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Shadeism: A conversation with director Nayani Thiyagarajah

 At the end of last year, GEM hosted a private film screening of ‘Shadeism: Digging Deeper’; a documentary by Toronto-based director and film-maker Nayani Thiyagarajah. We invited Nayani along with executive producer Muna Ali and post-production & associate producer Camaro West for an intimate Q&A session with our GEMgirls and staff after the screening and chatted about teamwork, travel and the role of documentary film-making in creating positive impact and social change. Here, we sat down with Nayani to learn a bit more in depth about her process, challenges and motivations:

A: Tell us a bit about your background and inspiration for Shadeism.

N: This issue of skin tone, of certain shades being considered “better” than others, was never missing from conversation while growing up. Though we did not have a name to call it then, we could feel its presence in dialogue amongst family and friends. With Shadeism, I pulled from an issue that was pre-existing, one that has haunted ours and other communities for centuries. It is deeply embedded in the psyche of too many people, a direct result of colonial histories, and neo-colonial systems and structures. Moved by the challenging experiences of family members and friends, my reflections on these systems and structures that influence and often dictate so many of our ideas and “ideals”, and a desire for something better for all of us, I decided to begin work on this film, which would hopefully unearth new conversations, and inspire transformative, healing dialogue of varying degrees. In 2010, while I was finishing up my undergraduate degree in broadcasting as the Ryerson University School of Journalism, a team of incredible classmates and I moved forward on creating a short documentary, which aimed to take an introductory look at this issue. Through our research, we found a name for this: shadeism. This word shadeism (also known as colorism) describes the discrimination based on skin tone, which exists amongst members of the same community, creating a ranking of a person’s individual worth based on shade. Since publicly releasing that film online five years ago, we worked on the feature doc follow-up, which was completed in 2015.

A: What was the most significant connection you drew from the personal experiences and cultural perspectives of everyone you interviewed?

N: First, that the majority of indigenous peoples and people of colour across the world did not escape the wrath of violent colonial rule for centuries, and that this history is sadly something that connects us both then and now.

Second, that though we share similar issues and challenges as a result of painful histories, we cannot forget both the stark differences between the experiences of different communities of colour and the subtle nuances between the experiences members of the same communities. Yes, many of our ancestors experienced colonialism. And yes, today many of us face racism and various forms of oppression. But there were and still key differences in the kinds of violence and pain we experience, based on key factors including race, gender, and religion. We also, in other communities of colour, participate in and contribute to anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity. As such, we have much work to do when it comes to challenging racism and discrimination within communities of colour and indigenous communities, so that we can be better allies and nurture more solid ground for solidarity.

And lastly, that all women-identified folks continue to experience a disproportionate amount of violence in many forms, based on gender, race, shade, class, etc. The threat of ongoing violence is the saddest and often most common thing we share.

A: What were the biggest challenges you faced in the production process of Shadeism and how did you overcome them?

N: Budget. The budget is always rising. You always seem to need more money. New costs always come up. And you have to make hard decisions and challenging choices based on budget, or lack thereof. Especially as independent filmmakers doing this thing for the first time, when folks are waiting to see what you can do. First-time filmmaking is a necessary challenge – it prepares you and builds you up, bringing you closer to the filmmaker that you were meant to be, who works with the learning curves, while still finding ways to bring a fresh lens to filmmaking and going against the grain where necessary.

Ethics. As a filmmaker working on a documentary project, you have to keep checking in with yourself and your team, to make sure your approach to filmmaking remains ethical and honest. To manipulate the words and stories of those featured in your film is very easy through editing. There is a fine line and you need to stay committed to telling the truth. Nothing is worth altering what is intended by those who are courageous enough to contribute to your film in the first place. There is no “better” story than a true story. Stick to the truth and it will never steer you in the wrong direction.

Impostor Syndrome. As a first-time filmmaker, – and I’m sure even as seasoned filmmakers – it’s easy to feel like an “impostor.” It’s easy to second-guess yourself. To wonder why you are doing the work you’re doing. To question your own capacity and right to be a storyteller. To feel like a “fake” even. I had to keep telling myself that I wasn’t perfect and that no one was expecting me to be. I had to remind myself constantly that I was still learning. I had to check in with myself throughout the past five years of working on this film and reassure myself that my intention, vision, and talent make a formidable trio. That I have enough in me to carry me through and keep learning, so that I only prove to become a stronger storyteller by continuing to practice my craft over time.

A: What’s next for Shadeism?

N: We are preparing for a 2016 university/college tour across North America, while also exploring licensing and distribution options with public broadcasters and online streaming platforms.

A: Your perspectives on what role you think documentaries play in creating positive social change.

N: Documentaries call us to question what is. In the 24/7 news cycle world that we live in, where we are saturated with stories, moving so quick that we most often cannot keep up with everything, documentaries ask us to sit down, make time, and be thoughtful with any given subject matter. They ask us to look more closely at our world and its people. I think the role of documentary films, and any films for that matter, is to spark something in its viewers. Not every film is going to change the world. Not every film will even change every person who sees it. But what films have the power to do is challenge us, move us, affect us in ways that inspire hope, care, critique, and perhaps even a feeling of urgency to do something. I wouldn’t necessarily reference to this power as the role of documentaries or film. but a result of them. Filmmakers, like painters and poets and and dancers and directors are all artists at the end of the day. I don’t know if all of us create because we think that our work will change the world. But what I do know is that we create because we feel. Our feelings move us to create work that questions, that challenges, that affects, that says something. And I think what is truly magical is that which is born out of our own feelings has the capacity and potential to spark feelings, similar or otherwise, in another person.

A: What advice would you give to our GEMgirls who are interested in pursuing a career in film and/or the arts?

N: Trust your vision. Believe that if something came to you, it came to you for a reason. Trust your work. Believe that if you are doing the work, things will work out as they are meant to. Trust the struggles. Remember there are learning curves everywhere along the road, and that the struggles are also part of the story. Trust the process. Make peace with the fact that the process rarely goes as planned, but it always leads you to exactly where you need to go. Trust yourself. Be kind, be tender, and be patient with yourself. You are everything you need – believe that with all your being!

Learn more about the documentary film Shadeism: Digging Deeper on their page here.

Luminato Festival – A Spectacular of Toronto’s Culture and Creativity

Vanessa Mugoa is a Creative Writing Intern for GEM. This summer she volunteered at Toronto’s Luminato Festival. GEM asked her to share her volunteer experience and give us a taste of what the festival was like from the inside.

During this past week, I had the pleasure of being a part of the Youth Volunteer Photography (YVP) team for Toronto’s annual Luminato Festival.

The YVP program is an educational initiative for youth between the ages of 14-18 who are passionate about photography and enjoy giving back to their community. Placed in a team with other YVP students, I was mentored by an experienced photographer as we photographed various Luminato events and played an active role on Luminato’s social media networks. We also got the chance to attend two workshops that focused on different photography techniques and the role of event photography prior to the festival.

This was my first year volunteering with the Luminato Festival, which was a very exciting and unique experience. Not only did I get the opportunity to enhance my photography skills, but also witness the many magnificent shows and performing artists as a spectator.

It is difficult to pin-point the highlight of my Luminato experience because there were a great number of amazing things to see and hear. However, one epic event was Contemporary Color, where artists, like David Byrne and Nelly Furtado, collaborated with one of ten participating high school color guard teams from across North America to compose an arena-scale staging of sport, music, dance, and culture.

In all, the Luminato Festival is not just an arts festival; instead, it is an orchestra of the cultural and creative energy that lies within Toronto. I look forward to what Luminato will bring next year.

June 23, 2015 - Vanessa Mugoa - Festival Hub
Taken at Luminato Festival 2015 by Vanessa Mugoa
June 24, 2015 - Vanessa Mugoa - Festival Hub (29)
Taken at Luminato Festival 2015 by Vanessa Mugoa
June 22, 2015 - Vanessa Mugoa - Contemporary Color
Taken at Luminato Festival 2015 by Vanessa Mugoa
June 24, 2015 - Vanessa Mugoa - Festival Hub (54)
Taken at Luminato Festival 2015 by Vanessa Mugoa

Aga Khan Museum – the Pretty White Treasure Box

Our GEMgirl and Creative Writing Intern, Mishal Dar, visited the Aga Khan Museum last month. We asked her to write about her experience so we could share it with all of our GEM supporters, hoping to inspire others to visit. Her stunning experience is captured here.

Approaching the Aga Khan Museum at its main entrance is like walking up to a pretty white treasure box that you know holds many valuables inside. Once you have sufficiently recovered from seeing the beautiful gardens out front, the inside of the building will equally capture your attention as you walk by a lovely courtyard on your way to the exhibition rooms.

The moment you walk into the first room, you are transported into a realm of quite wonderment, where you can enjoy the beauty of each artifact in peace. The low lighting and crème coloured walls do much to create a calming atmosphere, making the stars of the show the artifacts.

From large brass candlesticks to vibrant cloth paintings to intricately illuminated Qur’ans, the artifacts are so varied that you will never be bored. Ceramic bowls boasting vivid shades of teal and azure sit next to beautiful wooden carvings, while in the center of the room sits a massive Persian carpet. My personal favourite is a delicate, pink scallop shell with tiny inscriptions carved into it. The collection leaves you breathless so that by the end of it you really do want to just sit in the courtyard and take a moment to absorb it all.

The Aga Khan Museum is a truly unique and inspiring experience for art lovers and history buffs alike. The diverse collection of artifacts, and even the building that they are housed in, won’t fail to capture your imagination and transport you into the ancient Middle East where Islamic artists work diligently at creating their master pieces.


GEM Private Film Screening

Watermark screened at the TIFF theatre was a breathtaking documentary about the impact of water on our lives. GEMgirls had a very unique opportunity to attend a private screening and meet one of its co-directors, Jennifer Baichwal afterwards.

This documentary never told us what to think, where so many others do. Without a single mention of facts and figures, it presents situations with the intention of letting the audience decide for itself, ever so often guiding us with strong visual contrasts. The result was a stronger message about the way in which water shapes our lives.

The documentary presented the unique perspectives of locals. There was no obvious evidence of an interrogation, like in most documentaries; oftentimes the locals were filmed simply performing their everyday tasks, or having conversations. Sometimes the conversations had nothing to do with the water at all. We felt as if we were being shown a more honest representation of the situation. We, the audience, could make our own observations, and come to our own conclusions.

The movie left us feeling enlightened about global water issues and a keener self-awareness. We had been given the chance to observe the situation of water all around the world and we came away with a very strong conviction that something has to be done.