From veteran directors to first-time feature filmmakers, immigrants continued to tell compelling stories at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) that was held from September 5-15, 2019. Canadian Immigrant spotlights a few these talented voices who brought their own newcomer experiences to the big screen this year.
Atom Egoyan, an Egyptian-born Canadian stage and film director, writer and producer is not new to critical appreciation on the festival circuit. His much-revered 1997 Canadian drama, The Sweet Hereafter won multiple awards and nominations internationally. TIFF critics even declared it as one of the top 10 Canadian films of all time. Egoyan was back this year with Guest of Honour, a quirky, psychological drama about a troubled food inspector who targets ethnic restaurants while dealing with a family crisis. “Human beings are very complex — infinitely complex — and that’s what excites me about making movies,” he said in an interview with the Toronto Star.
He says examining the way food is prepared and viewed offers an interesting window into where our culture sits today. “To close restaurants, or to have the ability to actually cut someone off from their livelihood over something that they see as being essential to their own identity, that to me was a very interesting metaphor to work with for this particular movie,” he told the Star.
American-born, Calgary resident, Semi Chellas is best known for co-writing two Emmy Award nominated episodes of the American television show, Mad Men. The talented screenwriter dazzled TIFF audiences this year with her debut feature, American Woman, inspired by the 1974 kidnapping of Patty Hearst, granddaughter of media magnate William Randolph Hearst. “The best movies for me are about larger-than-life characters, and so many of those are to be found in real stories,” Chellas said in an interview at a TIFF news conference in July. “I think that’s always very inspiring and delicious for storytellers, when they come across those characters in life that are hard to know and ask us to imagine our way into their stories.”
The film was backed by Telefilm Canada, who is committed to supporting female-led projects. They recently announced that 59 per cent of their production funding in the last fiscal year went to projects featuring at least one woman as a lead producer, director or writer.
Rehearsing for an interview; starting off as an intern when one has a master’s degree of education from their country of origin; being told, “Do well at your day job and earn your place…”. Sound familiar? Chances are that most newcomers to Canada have been in a similar situation or have seen a family member or friend through one. In her debut feature, Easy Land, Serbian-born Canadian director, Sanja Zivkovic looked to her own life experiences to showcase the challenges refugee and newcomer families face in Canada. She doesn’t hold back as she relates the story of a single immigrant mother who is also dealing with mental health issues. The film had its premiere at TIFF in September this year and is getting a lot of love from critics and festival audiences.
For Zivkovic, who immigrated from Belgrade to Burnaby, BC, in 1994, it was a story she needed to tell because it was a big part of her own life as an immigrant in Canada. “When my family first came to Canada I was only six years old but I still remember those first years quite vividly. My dad went from working as the Director of the National Bank in Serbia to a clerk at a local bank and my mom completely changed her career because her degree was not recognized. Everyone in our community of ex-Yugoslavian immigrants seemed to be going through the same struggles, yet they were very creative about getting their foot in the door to rebuild their lives and took any opportunity they could, as Jasna does in the film,” said Zivkovic in an email interview.
Serbian actress Mirjana Jokovic plays Jasna while Serbian-born Canadian actress Nina Kiri – best known for her role as Ofrobert in The Handmaid’s Tale – plays Nina, Jasna’s teenage daughter. Nina is not only coping with high school life in Canada, (another issue that immigrant and refugee families in Canada have to deal with) but is also dealing with her mother’s volatile behaviour. Canadian film critics praised the film for its authentic portrayal of not only what life is like for refugee and immigrant families in the process of settlement but also how the film actually looked on screen – dreary and desperate, tinged with a sense of hopelessness. Zivkovic and her film were part of this year’s Discovery programme at TIFF which featured a diverse lineup of 37 films from emerging filmmakers representing 35 countries, including 33 world premieres and four films making international debuts. Several films were part of TIFF’s endeavour to encourage more women directors to showcase their work – just over half were directed by women.
Presenting vital perspectives of immigrants
“As someone who migrated to Canada and has since had the opportunity to build a career in this country’s film industry as well as abroad, it filled me with immense joy to see so many works by and about immigrants represented in our lineup,” said Dorota Lech, Lead Programmer for TIFF’s Discovery section. “The stories of immigrants, and the children of immigrants as well, offer insight into vital perspectives that are essential in today’s political climate. Whether stories of immigrants coming to Canada, or elsewhere in the world, it is exciting to have the opportunity to present these voices to Toronto audiences.”
Another filmmaker who agrees that it is a great time to be a woman filmmaker in Canada is German-born Sofia Banzhaf who screened her short film I Am in the World as Free and Slender as a Deer on a Plain at the festival. The story of a young woman exploring her sexuality told in a non-judgmental and primarily observational manner had the critics and audiences applauding Banzaf’s take on the current dating scene. “I wanted to tell a story that was relatable and contemporary where a woman isn’t objectified and actually turns the tables on the men she is seeing,” she says. “There is so much more opportunity now for marginalised voices, be it people of colour or women. There is more gender parity, funding avenues have opened up and the need for diverse voices has made this the best time for an aspiring filmmaker or artiste to break into the industry,” says Banzhaf.
Banzhaf’s love for the arts dates back to the time when she immigrated as a teenager to Newfoundland and became part of a school known for its music program. “My greatest learning was from watching movies! I went to France for a year and really fell in love with filmmaking and anything to do with it. I watched a lot of French New Wave cinema. Then I went on to study film in Montreal. The city is an experience in itself; it’s full of young people experimenting,” she fondly recalls. What advice would they give newcomers making their first film? Says Zivkovic whose next feature focuses on immigration: “I feel under qualified to be giving advice to immigrants who want to be filmmakers. Being a filmmaker in general is not an easy or simple path, and we all have to work very hard and find our own way to make the films that we want. However there is also a great advantage to being an immigrant, your experience will be different from other people in Canada and you could use your voice to tell authentic stories that otherwise wouldn’t have been told. I feel like Canada is ready to support these voices.”
Banzhaf has some valuable practical advice for immigrant filmmakers. “I’d say the most important thing is to seek out people who will help you, even cold emailing people you think could guide you. The other thing is to become savvy about funding – become familiar with grant applications, it takes a lot of time and effort to convince people to fund your project. And watch movies!,” she signs off.