One of the most exciting, affecting indie releases at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is Canadian writer-director V. T. Nayani’s feature debut This Place. Starring Devery Jacobs (Reservation Dogs) and Priya Guns (Tide of Lies), This Place is a queer love story about two young women of colour living in Toronto, forced to live with and confront difficult family legacies.
Ahead of the film‘s TIFF premiere, Off Colour’s Keshav Kant sat down for a revealing conversation with Nayani and Guns on the heart and soul poured into the making of This Place.
Keshav Kant: Now that TIFF is done, how are you both doing?
Priya Guns: I landed yesterday from the UK, so I’m hanging out right now. But I feel really excited. I never thought that this day would even happen. You kind of dream of it. I’m a Scarborough kid and TIFF always just seemed so far away. And now here we are!
V. T. Nayani: Since the moment we found out, it’s been a whirlwind. And then now it feels like a roller coaster, and the premiere’s tonight. There’re so many emotions, but I’m just trying to stay present and grounded and enjoy the moment, because it’s not guaranteed. Somebody told me, ‘You should enjoy it because it’s your first time, and it’s never like your first time sharing your work.’ I’ve been to the festival as a filmmaker – going into the conference, hearing talks, fencing movies – but to have your film in the festival for the first time is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and there’s no guarantee it will happen again. So I’m just trying to enjoy it for what it is – tiredly!
Kant: I’m sure you’re coming back, we both know it! This movie took you quite a while to make. I think a lot of times when viewers are watching a movie, they forget how long it takes, and how much effort goes into making art. Having been through all that, premiering at TIFF later today, how are you feeling about your journey so far?
Nayani: It’s been hard. Making an indie film, especially as racialized women from BIPOC communities, is not easy. A lot of the team are also queer women; nobody expected this team to get here. The fact that we’re here and we got through is, I think, quite literally a miracle.
Money is always an issue with films. Sometimes your team changes, sometimes a story shifts, you have a pandemic, you can’t film your pickup scenes, all of that happens. I know so many other projects that have also been impacted by the last few years. But outside of that, just the business of filmmaking gets in the way of the creative, and that part is hard. Because we are artists, we’re storytellers. It’s important, as a director, for directors to understand the business of it – but you also still want to be focused on the creative.
There were many times I thought I might have to bankrupt the film at some point. There were real moments where I was like, ‘How are we going to pay for this? How are we going to get to the end of this? How are we going to see it through?’ And we kept pushing – sometimes delusionally exhausted, can’t see straight, just out of it.
I am so thankful we get to share the film at home! We’re Toronto girls, we’re both from the east, and it’s so nice to have a film made by a girl who grew up on the rez, in Kahnawake, and a bunch of refugees from Sri Lanka and Iran and all over the world. People from every part of the world have participated in this film and it’s so magical that we now finally get to celebrate. It’s a huge deal, a huge accomplishment just to finish it.
Kant: I love that you touched on the significance of being women of color and having queer folks on the team. It’s hard because avenues are not open to us all the time. I’m really glad you’re having this discussion, making it more acceptable for creatives to talk about the process of having to do business in the creative world as well.
Nayani: One thing is, we’re not people who come from a filmmaking family or backbone – we don’t have endless funds. In fact, most of us – all of us, actually – are caregivers, and we help our families and have people relying on us. We don’t have the luxury of a bank account we can just pull money from. There’re no investors (we can ask to) just give us the money to make our passion project. The reality is, as artists , we are people with everyday lives with everyday responsibilities that require funds – and the priority is not always going to be financing a film.
Guns: You have to constantly learn something that someone else just takes for granted as general knowledge, or basic things. Even little things, like looking up grants or to looking up ‘how do I find an agent?’
Nayani: Filming an audition – like, how do you do that?
Kant: If you’re doing voiceover, you have to send samples. There’s so much.
Nayani: So much of it is inaccessible. Earlier you mentioned (grassroots non-profit) BIPOC TV and Film – shout out to Kadon and her team, she’s a dear friend – and spaces like that do exist. But how do we make things more accessible, so that filmmakers feel like they can do it, artists feel like they can tell a story? Whether you’re a writer, or director, or producer – whatever it is you want to do, it’s important to be able to see it and have spaces to learn and have conversations around the work and know what the steps are. We need more of that.
Whether you’re a writer, or director, or producer – whatever it is you want to do, it’s important to be able to see it and have spaces to learn and have conversations around the work and know what the steps are.
Kant: I heard a quote from director and writer Matthew A. Cherry: “It takes many years of hard work to become an overnight success.” Priya, can you share a little about how working on This Place was different from your past experiences? You’re also an author and working on a PhD – you got a lot going on!
Guns: I have never been in a working environment like I have on This Place. The nature of the script itself is written by three people (along with Nayani, writer Golshan Abdmoulaie and star Devery Jacobs) – it’s very collaborative, and so it is on set as well. Everything just felt so warm and comforting. Honestly, it sounds cliched, but I felt like on set, I could just be. There were people who made me feel like I was already a frickin’ movie star or something – like, ‘Do you want a water?’ Like, ‘Shit, no I’m fine.’
There were a lot of little things that perhaps a male director, for example, wouldn’t even consider – for example, in one of the more sensitive scenes we did a Maori exercise, and there were less people in the room. I thought Nayani did such a good job of ensuring that anyone who was in front of the camera was okay and feeling all right if there were scenes that were more emotional or that could have triggered some sort of trauma. Everyone on set was always aware, ‘This is what’s going to be filmed today. Let’s be kind, let’s be sensitive to each other.’ Because it was very emotional in so many ways, different scenes spark different emotions for all of us. There’s so much about This Place that resonates with different people, even if you don’t belong to those particular communities.
Kant: This movie’s scope is multigenerational, and it covers some serious stuff – alcoholism, abandonment, loss. Can you talk a little more about how you went about creating a space where you could have those conversations and feel supported?
Nayani: I really wish we’d had the budget for having a therapist on set. But we tried to create a safe environment to at least have conversations and pull people aside and say ‘I want to talk’ – that base existed. Our makeup and hair team, led by Ray (Dre Brown) and Mike (Mikey Elliott), was incredible. They really created a lot of space, as they always do on every set – and it’s labor! Unsung labor that hair and makeup do, to really make people feel safe and ready.
Having people who on our team are from the communities was also important – a large part of our team was BIPOC. Most of the heads of departments were BIPOC women; there were a lot of queer folks on our set in lead roles – our producer, a bunch of our writers, crew. Everyone there, for the most part, had a sense of the responsibility of what we were doing, and we were trying to learn about each other and be present for each other in ways.
I think it started with the writing. It required so much vulnerability and courage with Golshan, and I don’t say those things lightly. I always say, we could have either hated each other at the end of it or deeply loved each other – and it’s just a bond for life. Thankfully, it’s the latter! We don’t really finish a conversation with each other without saying ‘I love you’. They’re really part of my chosen family at this point. So I think that set a precedent and an energy from the beginning of the film, where people understood that’s where it was coming from.
The first day, we did prayer and rituals in honor of the communities and had conversations, and I had a big talk about how this is real for all of us. I remember a day where Priya and Alex Joseph, who plays her brother Arun, were having some really difficult scenes in their apartment. I told people on the set, ‘I want us to understand that this is real for us, particularly as Tamil creatives, and I want the quiet and the respect that this day deserves.’ We all really took the time to create space for that – people understood that these were our stories, and we were very clear that we were not messing around! Like, ‘You were invited and trusted to be here; it’s a privilege to be part of this.’ I’m thankful we had some great allies involved who really honored that.
In future projects, I would love to have therapists present. I have also a background as a yoga teacher and a doula – I think that helps, maybe that energy translates. It can be applied to this work – we’re not doing brain surgery here, nobody needs to be yelling, no one needs to be having arguments and fights, and if we do disagree, we figure out a way to deal with it. But the goal is always mutual respect, and care and community, and a lot of us comes from that work. So we’re bringing the principles of community work to our filmmaking process.
Guns: It felt like there was a mutual understanding among everyone, and I think that’s a testament to Nayani’s direction and production.
Kant: Finally, what would you like people to know before they dive into This Place? What do you hope that they walk away with when the credits roll?
Guns: I still have to see the film! I feel like I’ll have a more nuanced answer tomorrow, potentially. But from remembering being on set and the script and whatnot, I think I’d like them to understand or to consider what This Place means to them.
Nayani: I hope people walk into it with open hearts and open minds – but I also hope when people leave, they have questions, they want to have a conversation, and they want to consider reflection personally. I also want people outside of our communities – and I mean outside of BIPOC communities, outside of queer, LGBTQ+ communities – I want people to understand that it’s a privilege that we’re allowing them into our communities and into our worlds and our experiences. And I want people to honor that privilege of being let in, because I think it is a privilege to be among our stories and us.