Before even one frame of her new movie, This Place, Tamil Canadian writer-director V. T. Nayani stamps herself into cinema history with just one simple phrase: “a v. t. nayani world.”
It’s a cinematic calling card immediately reminiscent of “A Spike Lee Joint,” and Nayani knows it. “Spike Lee loves Brooklyn so deeply. I am from Toronto and I love Scarborough so deeply,” she says. “I was very much inspired by [him] coming from a particular borough or neighborhood and reimagining the world through [his] cinema.”
Set within the nooks and crannies of her hometown but specifically in 2011, two years following protests against the Sri Lankan Civil War, This Place is a staggeringly confident debut. A queer love story between Kawenniióhstha (Devery Jacobs), who is Mohawk-Iranian, and Malai (Priya Guns), who is Tamil, it tackles the difficult family legacies that come from the intersectionality of Toronto’s diverse neighborhoods.
Unlike other films that would attempt to glamorize the city and its many landmarks, Nayani’s work with cinematographer Conor Fisher guides us at the ground level. It glides through bookshops and bars with intimacy, a tender hand for newcomers and, more importantly, a warm hug for locals.
“There are certain jokes [in the film] you get because you’re from [Toronto],” assured Nayani, recalling a few specific lines that got an audible reaction from the audience at the film’s premiere as part of the Discovery section of the Toronto International Film Festival. The screening, packed with a diverse audience of Toronto natives, felt like the exact kind of audience Nayani is trying to reach.
“I think it was so nice to see people get things that were meant for them. [The film] involves so many different communities, whether you love this city or you live here or you’ve grown up here. Whatever your kind of community is, that is reflected in the film.”
However, the film isn’t just a reflection of the audience. “I know it’s cliche to say that I love the collaborative nature of film, but I really do.” Nayani chuckles. “I have a vision and it’s singular in a specific way, but I really value everybody that I work with and they make everything better.”
In an industry that often heralds the auteur, Nayani stands apart as a people person. “I’m an actor’s director, but I’m also a crew’s director,” she says. “Everyone is part of that world that we’re building. I always hope to reimagine and create new worlds through narrative work, a world that’s influenced and impacted by everyone I collaborate with.”
Hot off of the film’s premiere screening at TIFF, Nayani joined us (virtually) for a conversation about “a v. t. nayani world,” her collaboration with the film’s lead stars, and the many films that inspired the creation of This Place.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Larry Fried: I wanted to start off this conversation with one of the very first things we see in the film, an intertitle that reads, “a v. t. nayani world.” It obviously felt a bit reminiscent of “A Spike Lee Joint” or “A Questlove Jawn,” calling cards used by filmmakers who really want to tell you that what you’re about to experience is something very singular and personal. What inspired you to add your own calling card in the very beginning and what was the mindset behind using the word “world?”
V. T. Nayani: That’s a great question. You’re the first person to ask me that and I’m very grateful. You mention the people that come to mind for me, which are Spike Lee and Questlove and even “A Martin Scorsese Picture.” Spike Lee was the first person that came to mind, someone who loves Brooklyn so deeply. I am from Toronto and I love Scarborough so deeply. I was very much inspired by [him] coming from a particular borough or neighborhood and reimagining the world through [his] cinema, especially as someone who, as we see in the film, is influenced by my family’s displacement and having a complicated sense of home.
My storytelling and the storytelling that I love and watch and read is very much me escaping into other worlds. I’ve felt that way since I was a child. I picked the word “world” because I’m very interested in world-building. I look at my work in storytelling and filmmaking and television as world-building. I can easily say “ a v. t. nayani film” but I think it’s the world that I’m building in collaboration with other people. Everyone is part of that world that we’re building. I have a vision that they’re bringing to life and so it felt true and honest for me to call it “a v. t. nayani world,” because that’s what I hope to do. I always hope to reimagine and create new worlds through narrative work, a world that’s influenced and impacted by everyone I collaborate with. “World” felt fitting, and creating my own kind of phrasing felt like a nod to filmmakers that I love and grew up on.
Larry Fried: How you would define “a v. t. nayani world?” Is there something aesthetically or maybe even spiritually that you attribute to it?
V. T. Nayani: I love these questions, keep them coming. They’re great. Sometimes you hear the same questions over and over again, so it’s nice to be able to use your brain in a new way.
Larry Fried: I’m blushing, thank you. I appreciate it.
V. T. Nayani: I come from community work and community arts practice. I’m inspired by mutual aid and mutual respect. I know it’s cliche to say that I love the collaborative nature of film, but I really do. I have a vision and it’s singular in a specific way, but I really value everybody that I work with and they make everything better. I tell them this one idea and then they bring camera work and lighting and wardrobe and art direction. All the elements come together because of a mutual respect and desire to collaborate.
For me, the feeling of “a v. t. nayani world” is tender, you know, and nuanced and thoughtful. That’s how I want to continue to approach my work and I hope that people feel that when they watch my work. I hope “a v. t. nayani world” delivers people to a place of hope. It’s unafraid of excavating stories that feel really up close and intimate with the people that I’m documenting. I hope with This Place, people feel like [they’re] right up there with them and can’t look away.
Larry Fried: So many of those words were flowing through my head while I was watching This Place, especially tender, which leads me to ask about your two lead stars, Devery Jacobs and Priya Guns. They are both wonderful in this film and have incredible chemistry. There is also a softness and a tenderness to their performances and their romance. Since you’re talking about film as a collaborative art form, what did they bring to the table and then what did you bring to the table to help develop this relationship? Were those the same things, were they different things?
V. T. Nayani: I’ll start with Devery because she also co-wrote the film, so it’s also her baby. She’s been involved from the [film’s] inception. She was integral and critical in cultivating and creating both Kawenniióhstha and Malai’s stories. She really embodied a character that she helped to create that was inspired by her own life and her own community and her own journey. I think that shows she has a particular intimacy with Kawenniióhstha. She knows what it feels like to leave the res[ervation] for the city, to go after your creative dreams, to fall in love outside of your community. Those are all things that are very real for her. I really didn’t have to do much with Devery because she was part of it from the beginning. I just got to be in awe and watch her work.
I think it’s really interesting for her to play a character that she has helped create in collaboration with others, but she did a really beautiful job of shifting [from co-writer to co-star] once principal photography started. She really let go of that [role]. She made that shift mentally, emotionally, and physically. I think it’s a testament to how much of a consummate professional she is and how she’s able to really look at things with clarity and focus. Obviously, that character you created is still in you, but she still treated me very much like a director and had respect for me as a director, even though I was her friend and co-writer outside of that. I really, deeply appreciated that she was able to hold space for me to be a director and she could shift from looking at me as her co-writer to her director and kind of leader in that space.
This was Priya’s first leading role in a feature. She found out about our casting call through a Facebook post that her brother shared with her. She was living in Lebanon at the time with her partner–she’s from Toronto, but she had been living abroad for many years. She got encouraged by her brother to apply and I said, “send a tape, cuz I can’t have you come all the way here until I know that there’s a reason for it.” [laughs] I saw her photo and it was something inside her photos. [The character of Malai] is no-nonsense and very clear about her viewpoint and her ideas of the world. I really love that about Malai. I think [Priya] really embodied Malai’s particular personality. When she sent her tape, I knew right away that it was gonna be her. I knew it was Malai, I just had to convince everyone else. We involved Devery in the casting process, of course, and the moment Priya looked at her, there was just a spark. It was instant chemistry. They didn’t really talk until they got to set, which is perfect because what you see [in the film] is that these two people have a chemistry and a spark, and I was intentional in that I didn’t really want anyone to talk to Priya as Malai and I didn’t want her to talk to Devery.
Working with them wasn’t hard, you know [laughs], even with Priya. Dev, obviously, has gone on to do amazing things and was even doing amazing things at that time. She had done Rhymes For Young Ghouls, The Order, and American Gods. Priya really showed up to the plate. She never felt a sense of hesitancy, but I think that’s also a testament to Devery. She’s not a diva–she’s a really kind, grounded, community-focused person. I think she created such a safe and warm and welcoming space for Priya to thrive in her role. I think both of them are reflections of their characters–Devery for obvious reasons, she helped create it–but Priya always said there was a part of Malai that reminds her of her relationship with her own brother. Malai also reminds her of her relationship with her own family and not being queer and out in a particular way, but still knowing who she is. I think I got lucky because both of them also really resonated with their characters for different reasons.
Larry Fried: I was at the premiere screening, which was filled with people from your communities. It honestly kind of felt like a party in a certain way.
V. T. Nayani: Yeah, right?
Larry Fried: The environment was super supportive, people were outside of the theater talking–it felt like a beautiful experience. This film was also a TIFF Next Wave Select and I can’t think of a better film at this festival to be included in that group. What does it feel like to premiere this film here at TIFF and to see the communities who you made this movie for so deeply embracing it?
V. T. Nayani: For it to premiere at home at TIFF, which is a hometown festival but arguably also one of the biggest film festivals in the world, is so wild. It’s a film city, but it’s a film city where a lot of people from our communities don’t often access these spaces or have the space or means or capacity for various reasons. When we knew that we were gonna have a screening at home, I had hoped that our communities would show out. I knew we were gonna push it as far as we could. Our immediate families and friends would come if they could get tickets, but I didn’t really predict what that audience would look and feel like. I think it was a beautiful blend of people from our communities, from similar communities, from other communities, and I think everyone was so deeply respectful and kind and celebratory.
We didn’t want to over-explain things. It was really important for us to not over-explain the Mohawk history, the Tamil history, or the Persian history. I think, as well, there are certain jokes [in the film] you get because you’re from [Toronto]. I think it was so nice to see people get things that were meant for them and for other people to have questions afterwards and look things up. It covers so many different topics and it involves so many different communities, whether you’re Persian or you’re Tamil or you’re Mohawk or you’re queer or you’re a woman or you’re just from Toronto and you love this city or you live here or you’ve grown up here–whatever your kind of community is, that’s reflected in the film.
Afterwards, everyone had an anecdote. I talked to a friend of mine and her partner. Both of them are women of color. Her partner said she wished she had this film when she was 18 and trying to figure things out. Then, like five minutes later, this Tamil uncle tapped me on my hand–and I’d never met him before, he’s not like an uncle or like a family friend that I know–and he said the opening scene, when the father is migrating, was his story after the riots in Sri Lanka. “I never thought I’d see it on screen,” he said. That kind of full spectrum of reactions and responses from everyone within the same film is so sacred and special to me. I just can’t believe we had the privilege to have it at home and that people showed out. I’m just in awe and grateful and trying to process and be grounded in this moment. It’s so special.
Larry Fried: It truly is. It really feels like that while you’re watching the film. You just spoke about some of the intersections in the film–Tamil, Mohawk, queer, all of these different things–and at the Q&A you spoke about some of the inspirations for the film–Dee Rees’ Pariah, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, two formative queer narratives for our current moment. Were there any cinematic inspirations either on the Mohawk or Tamil end, stories that either inspired you or stories that you think people should seek out?
V. T. Nayani: To be honest, most of the Tamil cinema that I watched growing up is south Indian cinema, which I don’t think has any shortage of viewers. But I really love the work of Mani Ratnam, who is a south Indian Tamilian filmmaker. It’s a different experience, but he has created work in the past that is connected to the Sri Lankan-Tamil diaspora. His work in the early days, especially, had a lot of social justice elements to it. He was the first person I knew who directed a film [Kannathil Muthamittal] about a girl who was from Sri Lanka and whose mother was involved with the [Liberation] Tigers. He also worked with [Indian singer-songwriter] A. R. Rahman a lot in the past so, musically, his work inspired how I worked with Kalaisan [Kalaichelvan], our composer. He kind of made me feel like I had my own Mani Ratnam and A. R. Rahman moment, you know, it really felt that way. But also–I am not Barry Jenkins, but it made me feel like I had my own Barry Jenkins and Nicholas Britell moment as well.
In terms of the Mohawk, obviously I love the work of Tracey Deer. She was actually part of my CFC [Canadian Film Centre] interview when I was interviewing for the director’s lab and I’ve had a chance to speak with her before. She’s just incredible. I feel a synergy with her in that she is exploring difficult material. Obviously, Mohawk Girls was very hilarious, but even with Beans there’s a tenderness and a sense of love and family that I relate to. She’s not afraid to dig into a difficult topic, but with such sensitivity and love at the center. I saw Beans before I finished This Place and as someone who obviously isn’t a Mohawk-Kahnawake woman, I learned a lot from her.
For Iranian cinema, that influence comes from Golshan [Abdmoulaie, another co-writer]. She’s not a director, but it influences her writing and how she approaches stories. It’s coming out of a place where there’s a lot of challenges to the cinema that’s being made, to put it simply because it’s much more complex than that. These filmmakers continue to make incredible cinema amidst everything and they’re courageous. I really see them as activists who are making this incredible art. It’s not the context for us here, obviously we have the kind of freedom or space to make the art that we want. Whether people support it or not is another question, but we can make it here. But Golshan and I are very aware of the history of our communities and storytellers. From where we come from, making art and documenting stories that people don’t want to tell, there is a risk. We’ve talked about both of us maybe not being able to actually go back to Sri Lanka or Iran after this film, now being filmmakers in the public eye, telling the stories that we do, saying the things that we do. There’s risks involved.
I also want to give credit to the only kind of examples of non-white work that I watched growing up, which was the work of Black American, film and television-makers. I was raised on shows like Fresh Prince and Family Matters and Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper. That was the closest thing we could see to us because, as much as I love south Indian cinema, I live in Canada. I’m deeply influenced by Julie Dash, Spike Lee, cinematographer Bradford Young–one of my mentors–Ava DuVernay, Dee Rees. Even our lighting is inspired by shows like Insecure and When They See Us. BIPOC artists from the states showed me what was possible, because we didn’t and still don’t have enough content. I found out from NowToronto that this is the first time a Tamil-Canadian filmmaker has had a feature at TIFF. It goes to show how little content there is.
Larry Fried: That was a whole college course!! V.T., thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today.
V. T. Nayani: Thank you. It was such a pleasure speaking with you.
This Place had its World Premiere in the Discovery section of the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.
Larry Fried is a filmmaker, writer, and podcaster based in New Jersey. He is the host and creator of the podcast “My Favorite Movie is…,” a podcast dedicated to helping filmmakers make somebody’s next favorite movie. He is also the Visual Content Manager for Special Olympics New Jersey, an organization dedicated to competition and training opportunities for athletes with intellectual disabilities across the Garden State.