(TorontoStar) TIFF 2022 Q&A: director V.T. Nayani explores what it means to be an immigrant or refugee and seek refuge on Indigenous land in her feature debut.
For her debut feature film “This Place,” director and writer V.T. Nayani explores the connections between love, family, cultural identity and how they tie into the way First Nations peoples, immigrants and refugees relate to Toronto, and Canada.
Co-written with actress Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs and Golshan Abdmoulaie, “This Place” is a queer love story that goes beyond the palpable chemistry of its lead characters Kawenniióhstha (Jacobs) who is Iranian and Kanienʼkehá꞉ka (Mohawk) and Malai played by Tamil actress Priya Guns, to show how relationships between racialized people from different backgrounds create opportunities to learn about each other, and to divest from preconceived ideas about others that are formed through the lens of colonialism.
For the film’s world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), The Star spoke to Nayani and Guns about the importance of giving space and voice for conversations about the complex struggles First Nations people and immigrants face on and behind the camera.
Carolyn Hinds: As an immigrant myself, having moved here from Barbados in 2009, your film resonated with me because it talks about loneliness and abandonment from the perspective of being in a community of your own people and culture, but still feeling like you’re not a part of it, because you’re not connected to your homeland. So, V.T., what was it about this particular story that resonated with you that made you want to work with Kawennáhere, and co-write the script with Golshan, and Priya what made you want to play Malai?
V.T. Nayani: I think for us — both of us are Tamil and from what the world knows as Sri Lanka — our families arrived here as part of the displaced community. That experience of being in a new place, not by choice necessarily, is something that’s always informing our lives … It’s the same for you to right, Priya?
Priya Guns: Yeah.
Nayani: And so, I think that story was always in me and Golshan also, as a refugee herself from Iran, who’s one of the co-writers. That part of our experience was always informing everything that moves us forward. It felt totally natural to start there with the first feature, and I think a lot of filmmakers start by doing something very personal, and I think that’s what we did.
Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs, with her family — she is Mohawk from Kahnawà:ke outside of Montreal — but her character in the film is a mixed race (person), so what does it mean to look at it through the lens of, “I have a father from somewhere else, and I have a mother from here, and what does that mean for my identity?” We wanted to explore that immigrant refugee experience through multiple lenses.
Guns.: For me personally reading the script, and it being ‘This Place’, it’s a play on displace.
I moved away from Toronto in 2009. Partly because I felt lonely or alienated for many different reasons, one being poor — I think you feel that in a capitalist society. When I’ve lived elsewhere, feeling … that desire to (be) a real part of the community, but not have that. After being in the film, it made me really think about, you know, what communities am I a part of, and almost wanting and yearning for that. So, that really connected me with the script.
Hinds.: This film is also the second I’ve seen that … refers to the Oka Crisis, which happened in 1990, the first being “Beans” by Tracey Deer. And for a lot of people, especially a lot of immigrants, they move to Canada thinking Canada is a utopia, [but] Canada has a lot of racism, a lot of xenophobia, especially towards Indigenous people.
It’s interesting that you have Behrooz (Ali Momen), the father of Kawenniióhstha, who says, “I left Iran because of conflict, and I came here and there’s conflict too.”
A lot of people when they leave their homelands like refugees, they flee to Canada as a refugee, but they’re not thinking of how Canada itself has a lot of issues for Indigenous people as well as for other people of colour. I don’t think a lot of immigrants do research about how racism is permeated through Canadian culture, and how capitalism affects immigrants. Because when you move here, you face racism. I’ve experienced racism as an immigrant and Black woman here.
Did you have any discussions about how those topics were being handled in the film, and your own experiences as well?
Nayani: It was a constant conversation that was happening, even the first day of set. The rituals that we did. The conversations that we had.
We were having conversations in makeup chairs, in hair, (in talking about costumes with) our costume designer Charlene (Akuamoah). There was constant learning and effort to learn. And I think that was really critical, but also, natural. We just really wanted it to be a space and set where that conversation was possible, and I think because all of the writers were on set a lot, we were able to answer people’s questions.
And … spending four years together, writing a script, having intimate, vulnerable conversations about your own communities, your notions about each other, or lack of knowledge about each other, I think creates this kind of trust and fertile grounds to keep having those conversations and to invite other people into that conversation.
Guns: For me reading it off the page. It was written in a way where you can’t help but ask certain questions, or you can’t help but wonder, “Oh! Why is this here? Why are they having this conversation?”
Reading the script, I knew I wanted to be a part of this. I (could tell that Nayani), and everyone else who’s involved — if they have written this, you know, they’re gonna film it, and it’s going to be produced in a way where you can feel comfortable to have those conversations.
Nayani: I appreciate that.
Hinds: For the two of you, what does the title “This Place” mean? Because I find for this film it has many different meanings. One of the things that struck me at the end, was in the beginning Kawenniióhstha, when she arrives in Toronto, she passes by this mural, and we don’t get to see the flag of the (six nations) of the Haudenosaunee at first, but then at the end, we get to see it. We finally get to see what she actually stopped to look at, and in that moment “this place” represents this place Canada. This place Toronto, but also this place where we are individually and as a people emotionally, and you’ve arrived at this place of, not full resolution, but this place of like, “OK, I can take the next step forward,” is what I interpret it as.