Tamil Canadian director Maya Bastian’s latest short film, “Tigress”, premiered at several film festivals, including Cannes 2022.
After spending a long and tiring day talking to people on the ground in war-torn Sri Lanka in the late 2000s, Canadian Tamil filmmaker Maya Bastian, who was 19 at the time, was overwhelmed with questions about his identity and privileges. Little did she know that nearly a decade later, these same questions would take center stage in a short film directed by her.
Tigress, Maya’s latest short film is about Trina, a headstrong and rebellious 20-year-old Canadian Tamil who travels to Sri Lanka as an aid worker during the war. One night, during a drunken foray, she is confronted by an alternate version of herself who has never left Sri Lanka. On one side of the mirror is Trina, dressed in a white dress, staring into the mirror with a lingering sense of dread and sparkling glitter on her face from the party she was at earlier that night. On the other side of the mirror, we find his other self – a Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) paramilitary fighter – who remarks that sometimes violence can be a form of charity.
What would have happened to the girl from the diaspora if she had not fled the country with her parents? How would she perceive the rebellion? How do his choices, or lack thereof, shape his identity? These are the questions filmmaker Maya and her protagonist Trina face. Speaking to TNM, Maya explains how the story was conceptualized years ago while working with non-governmental organizations in Sri Lanka and how it has evolved over the years. “When I went to Sri Lanka in 2009, I had no idea of getting into conflict journalism or filmmaking. I worked with an NGO as a videographer. But I kept diving in conflict and post-conflict work. I have been drawn to cinema since my childhood. Before visiting Sri Lanka, I was an actor for two years. Tigress is a scene from a short film I wrote in the late 2000s. Over time, I revisited it and added more footage and perspective,” she says.
Screenshot of Tigress. Credit: YouTube
While Maya was inspired by war journalists like Christiane Amanpour and James Nachtway during her years working as a videographer, she was also moved by the filmmaking techniques of directors like Gaspar Noe, Apichatpong Weersethakul, Mani Ratnam and Lynne Ramsay. For example, the vivid sights, sounds and surreal setting of Tigress was wisely inspired by the works of Apichatpong. When Trina encounters her alternate self, light hits the ocean waves and glass fragments accentuate the jungle landscape to highlight the occurrence of a hyper-real, temporal experience.
Finding your voice through cinema
For some filmmakers, their craft becomes a means of catharsis, for some it’s a tool to convey a message to the public, and yet for some others, it’s a personal journey. When asked how Maya approaches cinema or why she does what she does, the Tigress The director says: “With my films, I would like to illuminate the unknown. I feel like we’re in a time where we’ve commercialized a lot of ideas about what’s real and what’s done. When I have been in conflict zones, I have seen the truth and I know that is not what the newspapers say. Online stories are very politically weighted, but people need a voice. I’m very interested in hearing first-person stories and helping people express themselves,” she says.
At the same time, she also emphasizes that she does not identify herself as the voice of any culture. “I’m not trying to represent an entire culture or anything, but to present my point of view. And my point of view is informed by the work I’ve done in the country,” she adds She goes on to explain how that’s also why she also expects the cast and crew to have similar sensibilities. Maya says, “Anne Saverimuthu, who played the lead role, really got it the character and even when she came in for the auditions, we could see how she had an innate understanding of the character and that she played Trina.”
Filmmaker Maya Bastian
She explains that it is by approaching films through this prism that Maya remains committed to telling stories that are her own. When asked if she aspires to reflect on the current economic crisis in her work, Maya quips: “Although I have been following the situation closely, I don’t think I will talk about it through my films. Diaspora politics and intergenerational issues are my areas of expertise and I think I will continue to speak on these themes.”
Dealing with controversies and criticism
Tigress, the short film, which revolves around people in the diaspora coming to terms with their Western privilege and understanding the grim realities facing their ancestors, faced several challenges. “We couldn’t shoot in Sri Lanka, so we shot in India. After post-production, we sent it to 20 to 35 film festivals. I always feel like I’m being guided by something bigger than me. When the odds were against the shorts and it didn’t, I couldn’t help but think about what was wrong with me. I realized later that finding our target audience is an important step. I didn’t consider myself an arthouse director, but my film apparently is. I learned that the film has a better chance of being selected for a bigger festival if it is produced by a production company from the same country,” remarks Maya. Tigress was financed by India’s Blackout Media and Jar Pictures, and supported by CBC, Netflix and Canadian Film Centre.
Actor Anne and other crew members on the Tigress film sets.
Always from Tigress.
Maya and her team have been on cloud nine for Tigress began screening at film festivals and garnered positive reviews at many of them, including Cannes. Community screenings also took place in Canada. She was unable to screen Tigress in Sri Lanka, but Maya hopes her future projects will reach more people.
Although the short film made a strong impression at film festivals, it also drew criticism from different sections of the Tamil diaspora in Canada. “I was rebuffed by people saying that the LTTE had never used child soldiers. But I had spoken to the parents and families of the people whose children had been taken. There was even a case where the parents told me that they had buried their child in garbage cans to avoid being recruited by the LTTE. People think I am against Eelam Tamils and LTTE because of Tigress, but really, I just showed facts. When discussing war, I want to show both darkness and light,” says Maya.
Watch the trailer for “Tigress” here:
Maya observes that once she got past the phase where she was disappointed with the response and the criticism, she could understand how multiple points of view had to exist and that it took time for people to process their trauma. “Even when you talk to people in Sri Lanka, the responses and their perception of the LTTE are so varied. One person will say they love Tigers, while their next door neighbor will say they hate them. I learned to accept that trauma takes time to heal,” explains the filmmaker.
Maya is currently working on her feature film based on the realities of a community living in Sri Lanka, a comedy series about race and representation titled how to be brown, and also co-writes and directs a series of paranormal mysteries. Work on artistic projects such as a few video installations is also underway.