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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.


Growing up being a caramel coloured skin South Asian with a mother that looks middle-eastern, doesn’t always put you in the most comfortable position in society. Is she your daughter? Really? She doesnt look much like her sister! Oh well, she probably resembles her dad. If I had a dollar for every time I heard those lines, I’d probably have my own version of “Keeping up with Shanzah” by now.

Throughout the years as I’ve lived in Thorncliffe , I’ve realized that shadeism is a huge, huge problem but to the eyes of the world, it isn’t considered an “issue.” A few girls from the neighbouring community Flemington, decided to take action and do something about it which I really admire. They made an incredible documentary to get people aware about the issue and open their eyes to the bigger picture.

On Saturday November 21 2015, the GEM team planned for us to see a private screening of Shadeism: Digging Deeper at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Yes, this is the same TIFF that all of us have been yearning to go to. This private screening was exclusive to GEM girls only! I mean how often does that happen?

Before the event started, everyone got time to socialize amongst themselves and meet each other’s mentors. During all of this, I heard a lot about what the girls thought the film was going to be about. “Shadeism, definitely, is something we don’t hear a lot about. I believe people need to get over the idea that being a certain shade of a certain colour will make them better. I can’t wait to go in!” said Hira D. The screening itself had everyone excited and obviously popcorn was a plus because who doesn’t like snacks?

This documentary really got to me and I connected to it on so many levels. I always thought shadeism worked in a way where the majority thought “the whiter, the better” but I noticed in one of the cultures, being fair skinned was a problem as it is believed that the darker the woman, the more successful she’ll be.

The last few minutes were like a confidence booster because of the advice given from all the women in the film and not just because of being a woman of colour but being a woman in general. The following quote by Alexandra Elle was one of the greatest things I took away from the film:

“Our melanin will always make us marvelous. Just imagine what the sea of sisterhood would look like. Magic!”

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.