Maya Bastian grew up with the narrative of war interwoven with her identity. The Sri Lankan and Tamil Canadian filmmaker’s family left Sri Lanka, where a civil war spanning decades took place. In 2009, after the war ended, Maya volunteered at a non-governmental organization (NGO), shaping her life.
Maya’s captivating feature, Tigress, is set to screen at Reel Asian Film Festival from November 10 to November 19. It follows Trina (Anne Saverimuthu), who encounters another version of herself as a paramilitary fighter for the Tamil Tigers. One drunken night, she begins questioning how we rebel, and her sense of Western privilege collides with the reality of her ancestors.
Recently, I had the privilege of chatting with Maya about how Tigress came to be, the importance of Tamil stories, what we can do to deepen our understanding of the Tamil diaspora and more.
This interview has been condensed for clarity.
Melody McCune: We at GGA love a good origin story. What’s Maya Bastian’s origin story?
Maya Bastian: I’m Sri Lankan and Tamil Canadian. My family left Sri Lanka and moved to Canada. I was born in Canada, but I grew up with the narrative of war being singularly intertwined with my identity. Most Tamils who have left, most first-gen Tamil kids, we heard about war all the time.
We heard about the terrible acts, whispers and families talking from the time we were little. So it was always something that was a part of me. In 2009, the war was ending — a 30-year civil war. There were a lot of atrocities committed against the Tamil people, and some Tamils call it a genocide.
I’m a filmmaker and an artist. I was in Canada, and I thought, “What can I do?” I felt helpless, so I volunteered at an NGO in Sri Lanka after the war ended. I saw firsthand all the terrible things that happened, and it shaped my life.
After that, I felt the narrative of war and conflict presented by the media is black and white. When I went there, I saw that that’s not how it is at all, and it’s very much shades of gray. I wanted to explore that. And I started to make documentaries and write narratives. I was just in Palestine before the pandemic hit.
I’ve been looking at how I can tell these stories and the narrative not being told in these places. So that’s where my heart work has led me.
MM: So let’s talk about Tigress, which tells the tale of Trina, a 20-something who returns to India as an aid worker during the war and encounters another version of herself as a paramilitary fighter for the Tamil Tigers. What inspired you to write this story?
MB: I’ve thought a lot about what choices I would have made differently if my parents never left — if I had grown up there. I spent a lot of time with people, young women living in small villages over there. There weren’t many choices. There was a war; shelling and bombing were happening. There’s violence, and women and young women would still go to school and study even by candlelight when there was no electricity or running water.
The Tamil Tigers were a paramilitary group but then became the most powerful one. They were recruiting in schools, especially after they had gone through all the men. They were clear about starting to recruit women and putting women in positions of power.
I was politically active, and it’s not like I think I would’ve joined a rebel militancy. And I don’t think that’s necessarily the right choice or the best choice, but when you’re in those situations, and you’re seeing your friends and family die. You’re a vocal, stubborn, politically active person — when I think about it, I think that’s what I would’ve done.
I don’t in any way support what transpired with the Tamil Tigers. It’s me thinking about who I would be. Who would I be if I was born in a conflict zone? I wanted other people to think about that, too.
MM: You use a lot of vivid imagery, bright colors, different sounds and music to create this sensory-filled landscape. It’s a far cry from what we would typically see in a movie that touches on war. What did you hope to convey with that?
MB: I don’t watch many war movies because I find them destitute, dark, minimalist and gritty. That’s what war is for sure. But for me, I’m into exploring the human mind and how our mind processes things, memories and even hallucinations. Those are things that fascinate me because that’s where our trauma and emotional centers lie.
I wasn’t going to tell this story and show grittiness. It’s about these two young women — same woman, different lives, and how they’ve experienced trauma. Trauma is multisensory; trauma is hyperreal, and it’s not always that gritty reality if you think about how your dreams manifest when you’re going through a hard time.
I dream a lot, and they’re always bright colors, and dreams rarely look like a handheld gritty war movie. What I wanted to do was explore the inner consciousness. To do that, we had to go into the beautiful colors and the sensory awareness and the way the camera moves.
MM: Can you talk about how important it is to amplify Tamil stories and voices and how important it was to showcase a different side in Tigress?
MB: It’s so important. It’s imperative to talk about underrepresented cultures from our perspective. Tamil people are all over the world, and there are hundreds of thousands of us. We make up a big part of the population in Canada, Europe and the states.
I feel it’s time that Tamil youth start speaking up and talking about things our parents didn’t have the wherewithal to talk about because they were trying to survive. We’ve also seen other people tell our stories, and I don’t want to see that anymore. I want us to tell our stories because that’s where the truth comes out. So for me, I’m not trying to be a voice piece for the Tamil generation.
I’m just trying to explore my feelings around this. But I know many up-and-coming Tamil filmmakers who are telling amazing stories. I want to see stories from Palestinian filmmakers, Irish filmmakers and anyone who’s been colonized or had undue duress due to war or conflict. I’d like to see more stories told by those people. That’s where you get the truth.
MM: Tigress delves into Trina’s fears and Western privilege colliding with the reality of her ancestors. She talks about this innate sense of dread that lingers, despite her alternate self having fought to eliminate that fear. Do you think that feeling will ever go away for her?
MB: I think we carry the fear and trauma of our ancestors in our bodies and psyches; it’s passed down through generations. There’s a term called “postmemory,” which is precisely that, like memories that get passed down. The woman in the film is struggling with it.
We do have the ability to transcend and release it, but we have to do the work. We have to learn how to release that trauma and not perpetuate cycles of trauma and violence in our families because of our experiences.
I think anyone can do it. And I think she can do it because she’s exploring, and that’s what it’s about. Let’s not close the door and put this in the past — let’s explore what it could be and who we could be if we allow ourselves to transcend the trauma.
MM: The film also explores the disparity between diaspora youth who rebel by partying versus those who take up arms and fight. How can we gain a deeper understanding of the Tamil diaspora and their experiences?
MB: Seek out Tamil filmmakers and look at what’s happening in the country now and what has happened. It’s a small country, but the things that happen there are reflective of things happening worldwide. Trauma is trauma. You see it in many countries, which is one of the reasons why I’ve gone to several different countries to look at it, to understand the parallel. So, I think that’s one aspect of it.
I think people being able to address their privilege, the innate, ingrained privilege we carry, even myself, that we carry here in the west, and not judge people going through conflict for the choices they make, that’s what the film’s about. I want people to understand that your options would be different if you lived through conflict in the war.
If people can start to address privilege and look at news stories and things like militant rebellion, as people are forced to make decisions they wouldn’t necessarily have had they been raised with the privilege we have. To me, that’s a huge part of understanding underrepresented communities.
MM: What do you hope audiences glean from Tigress?
MB: I always want to do work that pushes people to think. I don’t necessarily think there’s an answer out there, but I want people to walk away with that deep-seated interest in finding out more and possibly changing their perspective. I want people to think harder about the media we consume. What we’re being told versus what the reality is.
MM: Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers trying to get their foot in the door of the industry?
MB: Dedication, passion, hard work, focus and not giving up. A considerable part of it is not giving up. Film is a challenging industry, even when you’re about to shoot. I’m about to go into a project right now, and there have been many challenges. It’s believing in your ability to manifest magic, manifest the things you want, work hard and tell the stories that are your truth. Don’t tell other people’s stories — tell your stories.
MM: What else is on the horizon for you career-wise?
MB: I’m directing a paranormal mystery series for Reflector Entertainment. I’ve got a comedy series on race and representation that I’m doing with SYN FM. I’ve got a couple of features in the works that I’m developing with a few production companies. Both of my two features are set in and around Sri Lanka and around the war.
MM: Have you binge-watched anything interesting during the pandemic?
MB: Because the series I’m working on right now is an interrogation series, I’m watching a lot of interrogation-style stuff. I’ve been watching Homecoming and Mare of Easttown and a lot of those kinds of series. They’re great, and Homecoming is fantastic the first season.
MM: Last one! Name your favorite directors.
I’m trying to think of other directors I love right now. I’ve been watching a lot of older John Frankenheimer movies, which I love. Mati Diop made Atlantics, and it’s incredible. Alma Har’el made Honey Boy.
MM: Maya, thank you so much for chatting with me. Congratulations on everything! I loved Tigress, and I’m looking forward to seeing what else comes down the pipeline for you.
MB: Thanks so much for having me!