Photo Credit - Michael Banasiak
Maya Bastian is a Tamil Canadian filmmaker, writer and artist. From 2008, she spent several years travelling the world as an investigative video journalist, documenting areas of conflict and post-conflict, which has culminated in an ongoing exploration of trauma as it relates to community and culture. As a director, she has won awards and exhibited her short films internationally, which run the gamut from narrative to documentary, to experimental animation. Her work has been shown in Los Angeles, New York, Berlin, UK, South Asia and across Canada.
Her short hybrid film ‘Air Show’ received national press for its look at refugee reactions to militarized air shows, and has aired on CBC. She is currently in post-production on her short film ‘Tigress’ which looks at militant rebellions and the ways in which we rebel. Tigress was recently chosen to participate at Canada’s NSOT Program at Cannes 2021 Court Metrage . Maya’s work frequently explores post-conflict reconciliation and intergenerational trauma. In her spare time she works as a programmer and industry outreach for several Toronto-based film organizations as well as being a strong champion for filmmakers of colour by sitting on panels and teaching workshops with various organizations.
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Tell us about your upbringing and how that sparked your love of film.
I'm the first born girl in a Tamil household -- so things were very strict for me. I rebelled in every way I knew how, and eventually moved out of the family home as a teenager. I wasn't allowed to pursue art in any way, my entire life was mapped out for me: go to university, become a lawyer, have an arranged marriage. I knew that wasn't the life for me so I left. We were also raised far from any other Tamil people, in a small Ontario town. So I didn't have any frame of reference of what other first-generation Tamil kids were experiencing.
My love of film did however come from my parents, we watched a lot of old movies growing up. My dad still plays a game with me where he asks me to identify the actors in old films. I also had a cousin move in with us when I was a pre-teen, she introduced me to more arthouse films, period pieces...lots of different types of films. It made me want to become an actor and I pursued that until my early twenties.
Can you share a bit about one of your experiences travelling around the world as an investigative video journalist documenting areas of conflict and post-conflict.
I was in Palestine when the pandemic hit, in March 2020. I wanted to go there because I felt that I couldn't properly understand conflict and trauma if I didn't go to the place where it seemed the most complex. I also see a commonality between what the Palestinian people are going through and what Eelam Tamils have endured. It was an incredible experience in all the ways. I visited refugee camps and spent time speaking with locals about the country situation. I was on a residency with Al Ma'Mal Foundation and I lived right in the old city of Jerusalem. Every day I would walk around for hours and meet people and have discussions -- which always led to conversations about the situation there. I've never been anywhere else where the pressure felt so intense. It's ingrained in daily life to such a degree that it's almost imperceptible unless you have a very keen eye. For example, at the Damascus Gate tourists come from all over the world to attend the markets. But if you sit there and watch, you'll see Israeli soldiers harassing Palestinians all day --searching them, detaining them. It's not something I noticed until a Palestinian friend pointed it out. I think it's taught me to look underneath and to think even more critically when I land in these places.
Tell us how you’ve used film to bring awareness to various social issues? The recurring themes in "Arrival Archives", "Air Show" and "TIGRESS" are around the refugee/diaspora experience. Why is this particular theme or telling of these stories important for you?
I just feel that we don't examine conflict and war with a critical lens. Media often portrays these issues as black and white, this side against that side --- but that couldn't be farther from the truth. What I have witnessed personally is that there are many grey areas, and I feel strongly that I want to shed light on that. We also haven't seen enough representation of the diaspora experience here in the West. I spend a lot of time thinking about intergenerational trauma, because it affects me and so many others I know directly. It's a nuanced issue and the layers run deep. I want to speak about the things that aren't being spoken about, and that in itself is the recurrent theme in all of my films. What can we uncover? How can we further the narrative about these issues in a way that serves the lives of the people experiencing them?
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Are you able to focus on filmmaking full-time? If so, how have you managed to do this? Or do you fill in the gaps with other job/projects that are income-generating that are related to filmmaking?
Well it's been a long time in the making, but I am finally fully invested in a career in the arts. I make films, I make art and attend residencies, I teach film and run BIPOC workshops like the X-Wave series and the Creators of Colour Incubator. I'm trying my best to balance out earning with learning and getting with giving. I'm 42, and I started this career path when I was 20. So it's taken a very long time and a lot of it was working hard, not giving up and not being afraid to ask people for help. I did a lot of odd jobs for the last 20 years, but I've developed enough of a reputation now that it is sustaining me. Thank God! I don't know what I would be doing otherwise :)
How do you leverage social media to help you in your filmmaking career?
I'm a full believer of using social media to promote yourself. It works! People want to know what you're up to, and you can also connect with likeminded artists on there and build a great network. My film Air Show got a lot of press because of a tweet I responded to on Twitter. I've gotten work from both Twitter and Instagram. I'm very active on there, I look for opportunities and for interesting people that I want to connect with. It's an amazing networking tool -- especially in Covid times. But also, I don't think I would be anywhere without a solid website showcasing my work. When I connect with people it leads them to my site....and honestly that site has made a big difference in my career.
How has COVID affected you as a filmmaker?
I know this is going to sound crazy, but this last year has been the busiest of my life. Content creation is booming and more and more people are looking for filmmakers of colour and female filmmakers. The crews are smaller but I don't mind that as it feels more intimate, especially for documentaries. I haven't made a narrative film yet in this pandemic, so it will be interesting to see how that will go.
I know historically, the creative arts were often looked down on, in the Tamil community in terms of as a viable career option. Did you experience this or do you see this changing?
Yes absolutely. I've always been the 'weird arty' one at family gatherings. It took a long time to be accepted. I think it would've been easy for me to give up on my dreams, because my family were constantly telling me that I wasn't going to succeed. I'm really happy that I never listened to them! I had daily lectures from my parents telling me that I was never going to amount to anything, that I was doomed for failure. I'm incredibly stubborn and I just refused to give up. Not to say that it wasn't difficult, because of course we all vie for the support of our parents. But somewhere inside, I think the lack of support just pushed me to succeed because I wanted to prove them wrong. I'm not sure if this is fully changing, however we are seeing many more successful Tamils in the arts in Canada. I felt a shift when I went to see Lenin Sivam's film 'Roobha' at Reelworld Film Festival. I couldn't believe that there was a cinema full of older generation Tamils watching a trans love story! That just shocked me. That was the point where I thought 'wow, things really have changed'.
How have your family and friends supported you through your journey? Did you have any doubters?
I have an incredible network of supportive friends who have given me so much love, feedback and even bailed me out financially when I needed it! My sister also has been a huge support, letting me film scenes from Air Show in her apartment. My dad too, despite worrying about me and wanting me to get a 'real job'...he paid for the insurance on my first short film and has always quietly given me whatever I needed to make this career work. Of course I've had many doubters. This industry is FULL of rejection and it's something you need to get used to if you're going to push through. I've always felt like this is a calling for me, and I could never imagine doing anything else.
What do you do outside of work for fun?
Hiking, playing music, dancing and going to music festivals (in the before-times!). I spend a lot of time with my family and my ten year old daughter. I also have spent quite a lot of time travelling in my life. Seeing the world has been such an important part of my personal growth and development.
What is one win you’ve experienced in the last 3-5 years that you’re most proud of? How about a failure in that same time period that you’ve learned from?
My wins and my failures are often inexplicably intertwined. When we finished my most recent short film 'Tigress', I applied to about 20 film festivals and got rejected from all of them. It broke my heart. I have just poured so much of myself into this film and I thought it would be the one to open doors for me. For the first part of 2021, I was really depressed wondering if I was on the right path. I had to constantly remind myself that the film will find its audience. Then slowly, things started to happen. We got nominated for a Canadian Cinema Editor's Award and have now been selected for the Court Metrage at Cannes! It just goes to show that patience is a virtue. Things don't happen how you want, they happen in their own time.
In terms of your personal legacy, in a few sentences, describe how you want to be remembered by your family and friends?
I would like to be remembered as someone who held themselves with integrity and compassion, someone who loved fiercely and worked in their own small way to make this world a better place to live.
Who is one person from the global Tamil community and one person that isn’t Tamil that you admire and why?
There's so many people within the Tamil community that I admire! From the local Toronto scene, I would choose V.T. Nayani, who is not just an incredible filmmaker but a thoughtful and kind human being. I also think Nedra Rodrigo deserves a mention, as she is a great support to Tamil artists in many ways.
For one person that isn't Tamil....I know it may be cliche but Maya Angelou has always been an inspiration to me. I found her book in the library when I was 15, and it provided great solace in a time when I had left home and didn't have many resources. To endure hardship with such grace and persistence, it's something I aspire to daily.
What do you think you would tell 16-year Maya looking back?
I would tell her that she is loved and that she has a purpose in life. Not to give up and not to worry about what she doesn't have at this moment, because one day she will be living the life of her dreams.
What is your favourite book(s) you've read recently or a podcast(s) that you've listened to recently that's had an impact on you?
I'm reading the collected essays of Audre Lorde right now, and her essay on the Erotic as Power is blowing my mind. I've also recently been tuned into the Mysterious Universe podcast which is amazing.
What is a new belief, behaviour or habit that has most improved your life?
In the past couple of years I've started believing strongly in the power of intention. Energy goes where attention flows. What you think, manifests. So make sure your thoughts and energy are aligned with where you want to be in life. It's brought me an incredible amount of personal and professional success.
If you were given $1 billion, how would you allocate the money to change the world?
Wow that's a big question! After donating sizable amounts to numerous charities that I believe in, I would invest in artists of colour. To me, art is the one thing that can connect us and shift the way the world thinks. I've met so many talented BIPOC artists through the programs I run, and their stories are ones we haven't heard before. We need more producers of colour investing in talent, and I would like to be one of those.
How would you describe the impact that the Toronto Tamil community has had on you personally and on your career?
I was raised far away from the Tamil community, so it's only really recently that I've connected with the Tamil community here. It's been amazing! It's so important to receive feedback when making films that directly impact the Tamil community. I've found so much support in this, critical thinkers who are willing to be honest with me about the issues I'm trying to address. I'm also thrilled to be meeting more and more Tamil filmmakers and seeing their work. The level of artistry that is and always has been a part of this community is what inspires me most.
What is your favourite Tamil food (meal or dessert)?
Well the things that I crave most are mutton rolls, proper homemade Wattalapam and kool -- but kool made in Jaffna where the fresh crab is the best I've ever tasted.
What is your favourite Tamil movie?
I'm sad to say that I unfortunately do not know much about Sri Lankan Tamil cinema. Some Tamil films I have loved are: My friend Jude Ratnam's 'Demons in Paradise', Santosh Sivam's 'The Terrorist' and many of Mani Ratnam's films.
What does Tamil culture mean to you?
Big question! Tamil culture is a salve for my wounds, a muse and source of inspiration, and the strength and determination that lies behind everything I do. Being a Tamil woman means I come from a long line of fierce, passionate ancestors who still whisper their words in my ear. With each passing day, I love being Tamil more and more.
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