It’s always nerve-wracking to have to tell your parents a secret, let alone when it’s about your sexuality. The U of T Sexual and Gender Diversity Office, the UTM Equity and Diversity Office, and UTMSU gave two young filmmakers the chance to screen their films about the relationship between queer diasporic children and their parents. Casey Mecija and Vivek Shraya arrived at UTM last week as part of their Family Ties Tour to screen their two short films, My Father, Francis and Holy Mother My Mother.
According to the SGDO website, Mecija is an artist, musician, and community organizer. She is involved in several organizations in Toronto ranging from Clutch, an arts program for young Filipino women, the AMY (Artists Mentoring Youth) Project, and Girls Rock Camp, which is a music camp for young women. On top of all this, Mecija also cofounded the Friends in Bellwoods music project, which has raised $40,000 and counting for the Daily Bread Food Bank. Her film was recently awarded the Women in Film and Television Award at the 2013 International Reel Asian Film Festival and was also chosen to screen at the 2014 Inside Out Festival in Toronto.
Shraya is a Toronto-based artist whose work spans several media including literature, music, performance, and film. He’s the author of two novels, She of the Mountains and God Loves Hair. She of the Mountains was named one of The Globe and Mail’s Best Books of 2014, and Shraya is also a two-time Lambda Literary Award finalist. In addition to this, he’s the winner of the We Are Listening International Singer/Songwriter Award and has released several albums dabbling in different genres. He’s read and performed at shows, festivals, and schools all over the world. Shraya’s also no stranger to the short film scene, with his film What I LOVE About Being Queer expanding to include an online project and book that’s been featured on Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post, and ELLE Magazine India.
Before screening My Father, Francis, Mecija took to the mic to share a story about when she first came out to her father. She explained that she invited her girlfriend over for dinner once while her older sister was pregnant. Since there were only girls in the family, Mecija asked her father if he was hoping for a boy. He turned, smiled knowingly, and said, “I already have a boy.”
Her short film was a touching journey between the two of them, showing them building objects together and participating in an art exhibit, organized by Mecija, which showcased her father’s creations for people to visit and experience.
After her film screened she took to the mic again to perform a song, “Balikbayan”, which is a Tagalog term for goods and bodies that move across Filipino diasporic routes.
Shraya came up next to share the story of how he came out to his mother. He began by sharing the story of how his older brother would be preoccupied with shaving while he would be preoccupied with eyebrows. He’d watch his mother pluck her eyebrows and eventually took her tweezers to his own. She took him down to Zellers to get him a pair of his own and handed them to him in the parking lot. Shraya took this as a sign that his mother knew his secret and loved him and accepted him just the same. The story is from his collection of short stories, God Loves Hair.
Holy Mother My Mother follows the relationship between Shraya and his mother as they travel to India for Navratri, a festival that celebrates femininity and motherhood. The bonding between the two is a beautiful sight and it was very touching to watch his mother talk about her children and the joys of motherhood.
After the screening, Shraya returned to the stage to give a little more insight into the inspiration for the film. “Her greatest joy, namely her children, is also the cause of her greatest pain and I think she’s always caught in this duality,” he says. “Despite the fact that we have very different belief systems, I believe that it’s our connection to spirituality that deepens our own connection to each other and I think my mom’s faith, in a lot of ways, gives her a lens in which to see and sometimes even embrace my queerness.” He then went on to sing one of his mother’s favourite prayers dedicated to a Hindu goddess, the same prayer she sang in the film.
Mecija then joined him for a Q&A about their films.
In regards to touring together and screening these films together, Mecija says the two of them have been friends for quite some time and that she’s always admired his projects. “When we made these films, Vivek was screening his film in Toronto and asked if we could be paired together and it was a natural fit, as is our relationship,” she says.
“I wanted to do a film about my father because it’s hard to see the collection of objects [that her father created] that are stockpiling in our house. I recognize these objects as these symbolic gestures of his support and love for his kids,” Mecija adds. “All of these objects have a utility and I really wanted to explore that more. When I thought about these objects I was really touched by them and really fascinated by the aesthetic of them and creativity behind the production of them and I thought that I wanted to show that admiration through this film.”
“Actually, the idea for my film was not about my mother,” Shraya says. “I’m always trying to reconcile my relationship with my faith. I grew up in a very religious atmosphere and in a lot of ways that religious atmosphere was one of the only safe places I had as a queer kid.”
He went on to say that one of his biggest personal agendas is pushing against the dominant narrative that queerness and faith can’t coexist. “When I was a kid I used to celebrate various festivals. I just got really excited to explore what it would mean for one festival might be celebrated in different ways and I really wanted to document that,” he said. “I thought about Navratri because logistically it made a lot of sense. It’s nine days, so this way I could go to a different place for nine days. I’m also really drawn to the goddess of the feminine energy.”
But, he says, he realized his film wasn’t really about the festival; it had to do with his constant draw to motherhood and femininity, inspired by his mom.
The two discussed whether their parents knew they were going to be the subjects of their films.
“My mum’s a very, very private person,” Shraya says. “So I was actually surprised that she said yes and I expected her to say no. I called her and had a very direct conversation with her and told her I was gonna put her in front of the camera.” He admitted that at that point he still didn’t know what direction his film was going to take, but he did tell her that it was going to be about her and that it would be juxtaposed with the festival.
“She was really quiet for like, 30 seconds and then she said, ‘I’m so touched. I’m so honoured.’ And then when we went to India and did the whole film, I asked her what possessed her to say yes and she said, ‘I didn’t think you were gonna film me that much.’
“I think she would have also said yes for anything because it meant spending time together,” he continued. “The first time she saw the film was at the launch in Toronto and was very solemn about the whole thing. So, I still don’t really know how she feels about it. I think she understands that it’s a tribute to her and she receives that but she’s a hard person to read in that way.”
Mecija also held an art show for her father’s works, and said she doesn’t think he knew what it would be like. “He’s a very private person as well and he’s very shy so I think it was very awkward for him,” she continued. “But in awkward moments my dad becomes a showman.” She told the story of the first time her father saw the festival and how, when an audience member asked if he was in the audience, he stood up and asked if people wanted autographs afterwards.
“Queerness is difficult,” she said. “It’s difficult to navigate and so those difficult feelings, those painful experiences are still there. We captured this moment with our parents that, to us, is very painful to look at.”