A disclaimer: I first met V.T. Nayani more than a decade ago. She was a journalism school student who had shown up to a gathering I’d organized for the Toronto chapter of the South Asian Journalists Association. I still remember her shy smile and sparking eyes, and a slight hesitancy to stand out in that small group, as she expressed her interest in volunteering for coming events.
Over the years, I followed her career, mainly through Facebook posts, as she veered from J-school to documentary filmmaking to creating music videos, for such Toronto artists as Witch Prophet and Tanika Charles, to being on the set of an Ava DuVernay production. Her online ruminations suggested that each project was informing her journey on the path she eventually chose: filmmaking.
Now Nayani is set for a closeup of her own, as she gets ready to debut her feature film, This Place, at the Toronto International Film Festival. So when I was offered an interview with her, I jumped at the chance to catch up.
Dressed in a flowy printed dress, pom-pom earrings peeking from behind a curtain of hair, Nayani, 34, still has that same shy smile and sparking eyes. The hesitancy has been replaced with the assured confidence of an emerging talent eager to tell delicately complicated stories.
This Place is a love story between two young women: Kawenniióhstha (played by Devery Jacobs), and Malai (played by Priya Guns). But it is also an exploration of two young women negotiating their identities – Kawenniióhstha is Iranian and Kanienʼkehá꞉ka (Mohawk); Malai is Tamil – in the shadows of their familial histories. The story was co-written by Nayani and Jacobs, who was also recently seen in the critically lauded series Reservation Dogs, as well as Golshan Abdmoulaie, a poet with Iranian roots. Dialogues in Mohawk, Persian, Tamil, French and English are featured in the script, but it’s a very quiet film. The cinematography, especially the way the film lights its diverse cast, is what captivates, giving the work a lyrical quality.
Soon after we first met – “16 years ago,” Nayani reminds me – she quickly figured out that the 24-hour-news-cycle pace wasn’t the right fit. With a background in the classical dance Bharatanatyam and theatre, and having grown up on a steady diet of comedy, drama and coming-of-age stories, Nayani felt a pull toward narrative features.
“I think I’ve watched The Wedding Planner, I can’t even count how many times,” she says, exploding into a fit of giggles before rhyming off other favourites. “Anything that was kind of escapist or set in a dream world, even if it was based in reality – that was my bag.”
As a child of refugees who escaped the Sri Lankan civil war, Nayani regularly heard stories of back home; each tale became a part of their family lore. Moreover, she was a precocious reader, a trait nurtured by her parents and an uncle.
“My uncle worked at a book factory, and he would always ask me about what I was reading,” she says. He lived five floors below them in an apartment building in Toronto’s Flemingdon Park, and would regularly bring back a box filled with defective books. “I had four copies of Goodnight Moon.”
The story for her first feature film came to Nayani after she spent time in 2009 documenting the protests by Toronto’s Tamil diaspora to raise awareness about the brutal end to the Sri Lankan civil war. Amid conversations about why community members did or didn’t participate in those protests, a question from a family friend stood out.
“She asked me, ‘What does it mean to protest on Indigenous land? On this land that has effectively been stolen, for another land elsewhere that we also have no control of.’ These were heavy questions, and I paused the interview,” she says. “It forced me to confront how much I lacked a relationship with Indigenous communities here. How much that conversation wasn’t happening – or in my experience hasn’t been happening between racialized communities … and Indigenous communities.”
Nayani wanted to tell a story about the friendship between a Tamil and an Indigenous woman. However, she knew it wasn’t just her story to tell. She came to know Jacobs – who identifies as a queer Indigenous actor – through the Remix Project, a multidisciplinary training program in Toronto aimed at youth facing barriers pursuing careers in the arts. This Place is a result of a continued conversation that began in 2016 between Nayani and Jacobs, along with Abdmoulaie, whose family were refugees from Iran and Nayani met through community work.
The growing camaraderie and intimacy between the trio led to a sharing of histories, vulnerabilities and family secrets. The initial idea of a friendship between two racialized women morphed into a love story that wasn’t just a “trauma drama.” It also offered moments of joy and hope.
There are no clear answers to the question that spurred her debut, Nayani says. Instead, the process has allowed Nayani to reflect on her own relationship with Toronto, and forced Jacobs and Abdmoulaie to confront hard questions about the connections between their cultural pasts and contemporary lives.
“A lot of people have been displaced to this land and on this land,” she says. “So to call it This Place was intentional.” She also sees the film as “a practice of solidarity building through art. Which we don’t usually think about it through art, right? We think about it as activists and organizers doing work on the ground.”
“But I think real solidarity work is figuring out how we do that in multiple spheres of our lives.”
This Place screens Sept. 9, 16 and 17 at TIFF, with a digital showing available to watch across the country Sept. 14 (tiff.net)
Special to The Globe and Mail
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