Toronto’s V. T. Nayani is exploring difficult family legacies with her film This Place, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), starring Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs and Priya Guns.
Jacobs, who also co-wrote the film alongside Nayani and Golshan Abdmoulaie, plays Kawenniióhstha. She’s half Iranian, half Mohawk and was raised on Mohawk Territory with her single mom, but has just moved to Toronto for school. Guns play Tamil student Malai, her mom passed away and her father’s alcoholism got to the point where she and her older brother moved to their own apartment. She finds out that her father is battling terminal cancer, and has to work through a possible reconciliation with him in his last days.
The two girls meet at a local laundromat and there is an instant physical connection. When Kawenniióhstha leaves her notebook there, the two begin to form a relationship, which includes learning about each other’s cultures and communities.
For filmmaker V.T. Nayani, a question from a family friend sparked the idea for this film.
“A family friend asked me a question that really changed my life and was the inception of this film - what does it mean to protest on Indigenous land that's been stolen for land elsewhere, that we're also being denied?” Nayani told Yahoo Canada. “I think people remember the 2009 global protests against the genocide of Tamil people in Sri Lanka and during those protests here in Toronto, I kept thinking about, what does it mean to protest here and participate in action outside of our home country, in our homeland?”
“I never considered it, I think it's because I was never raised, in the school system that we grew up in, to understand our responsibility and relationship with Indigenous communities here, especially as immigrants and refugees, and particularly racialized immigrants and refugees who have shared colonial histories and experiences that are not great.”
In terms of crafting this narrative, Nayani knew she couldn’t develop this story on her own, particularly thinking about accurately portraying all the characters in the story, that’s how Jacobs, known for her acting role in Reservation Dogs, came on board to participate in writing this story.
“I knew I wasn't meant to write it myself, that didn't feel ethical, for me it had to be collaborative and she really loved the base idea, and where it was coming from, and the questions that we wanted to ask through the film,” Nayani said. “I think it's very much a story of the difficult conversations that need to happen, but also the solidarity and love that can be built and birth through art making.”
It’s that commitment to really showing these two women learning about each other, and breaking down the stereotypes that they each had about each other, that really makes This Place such an impactful story, and truly a very Canadian story.
“It was a long journey of building trust and a lot of vulnerability, and having hard conversations about knowledge of each other, or lack of knowledge about each other, and then also infusing that into the film,” Nayani said. “One of my favourite scenes,...they're in a hookah lounge and Malai says something about her ideas of what a Mohawk person looks like, and Devery’s character challenges her.”
“I think those are conversations that happen and we didn't want to shy away from that because those are also moments, if you can get through that, that builds relationships.”
'I feel absolutely honoured to be a visual representation of a queer Tamil woman'
As part of this collaboration process, V.T. Nayani, explained that initially the two women just formed a friendship in the movie, but through the collaborative work on the story, a budding romantic relationship became the more effective path.
“They were originally just friends in the movie and then Devery Jacobs was falling in love and there were a lot of people falling in love during the process of making the movie, and so we're like, ‘they should fall in love,’” Nayani explained.
“Love includes all of this mess and joy and complication, and awkward conversations and silences that mean everything. I think we wanted to show them falling in love for the reason that there was a connection being built on not just being attracted to each other, which you see right off the bat, the first thing is attraction and no words, but as you hear them having these conversations and sharing about their lives, they're learning about themselves.”
For Priya Guns, while she feels “honoured” to be part of this film, she also recognizes that portraying this queer Tamil woman brought up some nerves.
“That was really nerve-racking in terms of my own understanding of myself and coming out,” Guns told Yahoo Canada. “I didn't tell my parents, my mom is just a Google wizard and found out like last year, and then having to have those conversations, that was difficult.”
“I feel absolutely honoured to be a visual representation of a queer Tamil woman in an English-speaking film.”
Exploring Malai’s relationship with her brother was also a highlight for the actor.
“I really appreciated her relationship with her brother because I have an older brother, and my brother and I together did a lot for our family, when things were difficult, and I think that relationship and that dynamic is something that will resonate with a lot of folks,...because it's very real in our communities,” Guns said.
“Sometimes we don't have these particular conversations with our folks because it takes a lot and it's a lot that they're also carrying.”
At the end of the film, Malai is telling her brother that Kawenniióhstha is her girlfriend and she tells him that she’s half Mohawk and half Iranian, and her brother responds by saying, “that sh-t only happens here.”
While a relatively light line, it’s reflective of the fact that Toronto is always recognized as being a particularly diverse city, a melting pot of different cultures coming together, but unfortunately, that’s not always what we representations of the city and the people that inhabit it, in films and television.
Through Nayani’s work, we’re filling that gap in our local storytelling in a way that is touching, thought provoking, entertaining and culturally important.