TIFF ’22 Alumni Spotlight: V.T. Nayani

Posted: Sep 7, 2022

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V.T. Nayani is reimaging the future of storytelling by cultivating new projects that are aligned with the diverse future that creators and audiences alike aspire to see in film and TV. The multihyphenate director-producer-writer has dedicated herself to honing her craft and expanding her talents through ongoing education and artistic expression. Nayani is an alumna of CBC’s Workshop for Diverse Creators, Hot Docs’ Doc Accelerator Program, Reelworld Film Festival’s Emerging 20 Program, and BlackStar Film Festival’s William and Louise Greaves Filmmaker Seminar in addition to her residency in the Norman Jewison Film Program Directors’ Lab. But the real fruits of Nayani’s artistic exploration and commitment to her craft can be seen in her affecting debut feature This Place, co-written and executive produced by Nayani and fellow alum Devery Jacobs. The queer love story, which premieres at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival this September, follows two young women — one Iranian and Kanienʼkehá꞉ka, the other Tamil — living in Toronto and dealing with difficult family legacies. This Place features music by Slaight Music Residency alumni Kalaisan Kalaichelvan and Alexandra Petkovski (FJØRA), and editing by Maureen Grant.

We sat down with Nayani to catch up on her latest creative projects, her journey to TIFF, and her plans for the future. Read on in the spotlight below. 

Congratulations on your debut feature This Place, which will have its world premiere at TIFF ‘22. Can you tell us how this project came to be and the inspiration for the film?

Over a decade ago, in the wake of global protests against the genocide of Tamil people in Sri Lanka, a dear friend of mine posed this question to me: “What does it mean to protest on Indigenous land that has been stolen, for a homeland we have been denied elsewhere?” This was a question I’d never been asked before. It was an inciting moment that started me down a new path, to reflect carefully on our relationship with (or lack thereof) and critical responsibility to Indigenous communities. Colonial legacies of violence and oppression specifically connect countless Indigenous and racialized immigrant/refugee communities, not just in this place, but throughout our histories, and across land and water. I am grateful to friends and family, who have continuously held space for me to learn beyond the standard education system, beyond the narratives we’ve been fed, beyond what systems and structures of oppression do not want us to learn.

From the moment my friend asked me that critical question, I started reflecting on what a film could look like, set in a city like Toronto, with Indigenous and immigrant communities at the center. I’d never seen a story like this, where the intersections of our communities are explored, where difficult conversations are had, and where we can come together through what is shared. Knowing that it was not just my story to tell, I started thinking about who I could collaborate with. In 2016, through mutual friends, I was fatefully introduced to my now dear friend Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs. I shared my early ideas with her, for a film focused on the friendship between an Indigenous woman and a woman of colour born to refugee parents. Somewhere along the way, my dear friend Golshan Abdmoulaie (a refugee herself from Iran), joined us on this journey of writing. From there, a story of friendship grew into a story of love. Together, we created the world of This Place, one that is informed by our own experiences and that of our elders, out of love for our communities and care for each other’s. What started as something inspired by a critical question of responsibility became a continued practice of building relationships, of better understanding each other, and of believing in the possibility and power of solidarity work through storytelling.

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This Place stars Actors Conservatory alumna Devery Jacobs

What’s the most exciting thing for you about this film getting into TIFF?

It is a dream come true, which I really never fully let myself dream [was] possible. I will always maintain a childlike wonder and excitement, but I’ve also learned to quietly balance that with measured expectation. To have the film premiere here at home, with the world visiting and watching – what a privilege, what a blessing, what a joy. When we got the call from Canadian Features programmer Kelly Boutsalis to let us know our film had been invited to have our World Premiere at home, at TIFF, we bawled and screamed out loud. (After that, I was running up and down the stairs of my dear uncle and aunt’s home in Boston, to give my family loud updates). My producer Stephanie and I were overcome with emotion, crying, telling Kelly more about our journey than she probably had the time for at the time. (Laughs) But she was so gracious, so kind, and so sweet. It felt like she was as happy to tell us the news as we were to hear it. It was especially beautiful to hear this news from a Mohawk woman. How rare is that in the film festival world? To have a programmer carefully watching, considering, and selecting your work, who is actually from the communities reflected in your film. That also feels like something that could only happen in Toronto. This Place is about this place, the city of Toronto where our lives first crossed paths, where we first chose to come together, and where we created this film as a collective of multiple communities. To have it premiere in this place, our city, at one of the biggest film festivals in the world, feels like pure, sweet, utter magic.

This Place stars Actors Conservatory alumna Devery Jacobs and is co-written and executive produced by both yourself and Jacobs, can you tell us your experience working alongside Devery to bring this project to life?

From the moment I met Devery at a coffee shop in Toronto, through mutual friends, I felt a kinship. There was an ease, kindness, and care that was palpable in her. I had never met someone like her before, and I’m sure it will continue to be a rare occurrence, to cross paths with a soul and heart like hers. She has a quiet, powerful, and rooted confidence, which is a reflection of her glorious heart and unwavering rootedness. She maintains a beautiful and rare balance between loving kindness and tender honesty. It’s been a privilege of my lifetime to work and create alongside her, a person who was once a stranger, who then became a collaborator, and has now become a part of my chosen family. I am just so proud and in awe of her, always. There are undoubtedly many talented people in our industry. So many of them have come through the CFC itself. But too few have her shining and deeply kind heart. I tell everyone all the time that I have never met anyone like her. Talent, she has in multitudes. Without a doubt. We all know it. She’s one of one. But her integrity, care, honesty, and heart – those are unmatched. They are what have stayed true through our whole friendship. She has taught me so much by just being who she is. She deserves everything she dreams of, to infinity and beyond. I am grateful to call her my friend and chosen family, and even more grateful to witness her journey so closely and watch her continue to bloom.

The film also features music by Slaight Music Residency alumnus Kalaisan Kalaichelvan and Alexandra Petkovski (FJØRA). What is the creative process like between you as the director and the musicians scoring for the film? Did you have a specific vision for sound?

I first met and collaborated with Kalaisan on a CFC assignment, during our time in the CFC Film Program and Slaight Music Residency (‘21). Kalaisan was matched with me to compose a potential piece of music for a scene I was directing. As soon as I heard it, I knew that I wanted to invite him to work on This Place. In fact, I remember telling him that his beautiful composition wasn’t right for the assignment, because I wanted it for our film. Though later, that piece never made it into the film, because what he did end up creating for our movie was beyond even what I heard a preview of prior. What felt like a seemingly random pairing on one assignment, has now become what I view as the fateful crossing of paths, which led us to this moment here and now. It means something special and sacred to me, to have worked with fellow Tamil artist and storyteller from Toronto, collaborating slowly to create what I feel with all my heart is a fresh, otherworldly, and breathtaking score for This Place.

But honestly, I can’t take any credit for what he conceived and created. It’s all him. He seemed to immediately understand me and my creative inclinations on a deeper level, tenderly talking through the process with me and cultivating the score that folks will soon hear in our film. I also can’t take credit for the incredible community of musicians he somehow convinced to be part of our film, including the wondrous Alex (FJØRA). When hearing the pieces that she is featured on, I didn’t know at first that it was her vocals weaved into the score, until Kalaisan told me afterwards. All I felt was immediate gratitude, that two incredible artists like them took a chance on my first feature film, making the choice to contribute to our communal story. I never imagined that on our small indie film, I would have the privilege of working with a real composer and real live musicians. And yet here we are. It’s been an absolute pleasure and privilege to collaborate and create with them both on this project.

What do you hope audiences will feel and learn after watching your film?

I hope audiences feel a sense of privilege, of being let into our lives, our communities, and our stories, for a brief moment in time. Because truly, it is a privilege to be amongst us and be invited to witness our stories. I also hope audiences feel the pull to reflect on and to reimagine our relationships to each other, across all communities. This film is specific in its focus, and universal in that specificity. I truly believe there is something in it for everyone. Because everything between love and grief is a common experience, for all people, everywhere. No one is exempt from the tragedies and heartbreaks that beget grief, nor the feelings of joy and sense of hope born out of love. I hope people are compelled to ask questions and to have conversations. I hope the film wants to make you fall in love again (or for the first time!), hug your elders, and keep nurturing the community around you. And finally, I truly hope it leaves everyone remembering the innate power and possibility of love, in all its infinite manifestations.

When did you first know you wanted to be a director / filmmaker?

I am the daughter of two mighty-spirited and tender-hearted Tamil refugees. As members of a persecuted community, my parents escaped a decades-long armed conflict in Sri Lanka. They arrived in Toronto over 35 years ago, the place where I was born, raised, and still reside. My lived experiences, and that of my elders, ground and motivate my work. My passion for storytelling is my greatest inheritance, birthed through a desire for generations of stories lost to us through conflict and displacement. I have a specific sense of responsibility as the daughter of displaced people, to not only document and preserve, but collectively reimagine a present and future we can have a say in, through my work as a writer and director for the screen. For me, life is a continuous series of moments, some with the potential to change everything. My family’s arrival here was one of those moments. I became a filmmaker and storyteller precisely because I am invested in documenting pivotal moments of possibility like these, as well as what precedes and follows.

How would you describe your style as a storyteller? What types of stories do you want to tell / themes do you want to explore in future films?

The words I would use to describe my storytelling at this time are: hopeful, tender, thoughtful, nuanced and loving. I am a big kid with big dreams of creating boundless heart work, within and beyond our little-big galaxy. I want to tell stories about love in all its forms, which remind us of the courage and joy made possible through love, as well as the power and potential of grief that comes from loving and being loved. Through my heart-work for the screen, I am most interested in and focus on creating stories that are based in both lived realities and multiple imaginations, exploring what it looks and feels like to come of age, at every stage of one’s lifetime. Coming-of-age stories often chart times of change for young people. But as a storyteller, I believe we are all continuously “coming-of-age” – not only within ourselves, but in communion with others. I am invested in exploring these stories with curiosity, respect, and tenderness. Ultimately, the goal is to create across boundaries, mediums, and platforms, creating for film, television, and digital spheres alike. I have a few exciting and quiet things coming together at the moment, which will be a mix of stories that invite us to laugh out loud, cry quietly, nod emphatically, take deep breaths, and talk to both our screens and each other. My hope is to have the privilege of continuing to create heart-work that makes us feel all the feelings.

Can you share some highlights of your experience in the CFC’s Directors’ Lab, and if/how it has prepared you for this special moment in your career and moving forward?

My time in the CFC Directors’ Lab gave me a needed space for incubation, introspection, and re-imagination. I was moving through one of the hardest times in my professional journey and I just really needed a safe landing pad to reflect, to explore, and to create again. It was an honour to learn alongside my incredible director peers Cazhhmere (a longtime friend), Hamza, Mary, and A.W, as well as all the other incredible participants across the various labs. I felt such joy playing and learning with them all, as we each cultivated and strengthened our skills in our respective spheres of the screen industries. During that time, I rebuilt my confidence, reimagined my future, and prepared myself for the possibility of more. I am here today, because I had that time to quietly practice and reignite my creative spirit. I am forever grateful for my year at the CFC, which gave me the space, time, and support, to both re-root myself and get ready for the ever-evolving journey forward.

What have been some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned in your career to date?

  1.  Trust your gut. About people. About projects. About your purpose. About the possibilities you can’t always see, but know deeply are there waiting for you, just beyond the bend. Learn to hone your intuition, strengthen it, trust it, and believe it. You know what’s right for you. Hear people out, seek counsel from who you trust, listen with care and openness, but don’t let anyone convince you of what’s not right for you. Only you should hold power within you. No one should hold it over you – ever.
  2. Find your community. One that you trust, that you love and respect deeply. One where you champion each other, where you support and lift each other up. This industry can be incredibly isolating and lonely. But with the right people around you, with others of your own heart, mind, and spirit, it is beautiful and magical and ever-affirming.
  3. Believe in your vision. And be open to that vision shapeshifting, with new learning and blossoming. When you know why you’re doing what you are doing, and what your purpose is in that process, you cannot fail in the long-game. You can be questioned, challenged, delayed, and doubted, but that abundance of inherent knowing within you, however quiet it is sometimes, will always prevail when you believe in your vision.

What is next for you?

SLEEP! I’m not joking. (Laughs) But also, finding a way to get This Place out into the world, so audiences globally can witness and experience our work. And I am working on my first original series, shame, which I started developing while at the CFC. It’s a deeply personal story, which intimately explores the themes of body politics, sexuality, intimacy, and (surprise!) coming-of-age – though this time in one’s 30s. Also, I am available for all director-for-hire work – get at me for all TV, film, and other directing work!

This Place screens on September 9, 16 and 17 at TIFF, with a digital showing available to watch across the country on September 14 at tiff.net.

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