In Scarborough, Ryerson journalism ‘09 grad Shasha Nakhai tackles the complex lives of three low-income children who meet in a daycare in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough. The film is an adaptation of Catherine Hernandez’s bestselling novel of the same name.
We follow Bing (Liam Diaz), a young Filipino-Canadian boy who flees an abusive father with his mother while he begins to understand his queer identity, Sylvie (Essence Fox), an Indigenous girl who hops between housing, and Laura (Anna Claire Beitel), who searches for a respite from her neglectful guardians. All three of them meet in a daycare that’s lovingly run by Ms. Hina (Aliya Kanani). The trio escape their troubling domestic lives and come together in community and friendship in this heartwarming debut.
On The Record caught up with the director during the festival.
This interview has been edited for clarity and flow.
ON THE RECORD: First off, I absolutely loved Scarborough, it was such a touching story. I thought you captured the place on screen brilliantly. Your background is in journalism, and Scarborough does have a documentary feel to it. How did your time at the school of journalism influence your directorial voice?
SHASHA NAKHAI: So, when Catherine [Hernandez] wrote the book, she approached my partner Rich [Williamson] and I, because we had worked together on a dance film, like six years ago. She really wanted to have that documentary approach. She knew how invasive a big film production could be, just trailers everywhere, taking over the sidewalks and being a little bit disruptive. And so she wanted it to be short documentary style, because we wanted to have a small footprint and just to be mindful of the neighbourhoods and people’s homes. I think that documentary style and that ethos of thinking about your impact on a community did in part come from journalism training.
OTR: When did you know that it was filmmaking that you were more interested in as a medium? Was that always what you envisioned when entering school, or did something ignite that?
S.N.: I’ve always been interested in the power of storytelling and that’s why I went to journalism school. In the final year of school, I did this documentary film course, where we got to make our first 15-minute documentary with Marsha Barber. I had another prof, and we would just watch the entire history, the entire back catalogue of documentaries there. That made me interested in volunteering at the Hot Docs Film Festival, where I got to see all these big feature documentaries. And then I just began to realize that I wanted to have all the colours in the painter’s toolkit to be able to tell a story. Getting 30-second sound bites wasn’t really for me. I really liked the more creative, long-form storytelling.
OTR: The three children are really the stars of the film, and they all play their roles poignantly. What was it like working with such a young cast?
S.N.: We took our job really seriously, it’s a lot of responsibility to portray this accurately in different ways. So we would often be so serious on set. But the great thing about working with children is that they encourage you to have fun. My partner Rich would often have lightsaber battles with Felix [Jedi Ingram Issac], who plays Johnny. It really brought a lot of joy, just to be working with kids. In terms of logistics, we just have to be agile, and try to let them be themselves as much as possible. Because you can’t really control children too much in a way like you might on a big fiction set.
OTR: You shot the film through part of Ontario’s lockdown in 2020. What were the biggest challenges in making the film?
S.N.: We had five days left of shooting in March of 2020 and we had to cancel them because of the pandemic. We weren’t sure if we would ever finish the film because the children were growing so quickly. It was August of 2020. The case count in Ontario had gone way down and film and TV productions had been back for like a month already. But we were just kind of watching and learning about how on earth to even do this. Because at the time, nobody really knew COVID protocols, so it was very challenging to develop the COVID protocols and to research and figure out the best ways to do it. And also adhering to the COVID protocols. It’s very unnatural. But we were able to make it through, to be honest.
OTR: What would you like to see change in the landscape of Canadian film?
S.N.: There are a lot of things I would like to see change in the landscape of Canadian film. A lot of them have been changing. But we make the work we want to see, right? So that is, in part, why I worked on this, and I’m working on a whole bunch of other projects.
OTR: What piece of advice would you give to Ryerson students that are thinking about making the transition from journalism to film, but are intimidated to tackle that monolith?
S.N.: One of the things that I wish I did more when I was in school was take advantage of access to equipment and editing suites, because those things are very expensive and difficult to get access to after you leave school. The more you practise your craft, the better you get at it. It doesn’t matter if you actually want to be a cinematographer, or an editor, I still think if you want to work in film, if you want to work in TV, if you want to work in digital storytelling, even on Instagram, you should have an understanding of how to do those things, because those are the building blocks of your craft.
OTR: Finally, are there any future ideas in the works you’d like to share with us?
S.N.: I can’t share anything that’s in development, because it’s still in development. But I was a supervising producer on this comedy series called Next Stop. And that is premièring on CBC Gem on Sept. 24. I’m pretty excited about that coming out.
Scarborough premièred at TIFF as part of the Discovery and Next Wave slate on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021.