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Toronto filmmaker Emma Seligman's debut feature is the upcoming Shiva Baby.Emma McIntyre

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Like many of us, filmmaker Emma Seligman has had quite a year. She spent most of it hunkered down with her parents at their Toronto home, attended virtual events and looked forward to postpandemic reunions with friends and family. But on top of that, she excitedly (and quite uniquely) celebrated the release of her debut feature, Shiva Baby. The comedy is rooted in the complexities and embarrassments faced by twentysomething Danielle (Rachel Sennott), who is desperately trying to navigate social, familial and romantic dynamics while trying to find direction. All over the course of a shiva.

Since originating as a 2018 short by the same name, Shiva Baby has grown into a feature that’s been hailed for its wit, its characters and its sense of claustrophobia. Within minutes, it becomes impossible not to feel the weight of Danielle’s realities congregating into an inescapable force. And it’s also impossible not to draw similarities between her experience and our own as we reconcile the long-term effects of quarantine, forced introspection and the desperation to leave our houses, already.

Review: Oy vey, is Shiva Baby ever one smart, clever send-up of Jewish family meshugas

“It’s interesting because when SXSW was first cancelled for the [premiere], I sort of assumed the movie would sit on the shelf,” Seligman says over the phone from L.A. “I had low expectations, and I was exhausted from finishing the movie, so I had a delayed reaction. I was so tired.”

Interestingly, Seligman says now that the virtual experience has had its advantages. “It felt like I could actually be a part of so many festivals from so far away – especially regional Jewish and queer festivals,” she says. “[And] it was a dream come true to have Cameron Bailey do the intro and Q&A [at TIFF]. It was surreal. Every step of the way I’ve been surprised and excited because my low expectations were set at the beginning.”

Not that they should have been. After TIFF featured the film last September, Shiva Baby continued to make its mark at various digital screenings, earning deserved enthusiasm. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Danielle embodies the flailing, directionless feeling so many of us are grappling with as our own carefully curated worlds collapse around us.

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Originally a short, Shiva Baby has grown into a feature that’s been hailed for its wit, its characters and its sense of claustrophobia.Courtesy of TIFF

“As I’ve gotten away from making the short film, I’ve grown further apart [from Danielle] in the element of directionlessness,” Seligman admits. “I feel more comfortable that I have a future in this career. [But] I’ve been able to talk to so many students who’ve reached out for advice or [by] connecting with professors and doing virtual classes for Shiva. And it makes me realize how lucky I am to have not been in school during the pandemic and to know what I want to do in film.”

“I sympathize much more with Danielle in the last year because that’s part of her that I don’t actually fully relate to,” she adds. “I knew what I wanted to do, but I had no idea how to get there. So I appreciate that her directionless is reflected in so many other people this year, and I definitely appreciated her more. I think we’ve all felt directionless in some ways.”

And also confined. Shiva Baby is timely for a number of reasons, but the way Seligman uses space – or lack thereof – to represent Danielle’s increasing sense of claustrophobia is echoed in our own inability to physically separate from the spaces we’re largely confined to. Yet watching the movie has created the opposite effect for Seligman (and for this writer): It’s made those mandated, sometimes terrible family get-togethers seem absolutely incredible.

“I almost feel like there was part of me that made the movie as a way to reconnect with part of my childhood because it was such a huge part of my life [to see] my extended family,” she says. “I missed that sense of space already, [and] even more so in the pandemic or in this year of wanting to celebrate my movie. I wanted to be able to see my family in large spaces again and see their perspective. It made me miss being in rooms with people, even if it was noisy and claustrophobic. I really miss being around other bodies and being claustrophobic ... And even though my parents and sisters were with me for the past year, it was still lonely.”

Of course, that’s also how you can describe the process of releasing a film. In the wake of Shiva Baby’s TIFF premiere last year, Seligman’s been on the virtual festival circuit (which she says has been enjoyable), but it’s only this month that she’s been able to reunite with her cast and celebrate their work. And as we’ve all learned, that inability to physically connect takes a toll.

“Your first film as a feature director feels quite emotionally and physically draining in a way I wish that more people talk about,” Seligman reveals. “You’re staring at all these people’s faces in editing, and they continue on with their lives. The light at the end of the tunnel is that you get to see each other again and celebrate.”

So does it feel as if Shiva Baby (a movie about the very concept of death) has been laid to rest, or does its release symbolize something more for Seligman?

“I think part of the reason Jews have such a morbid sense of humour has to do with just coping with death and coping with tragedy,” she says. “And at the end of the day, it’s all on you as a director. I don’t see it as much as a death though as I feel like it’s giving birth. And usually that’s the metaphor that most film directors use. I feel like it’s letting go of your child.”

Shiva Baby is available on the digital TIFF Lightbox starting March 26, and will be available via other on-demand services including Apple TV/iTunes and Google Play starting April 2.

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