the laundromat becomes a romantic relationship weighted with shared history and trauma.
Nayani, Abdmoulaie, Guns and producer Stephanie Sonny Hooker spoke to NOW about the film on a Zoom call from their different corners from the world; between Scarborough and Golan Heights, the Israeli-occupied Syrian territory where Guns happened to be at the time of our conversation. The women spoke about the evolution of the film, what they all brought to the story and the questions they hope audiences ask themselves about allyship and what it means to be colonized while benefitting from colonization.
This Place felt like a homecoming for Malvern-raised actor Priya Guns.
NOW: Priya. You’re an author who is now having to act opposite Devery Jacobs who’s been in this business for a while. That just feels daunting. How is it that you’re the one that gets to embody these narratives about community?
Priya Guns (PG): I auditioned and I think they fell in love with my charm. That’s what I’m going with. I have seen Nayani’s work before and I knew of Devery. Working with Devery, she is a very humble, beautiful, wonderful spirit. Just watching her on set, I learned so much. Through the conversations we had when there were no cameras, I learned a lot about everything. It was it was a joy and a dream. In terms of community. I’m brought up in Toronto. I’m from Scarborough. I grew up in Malvern.
NOW: MT or Pearson?
PG: Pearson! I moved from Toronto in 2009 and I lived in different places. I’ve always been a visible minority. And so the question of home for me is something that I think about often. It always felt like I don’t know if I fit. Working on This Place was honestly a love letter and homecoming because it was the first time in my entire life when I was working with people who are Black, Indigenous, people of colour; working with women of colour who were fucking queer as fuck. You can be yourself.
NOW: Nayani, you said that the original idea was very different from what it became. What was the original idea and how did it develop from there?
V.T. Nayani (VTN): In the beginning, it was inspired by a question asked by a family friend Darshika Selvasivam – who is also our language consultant because everybody is involved with the film. She asked this question during the 2009 protests with the Tamil community here and globally. What does it mean to protest on Indigenous land for land elsewhere that’s been denied to us or is stolen. So the original idea was two friends: one is Indigenous and one is Tamil. They meet. What conversations do they have? That was all. That was the extent of it.
The familial narratives and love story bloomed with the writing process and Golshan and Devery involved. What was a story of friendship became a story of more than friendship, of falling in love, of coming-of-age. The story of two young women from different communities became about their families as well. The opening of the film is inspired by the stories of Golshan’s uncle and my father directly. There are parts of it that are inspired by Devery’s family. It became what it was because three people added to this one idea of friendship. And through friendship, all of it came together.
Golshan Abdmoulaie (GA): I feel like at the time when we discussed the two characters’ relationship, Devery was falling in love and coming into her queerness. So was I. And I was like, I think they should fall in love. I don’t know about them staying together because I’m a little jaded.
NOW: Talk to me about this idea of creating a queer relationship that all of a sudden becomes a site for unpacking Toronto identities.
GA: We were just trying to be ourselves and speak our truth and speak about the communities we’ve grown up and into. It wasn’t about overcomplicating it or making it a point of tension. Their sexuality or their experience is not going to be a point of tension for our communities and the surrounding characters. I think that was really important to get across. It’s just a normal relationship in the city of Toronto: people colliding into each other with really complex histories that we all have, whether we’re refugees or we come from the impacts of colonization. It was just about how all those things collide. And queerness is just a part of it.
NOW: But this relationship becomes this sort of metaphor for Toronto, maybe not intentionally. All of these people are bringing all these different things into this relationship. And there’s a collision course of family history, intergenerational trauma and different identities. This is now competing for ultimate Toronto movie because it’s among the first Toronto movie’s that’s really housing all of these things.
VTN: That’s the reason it’s “this place.” It’s a play on the word displace, because people have been displaced to this land and people have been displaced on this land. Toronto is this place where things just collide. You meet randomly somewhere, you have a moment, you build a lifelong friendship, you build a love story. I think that we wanted to capture that. Alex Joseph – who plays Malai’s brother Ahrun – says that one of his favourite lines in the film is “this shit only happens here.” I think that that’s what this film is about. This whole story could only happen here.
Stephanie Sonny Hooker (SSH): I think it’s also just a genuine representation of what happens when women like us get to be empowered to make a film. This is a reflection of our own experiences. We all ended up on this film together because we had something in common: all of the different ways we’ve been displaced, whether that’s the otherness of feeling queer or being the child of an immigrant or refugee or an immigrant or refugee yourself. All those things at some point come up when you see another woman who looks like you or sounds like you from the ends.
Reservation Dogs star Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs co-wrote pieces of her own life into This Place.
NOW: This sense of allyship between communities jumps out in this film. I’m going to home in on Priya and Nayani here. Because I want to talk about the Tamil community. I don’t often get a sense of allyship from the Tamil community – at least my generation of the Tamil community. We’re so in our own feelings, carrying our own trauma, we don’t think about what other communities are going through. We don’t have that sense of solidarity the way I see it in your film.
The most recent example of this: we saw last year when Palestinian-Canadians took to Nathan Phillips Square, protesting what was happening [in Sheikh Jarrah and the subsequent bombings]. Tamils didn’t show out. I didn’t see that support.
Just a couple of days later, what did I see? Tamils celebrating the Doug Ford government for introducing Tamil Genocide Education Week. This, right after the education minister Stephen Lecce responded to what transpired at the Sheikh Jarrah protests in Toronto by saying he stands with Israel.
We don’t see allyship with people who have mutual struggles. Talk to me about that.
Priya Guns (PG): Ummm hmmm hmmm.
VTN: That’s a big conversation. I do think that there is a lack of solidarity with other communities. That’s the point of the film really. What responsibility do we have to Indigenous communities here whose land we’re on?
Yes, we escaped and found some semblance of safety. And safety is a very complicated and complex word. That could be a whole different conversation, but we found some semblance of safety on land that’s been stolen, where violence is still committed against the communities that this land belongs to. That question kept running in my head that Darshika asked. And naively at the time, I wanted to make a movie about what that conversation looks like.
I see with a lot of younger folks there’s a lot more beautiful stuff happening in solidarity and understanding.
GA: I think a lot of communities who experience oppression themselves are not standing in solidarity with one another – not only Tamils. And I think it’s fair to say that oppressed people can also oppress. It doesn’t mean that we are free of that. And we are rid of that ability to do that to one another and ignore each other.
But ultimately your question points to capitalism and individualism. We are all participating in a capitalist society. That causes individualism and for people to have tunnel vision around their own interests. I cannot have a conversation about oppression, colonization, race and lack of solidarity without bringing in capitalism and how that really works as a divisive thing. And even in the film industry, it becomes very complicated and really hard for young people to tell stories and make movies without having a conversation about how capitalism impacts that.
As we grow and our movements become more co-opted and complicated by capitalism and by the liberal left, I think we’re going to see more of this division and this lack of solidarity and a lot of black-and-white politics around who’s right, who’s wrong, who’s going to participate in what and who isn’t. And so, I think we have a responsibility to also not allow our voices to be co-opted.
NOW: You just made me think right back to my Ford government example, where it’s like “let’s placate the Tamils while we vilify these others.”
VTN: I really hope that Tamil people come see this film. I hope that people from our communities come see this film. Because ultimately, it’s also something that’s not just supposed to be a reflection of them, but begs them to ask different questions about how we’re participating in society or how we’re not.
It’s great for representation but what is representation if it doesn’t ask us to interrogate ourselves and ask questions and reflect. I don’t want people to just come to the movie and say, “Oh, it felt really good to see Tamil, Iranian and Mohawk people on screen and other people around them.” I hope they walk away with heartache and headache, and joy and grief. I hope they walk away with all of the feelings and wanting to talk about.
PG: This is not unique to us, but our history is very contested. Every single Tamil home is very unique and different. In our house, it was “you don’t talk about the Tigers. You don’t talk about what’s happened. We’re here now.” And of course, this comes with privilege.
We see in Toronto specifically, there’s different narratives about the Tigers, about what’s happening back home, about what needs to happen back home in order for there to be some sort of change. And I think that we need to collectively understand how our struggles are unique community-to-community.
Someone who I’m very obsessed with and I think that every Tamil person and every socialist should read is Ambalavaner Sivanandan. And he says so beautifully how we can become communities of resistance by realizing how we are connected through our divisions and what they’ve done to separate us in terms of race and class. Based on that, we can come together as anti-imperialists, anti-capitalists and anti-racists.
NOW: I want to go back in time. The first time I ever heard of Nayani was when she had a small documentary called Shadeism. And then she was on the cover of the very first print issue of Tamil Culture back 2014. You have since mentored with Bradford Young (the director of photography on Arrival and When They See Us). You were part of The Remix Project. We talked about This Place in 2018. It’s been a long journey for you to get to this moment.
Talk to me about coming from a community that’s not often represented in the filmmaking industry and having to stick it out. How many times have you thought about just quitting?
VTN: An hour ago. I definitely almost quit a lot.
I am very much a reflection of what happens when a child is loved very well. I really believe that. My parents did not have much, but my dad’s love was the promise of all possibility. I have an incredible family. I know that’s a privilege in and of itself. And I’ve been loved by the community around me that has stuck with me and I’m with now. I finished the film with the people I love the most.
And I do believe that my parents deep-seated love in me has given me this delusional confidence that things will work out. There is a level of delusion that’s required to stay in this industry.
SSH: Not delusional. We made it to TIFF girl!