Art As And Within Community: A Conversation With Writer, Director and Producer V.T. Nayani
For much of my call with Toronto-based writer, director, and producer V.T. Nayani, I watched a sky so blue you could drown in it, dappled with feathery clouds, slowly slink across my laptop screen. She was driving and had placed me, within her phone, down next to her. Listening to her speak and watching the sky roll by through her car’s sunroof was spellbinding — one could easily tell that Nayani has been weaving stories all her life.
“I spent a lot of time in the library,” Nayani says of her childhood. “It was in some ways free childcare when I was growing up in the ‘90s.” She explains that she has always been enamoured of stories, having been, effectively, raised by them. And as she explains her background to me, the tale of her becoming and growing, there is a hesitant and aware vastness about her words that points to a deft understanding of her place within the world that all artists, writers, needs must have.
“My parents are refugees,” she says. “They came [to Toronto, Canada] as refugees, and they'll always be refugees in some way. A lot of migrants come here, and it’s a struggle. And when you’re displaced, it’s a different kind of experience. I won't say it's less or worse than others, but I think that it is a unique experience to be displaced, because oftentimes people who are in displaced communities like the Tamil community from what the world calls Sri Lanka — you left with almost nothing, and it’s a struggle to navigate daily life here.”
Though our backgrounds are significantly dissimilar, I see much of my own childhood reflected in the autobiographical portrait Nayani paints, depicting in delicate relief the South Asian first- and second-generation immigrant experience.
“There are a lot of hopes and dreams when you arrive in a place like Canada, [and they are] very different from the reality you face when you get here,” she says. Daycare was really expensive for her parents, she explains: “Childcare was challenging even with family because everyone was working so hard and trying to make ends meet.”
Her world of books provided by the Toronto Public Library’s various reading programs, which served as provisional daycare, was further enriched by a dreamy happenstance.
“My uncle on my father's side, a beloved uncle who has now passed, used to work at the HarperCollins Book factory, and he would bring home all the defective books,” she says. If a book had a tear or a misprint, the manufacturers would toss it. But a colleague of Nayani’s uncle developed a program that allowed employees at the manufacturing facility to claim the books with minor issues, meaning others could have access to books they would not otherwise. “I was always reading those books that he brought home. So my world was surrounded by books.”
She credits her parents for her reverence of narrative, both in English and in Tamil. “I was really taught to value the written word,” she says. “And because we're a displaced community, oral storytelling was huge. I don't know what my father looks like before the age of 30 — we don't have a lot of photographic documentation, definitely not video — so all the stories I have [about my parents’ pasts] are the ones that were told to me directly, orally.”
Storytelling, Nayani says, is an integral part of who she is as a person because of her family’s status as a displaced people. It’s this displacement that inspires a desire to hold on to things, lest they disappear forever. “Storytelling has been the thing that has helped our culture and our history survive when our community has been at risk of genocide in multiple ways,” she says. Stories, in other words, help to build connections, to build safety, and nurture feelings of at-homeness.
She speaks, too, of having been raised by television, simply because it was an easy way for her parents to keep her and her brother occupied. “We were allowed to explore storytelling in ways that I don't think a lot of immigrant or refugee parents allow their children to [do],” she says. “But my dad really never kept anything from us — the world was there to learn about.”
It ought to be no surprise, then, that the fluid and confident exploration of the various modes of storytelling that her parents fostered in Nayani is something she pursues in her work as an adult, not only as a creator (writer and director), but also as a producer.
Noting her love for the arts, that writing and drama came easily to her, Nayani says she went to Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly known as Ryerson University) to study journalism. “People laugh at me, but it's honest: I watched a lot of rom coms and I wanted to live in New York and I wanted to work at a big magazine, and I wanted to be an editor, and I wanted to write a column,” she says with a knowing smirk in her voice. “These were all things that were informed by the TV shows and particularly the movies that I was watching. I went to journalism school partially because of that. And also partially because by the time I got to the end of high school, I was becoming politicized.”
She saw in journalism a way to make sense of her identity as a “third culture kid,” along with the opportunity to communicate and make sense of pressing issues for the public. Around this time in her life, however, Nayani saw the beginnings of the broad adoption of the 24-hour news cycle by various news outlets. Nayani found this mode of storytelling, its flashy and sensationalist bent, unappealing. She turned instead to the subtler though still trenchant, and potentially empathetic, art of documentary filmmaking.
Nayani explains to me that to be a third-culture kid means to live in a culture different from one’s parents; it is to live in an environment different from one’s country of nationality for a significant portion of one’s developmental years. “It’s like an in-between space,” she says. It is the culture created by the frisson between where one is from, and the space one currently occupies, freighted with the knowledge of the past.
For Nayani, being a third-culture kid means creating art informed by a worldview shaped by her community. “My perspectives are shaped by the people that I grew up around and was raised alongside,” she says. “Not just my parents, but a community of elders, my friends’ parents, my aunties, my uncles, people that worked in the neighbourhood at the rec centre, at the library. All the people that I grew up with, they were all racialized. So I think that's informed the kind of worlds I want to tell, because those are the worlds I occupied.”
She shot a short documentary on colourism and shadeism in a documentary class in her final year of school, which she extended into a feature film after finishing her undergraduate degree. She describes working on 2015’s Shadeism: Digging Deeper as a “guerilla film school,” because she shot, directed, wrote, and produced the film herself.
"My perspectives are shaped by the people that I grew up around and was raised alongside."
In a glimmering sense, Nayani is a wonder and marvel for the many skills she has learned and taught herself. Her curriculum vitae is deeply impressive. In addition to storytelling through film, she is a doula, a yoga teacher, has worked for film and music festivals, has directed music videos, and even had a stint at the CBC, producing and researching various stories. She is an alumnus of CBC’s Workshop for Diverse Creators, Hot Doc’s Accelerator Program, and of BlackStar Film Festival’s William and Louise Greaves Filmmaker Seminar. She has also received the UN Women Yvonne M. Hebert Award for filmmakers and photographers. In September of 2022, her narrative feature debut, This Place, had its premiere at the 47th Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), as part of the festival’s Discovery Program. She has also been a part of TIFF’s Next Wave program, which highlights emerging filmmakers.
“Somehow I got here through all these twists and turns,” she says with a laugh. “It's been an unconventional journey. I always knew [I was going to land on] storytelling, but the audacity and confidence to do film and TV took a while for sure.”
Of the many remarkable things that Nayani does as a creator, perhaps the most precious and self-aware aspect of her work is the space she creates for other creators as passionate about storytelling as she is. Her work as a producer, which is deeply informed by the multifaceted work she does in all aspects of her life, creates space on the Canadian film landscape for diverse voices.
She explains that her work as a producer stems “from a community background, this practice of mutual care and mutual aid, these ideas that I've been raised with and that I very much believe in politically and socially. This access that I have, that I have built up over so much time in this industry, is no good if it's only me.”
“It's really difficult to get to this place where you get to make this work [that I do], because it is very restrictive, no matter how many [Diversity, Equity, and Inclusivity] DE&I initiatives we think there are,” she says. “It's so hard to navigate these spaces. They are not built for most people. I think even white women feel like it's not built for them. So if they feel that way, how about the rest of us?”
“In this [field of] seemingly infinite challenges, having access is not a small thing,” she explains. “Whether it's access to funding, financing, access to decision makers, gatekeepers, access to studio lots, or rental equipment. I have a lot of friends who are BIPOC producers who have been working for a long time. They'll utilize their access to get good rental quotes for younger filmmakers, or [they will executive produce] their films to provide guidance and be able to support them with the access they have to resources. That's why producing is important to me. We have access. We worked really hard over time to build it.”
“I don't believe that because it was hard for this person, it should be hard for the next person,” she says. “That's a limited, scarcity-based mindset. And why would we want people to struggle more than we have? The point is progress, right? So what a praxis of progress looks like is utilizing the access that you have and the resources you have, to make it easier [for others after you]. And producing is one way to do that, because producers are the ones who have more experience, and they can make these big dreams happen for [other] creatives, for storytellers.”
When I ask her whether she’s seeing that younger and diverse voices and visions are creating change within the Canadian film and TV production landscape, meaningful change that won’t be reneged upon, Nayani pauses to think. And then she giggles.
“There’s ducks! Sorry, geese,” she exclaims. Earlier in our conversation she had pulled over and had lifted her phone up to her face, and I watched as her face bloomed in seeming realization of the coincidence of my question with the appearance of the Canada geese. Consummate professional that she is, though, she swiftly returned to answering my question, her brows furrowed as she worked to sufficiently speak to the vastness of Canadian media and its production.
“I can’t talk about it without talking about race, because I am a racialized woman,” she says. “I think Canada thinks it doesn't have a racism problem, or it likes to push that rhetoric, that it's this place of multiculturalism and people coming together and everyone having space and everyone being welcome. I think that that is really challenging in the film and TV space because everyone thinks they're well-meaning and that they care, [while] everything that is actually a problem often gets swept under the rug. And so we're not addressing the issues that are consistently happening. Like, I don't think we have as much money as so many other places. Our industry is much smaller. We do have a limited amount of platforms that consistently make stories and content. I'm speaking more about TV. I think in the film space, it's still challenging because accessing the larger funds is always a challenge. There is gatekeeping that happens and there's all these checks and balances that are in place that prevent a lot of people from accessing funding.”
This is not to say that there haven’t been changes for the better, she continues, especially change shepherded by BIPOC creators. “But I'm still nervous to say that people won't go back on it or that it's going to change much further anytime soon,” she says, her voice measured and steady.
“I still have questions and I still have doubts,” she continues. “[In] speaking to other BIPOC filmmakers, a lot of us want to leave. A lot of us want to have access to other markets, to be able to work in the U.S., in the U.K., and do co-productions. Even my peers who were like, ‘No, I really want to stay in Toronto,’ [...] are [also] feeling like it's a challenge. I [don’t] think you can sustain yourself, to be honest, as a feature filmmaker here in Canada. It's just not sustainable. There's not enough work to continue just doing films forever unless you've got money through some other resource, whether it be family or something else. It's really hard to be sustainable here because there's a lack of work and there's a lack of money and resources. I'm interested to see what happens when the streamers continue coming in.”
“I'm generally a very optimistic and idealistic person,” she says. “And I think that we will continue to create spaces as BIPOC [creators]. We'll continue to create work, we'll continue to make things happen. And we have time and time again. We always have, we always will. But in terms of systemic shift, I don't think that's happening as fast as it could.”
Nayani notes that she does not mean to suggest that the U.S. is a haven for BIPOC creators, rather she means that the American industry is larger and better funded than the Canadian industry. There is a timbre of frustration in her voice as a righteous sadness spurs her on. She points to the greater number of BIPOC showrunners in the U.S. and U.K.
Her love for Toronto, for Canada, is evident in her thoroughgoing criticism of the system wrapped around us, and her simultaneous care and tenderness for Torontonians and the diverse communities working and thriving here. It is this latter diversity, its strength and fortitude, that is celebrated on her latest feature, This Place.
The film itself is, on a certain level, a celebration of BIPOC creators. Though directed and co-written by Nayani, it is additionally penned by Golshan Abdmoulaie and Devery Jacobs, the latter of whom stars in the film alongside Priya Guns. It is produced by Stephanie Sonny Hooker.
“I could never write [this] story on my own,” Nayani says. “That just doesn’t make sense to me.” The film follows Jacobs’ Kawenniióhstha, a Mohawk-Iranian young poet who moves to Toronto to reconnect with their father, and Guns’ Malai, a Tamil undergraduate student trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life. As they fall in love, each of them confronts their thorny relationships with their pasts and their families.
“When it's not my story to tell, or my particular POV, then it's going to be collaborative,” she explains. She notes that after meeting Jacobs through mutual friends, the two, alongside Abdmoulaie (a long-time friend of Nayani’s), organically arrived at the powerful and sweeping love driving the plot of the film.
“Some people argue that it doesn't matter who you are — you can write any story,” she says. “I don't think that's possible without the participation of [individuals] from those communities. And I think it's really important that we learn to put our ego aside and figure out how to work collaboratively and in community with care. I'm hoping that more people continue to do that. Ethically, I could never live with myself if I had tried to tell This Place by myself.”
This Place is soft and light, all violet and pink and powdery, pale blue as it caresses its dual protagonists who seem endlessly to be hounded and beleaguered by their pasts pursuing them into the present. The tenderness and care of This Place is not incidental.
“We have been subject, as BIPOC communities, to so much harm and disregard and disrespect and violence and all of the bad things,” she says with warmth in her eyes. “And [at the same time] we have unearthed within and amongst our communities, so much hope and gentleness and care and mutual aid. And — I don't want to say resilience, I want to say hope. We have joy and hope, amidst all things, historically and presently. I really believe in tenderness. I want people to feel a sense of tenderness, and I want us to exchange tenderness.”
Nayani’s goal with her art is to deliver to us the sense of feathery safety and calmness that Kawenniióhstha and Malai share in some of the film’s most achingly gentle scenes, compassionate as a lover’s patient caress.
The tenderness Nayani is extending to her audiences is one she extends furthermore to herself. When I ask her what we can expect from her in the near future, she tells me that she is taking it slow.
“Working on an indie film can take a lot out of you,” she says. “It feels like a long hustle, a non-stop grind. I don’t like to live that way. I don’t think that we should be grinding, I don’t think that’s healthy.” She is taking her time as she continues to write and work on a series that is very personal for her.
Most importantly, though, she says: “I’m dreaming.”