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Director Thyrone Tommy's debut feature film Learn to Swim opens in Toronto and Vancouver theatres on March 25.Courtesy of Mongrel Media

If you watched Thyrone Tommy’s debut feature film, Learn to Swim, at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, chances are that its moody, jazzy scenes are still floating around your brain.

Images such as Dezi (Thomas Antony Olajide), a saxophone strapped around his neck, pouring his soul into the instrument, working through physical pain and grief, or Selma (Emma Ferreira) smiling beatifically into the microphone, bathed in the golden glow of recording studio lights. Like a sustained note lingering in a dimly lit jazz bar, images from the film dwell on your mind.

This meditative and musical look at the stormy romance of two jazz musicians came out of an exercise that Tommy and his co-writer Marni Van Dyk, both based in Toronto, participated in at the Canadian Film Centre in 2017.

“We went on these sort of speed dates, and walked in the garden there. We started talking about experiences with love, and experiences with grief and guilt,” Tommy said during a Zoom call from Los Angeles, where he was attending the Santa Barbara International Film Festival for the U.S. premiere of his film. “We’d both suffered. We’d lost partners. We started commiserating on that – and we decided to make a short film.”

That intimate film about a guy in an apartment going through feelings of guilt, however, didn’t get at the complexity of the story that Tommy and Van Dyk were truly interested in telling. The idea stayed with them and they decided to take it on as a feature project.

Dezi was always meant to be a jazz musician, Tommy elaborated. But in order for an audience to connect with his cantankerous character, a talented performer who brings out the best in others when he’s not playing mind games with himself, Tommy and Van Dyk needed to bring another character: Selma.

“Once Selma came to life, that’s when it led up to different time periods happening, and it just kind of expanded,” said Tommy regarding the film’s non-linear jumps back and forth in time, which are cleverly cut to suggest a continuous connection between Dezi’s past and present. This approach is anchored in soothing jazz tunes composed by Toronto musicians Chester Hansen and Leland Whitty of BadBadNotGood, TiKA, Casey MQ and Meagan De Lima.

The music was composed first, informing the beats of the story. Although Tommy had spent some time in New Orleans and really connected with the jazz scene over there, there’s a definite Toronto vibe to Learn To Swim’s soundtrack. There’s a celebratory mourning in New Orleans style jazz, which is “very much about a people in a specific place, and their race and their trials and tribulations,” whereas Toronto’s jazz is “more trying to get somewhere,” he said.

“I feel like musicians here are reaching out to the world and being like, ‘We’re here, and we want to go there. We want to transport ourselves with it,’” Tommy said. “The great thing with jazz is that you have a standard, and you can take it and riff and you can go wherever you want with it.”

Shot in venues such as The Emmet Ray and Adelaide Hall, as well as the recording studio Orange Lounge, the film jives with the local jazz scene. Olajide, who plays Dezi with a simmering intensity, had some practice playing a saxophone in high school, but did his homework and learnt all the fingering for the songs he needed to play. Meanwhile, Ferreira wrote the song that her character Selma performs as the movie opens. Other local musicians play cameo parts in the background.

Everyone came prepared to the sets, especially since the movie was shot on a tight schedule when COVID restrictions eased up in Toronto in December, 2020.

“We were actually 10 days away from shooting the film in March of 2020, and of course, COVID came and kind of shut it down,” Tommy said. While that production snafu added an intensity to the shoot when the cameras did finally get rolling, the summer break in between allowed the cast and crew to think and simmer on the project they were about to embark upon, he added.

Dezi was always meant to be a saxophone player because of the physicality of the instrument, which matches the emotional journey of the film that’s specifically told from his point of view.

“I grew up playing the viola, for example, which is a beautiful instrument – but it’s not terribly, physically demanding,” Tommy said with a grin. “But when I think about a horn instrument, just the idea that you have to breathe into it, force air through it. You really have to bring yourself to it. That resistance felt really pointed to us as we were writing the character.”

It’s also striking that the film allows Dezi and Selma, as well as the other bandmates, to just be themselves. While the film certainly reflects the racialized experiences of a Black man in Dezi, the narrative of Learn to Swim doesn’t necessarily focus on it.

“It is a movie about trauma … but he’s not sad because he’s Black, he’s not going through something because he’s Black. He’s just going through something we’ve all been through. It’s just told through this Black lens. It was important to me not to have a movie that’s living or dying on the political aspects of our existence,” Tommy said.

“Me and Thomas, who plays Dezi, were talking about it – and we hadn’t seen a movie that just shows a Black man in pain. And not pain because of police stuff, or political stuff. But just because of romantic pain.”

Learn to Swim opens in Toronto and Vancouver theatres March 25, with more cities to follow throughout spring

Special to The Globe and Mail

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