‘Under The Heavens’ Director Gustavo Milan Shows Motherhood Through A Different Lens

By: Amanda Guarragi

Under the Heavens explores the current socio political climate in Venezuela, while highlighting a very intimate story about motherhood. Director Gustavo Milan, wanted to raise awareness for the Venezuelan people, who were forced to flee the country in search for a better life. The second part of this story is quite personal for Milan because it was something that had happened within his family. The film is about a young Venezuelan mother, Marta (Samantha Castillo), who was immigrating to Brazil, and on her way, she meets a struggling young couple with a baby girl. Her ability to breastfeed causes their fates to become forever entwined.

The film begins with Marta on the side of the road, waiting for someone to stop, in order to help her get to her destination. Eventually, she meets this young couple who are also heading in the same direction. The driver of this truck, asks for payment, for all three of them, and Marta offers to cover the cost. Right from the start, we see that Marta is generous, selfless, and always attempts to do the right thing. This couple and their baby girl, have a very odd dynamic when they are first introduced. The wife and child are completely detached from the husband. You could feel that something was not right between them. Gustavo Milan’s direction details the exterior world scale in Venezuela and the small, intimate moments between these characters.

Milan balances the importance of the the two stories effortlessly, but mainly puts the focus on the baby and the two women. Milan wanted to tell this story because it has always been at the back of his mind,

“It’s related to something that happened in my family. I wasn’t born. My mother made a choice of nursing my cousin because my aunt didn’t have milk and she became almost like a second mother to my cousin. They are very attached to each other and my mom is also very attached to my cousin.”

– Director Gustavo Milan, ‘Under the Heavens’

He learned a lot about that when he was a child, it made such an impact on him and it blurred the boundaries of motherhood for him. He never knew how to talk about it, but he knew that it was important enough to bring it to the screen one day. The idea to blend these two stories together, officially came to him, when he saw an image of a woman in the newspaper, “She was walking along the shoulder of the road, that connects Brazil to Venezuela, and she had a baby in her arms. And for some reason, I didn’t think it was her son or daughter.” He ended up writing the first draft of the script that exact day.

Courtesy of Nanucha Films

The reason why this short film makes an impact is because of the way Milan leaves many situations up to interpretation. He shows just enough to get his audience interested in these characters and then he leaves it open-ended. The viewer gets to create a backstory for these characters because of the choices they make in this film. Milan wanted to show his audience the hardships Venezuelans have had to go through. More importantly, he shows what women have to endure, and their resilience in getting what they want. The relationship between the two women, Marta and Alice (Brenda Moreno) is interesting to watch because they both approach motherhood differently, and there is no judgement, which is refreshing.

The relationship between Marta and Alice slowly builds, as Alice places her trust in Marta. Not only with taking care of her child, but with helping her get out of her abusive relationship with her partner. It’s almost as if there was an unspoken understanding between the both of them. The gravity of their relationship is truly felt at the end of this film. The way Milan ended this film, shows how much he values his audience and their ability to connect the dots on their own. The last scene has Marta and Alice on a boat. There is a moment where Alice, who is the real mother of the baby, has to hand the baby over to Marta. Milan said that Brenda Moreno was so connected to this story, and to her character, that it was even difficult for her to let go of the child.

Courtesy of Nanucha Films

Milan went on to say that the ending of this film was decided during the editing process of the movie,

“I actually shot Alice leaving the boat, and stepping off the boat, and actually walking away. So I guess I shot for clarity. I knew that would be a difficult moment to add it. Then, when I was editing, it’s just one of those situations where less is more you don’t have to show everything to the audience. When she learns, you learn.”

– Director Gustavo Milan, ‘Under the Heavens’

Having the film end the way it did, leaves the viewer wondering what Alice was trying to get away from. She managed to get away from her abusive relationship, but why did she give up her child? What does this mean for Marta? Who has now taken on the role of being the sole guardian of this child. What else was she getting away from? There are so many questions, but then your heart connects with both women. Maybe the way their babies came into their lives, were not by choice, and they did not know what to do. The idea of motherhood is very complex. There can be maternal figures that have a better relationship with some children than their actual mothers. There is always a bond that can be formed based on the emotional and spiritual connectivity between a child and a maternal figure.

There is no right way to be a mother, or to even go through motherhood. Milan is able to show the complexities of this, through the budding relationship between Alice and Marta. Under the Heavens is a short film that will start an important conversation about the political state of Venezuela, and the importance of helping out your fellow woman. It is very personal, emotional, and Gustavo Milan combines both stories, in an impactful way. Milan is a gifted storyteller and you can tell that this film came from a very personal place.

The Canadian Comedy Series ‘Ghost BFF’ Tackles Important Social Issues With Humour

By: Amanda Guarragi

When we consume media, we usually gravitate towards series or films that we can hopefully relate to. If we are lucky, we can find a show or film with characters who speak to us on a different level. That is why representation on-screen is important, whether there is a diverse cast, or stories that highlight different social issues. There are creators who highlight issues such as mental health, suicide, and depression. Not only do these conversations need to be had among friends or family, but it is important to show these conversations on-screen. The Canadian comedy series Ghost BFF tackles all this effortlessly and is nominated for four performance Canadian Screen Awards for stars Vanessa Matsui, Kaniehtiio Horn, Jean Yoon, and Angela Asher. 

Ghost BFF is a dark comedy about depression, following two women, Tara (Kaniehtiio Horn) and Amy (Vanessa Matsui) – one alive, one dead – as they struggle to find themselves and right past wrongs following a suicide. The series shines a light on mental health, highlighting tough topics like depression and anxiety, suicide, treatment, and mindfulness, while adding some well-needed humour. Kaniehtiio Horn and Vanessa Matsui have incredible chemistry on and off-screen, they both understood the material and they created a very honest space, to explore their characters mental struggles. Matsui, who is also the showrunner, really wanted to bring these social issues to the forefront because of her personal connection to the subject matter.

Web series Ghost BFF puts the focus on mental health via two friends. And  one of them is dead. | TV, eh?
Courtesy of Babe Nation Creations

Matsui wanted to make sure people, especially women, feel represented on-screen. She could see all these young women suffering and no one was talking about mental health,

“I wanted to make a show that used comedy as a bridge, to talk about something that at the time, was pretty taboo and arguably still is. At the same time, I wanted the series to make you laugh, so it’s not so heavy or difficult. And if you are suffering, that hopefully you feel a little less alone, after watching this show.”

– Vanessa Matsui, Ghost BFF

The reason why many can connect to this show is because of the humour that is added to painful, emotional moments when discussing these difficult subjects. Not everything has to be grim and dark; humour is sometimes the best release and as Kaniehtiio Horn said, it’s a way to cope during hard times. When asked about her connection to this character and to Matsui, she said that after knowing her for 15 years or so, that it was a collaboration in the making. Horn said that one evening, during TIFF, they connected and Horn wanted to audition for the project. Sometimes projects can choose the person, and in this case, Horn didn’t know how much she needed the character of Tara in her life, “It gave me confidence to start working on my own things. Just seeing my peers, these women who are my age making things happen and that really lit a fire under me.” The way Horn and Matsui came together and supported each other through this process is truly inspiring.

Vanessa Matsui on Twitter: "… "
via Vanessa Matsui on Twitter

Since it is Mental Health Awareness Month, it is always important to shed light on these issues because these conversations need to be presented on-screen. Media has a wide reach, no matter what form it takes, and it is important that it connects with people. Whether it is because of diversity in its cast or social issues, these stories are important in order for everyone to feel seen. Matsui and Horn are both on the same page when it comes to representation in the media, “I think you realize once you start talking about it, or see what you might be doing, that it might be reflected back to you in the content that you’re consuming, you feel a little less alone.” Horn went on to say that she even started going to therapy and that working on this project allowed her to explore her own mind, while diving into the character of Tara.

The reason why diverse stories matter is because everyone can be going through something different. In one way or another, someone is struggling in their own way and it would benefit them, if there was an atmosphere to help them through. When making Ghost BFF it was important for Matsui to be inclusive and have a diverse cast. The industry has definitely shifted and as Horn put it, diversity is hot right now, which can also be a long-term issue. Matsui and Horn are both weary about what the future holds for the industry but they see the shift as a positive change,

“I used to feel so little and meek and just be thankful that I got the job. That’s how I used to feel. But now with all of these initiatives, I feel a bit more confident to say things and yes there’s a shift, and it’s amazing to see and I guess I feel like I’m a part of it in terms, on the Indigenous side of filmmaking and television and it’s exciting. But again there’s this underlining thing.” 

– Kaniehtiio Horn, Ghost BFF
Ghost BFF
Courtesy of Babe Nation Creations

Matsui and Horn remain hopeful moving forward because there are still so many stories left to tell. And the push to have different stories in the Canadian film industry will always be relevant,

“My Japanese family has been here since the 1800s that’s a lot longer than a lot of white people who have been here and yet I’m always asked ‘Where do you come from?’ Why is that question even being asked to me when I’m from here? I think part of it is that we are not represented in the media, people have this really narrow version of what a Canadian looks like.”

– Vanessa Matsui, Ghost BFF

The most important thing that Matsui wants audiences to takeaway from this series is that hopefully people will feel a little less alone. That if you are going through a rough time, this show will bring you some laughter. Matsui went on to say, “If you are a young woman, or woman of colour and you might not fit into the perfect casting, I hope this inspires people to create their own work, especially young women.” Horn and Matsui have put so much of themselves in Ghost BFF and you can see the love for their characters on-screen.

Matsui is slated to make her directorial feature film debut very soon and she is currently working on the show Hot Zone. Horn has also been busy with guest starring on an American television show called, Reservation Dogs and will be turning her podcast, Coffee With My Ma, into an animated series!

If you want to check out Ghost BFF the first two seasons are online. And if you want to cheer them on during the Canadian Screen Awards it will be streaming live on academy.ca from May 17th – 20th.

Derek Tsang’s Oscar-Nominated ‘Better Days’ Is A Brutally Honest Story About Bullying


By: Amanda Guarragi

The one thing that we can all agree on is that everyone has had their fair encounters with bullying. No matter how minor the bullying could have been, we can all acknowledge that it exists. People can be cruel, violent, and completely horrible. Bullying, can take many forms and sometimes it is impossible to get out of that position. In Better Days, something that really stood out to me was the line, “Either you bully others or you get bullied.” and no matter your position, there is some form of it every single day. Derek Tsang wanted to address this specific issue for many years and when his producer handed him the novel by Jiu Yuexi’s book ‘In His Youth, In Her Beauty‘, he could finally tell the story through a specific lens.

Tsang wanted to shed light on this issue because it was always a fascinating subject. He addressed social platforms like YouTube and Facebook having multiple videos of young children being bullied. Smartphones have made it very accessible for these traumatic situations to appear on any platform in the matter of minutes. “That is when it really shocked me, as to how these kids can do that sort of stuff to each other. The idea of making a film to personally address the issue has been there since. It has been around for a long time but I was always trying to find an angle to help tell the story.” Tsang said.

What can most definitely be appreciated about this film is Tsang being extremely honest with his audience. He did not shy away from showing the most violent, emotionally damaging and traumatic moments at all. I’m sure everyone will appreciate the fact that Tsang wanted to make it authentic as possible, “I really wanted all of the slaps, punches and hits to be real. So that the audience can really feel the pain.” When directing one of the harsher scenes, Tsang made sure that his lead actress, Dongyu Zhou, who plays Nian, was comfortable with this level of physical contact for the scene, “She was very professional, she said she wanted that as well because she didn’t want it to look fake.” There was a level of trust that was built on this set, among the entire cast and crew because of the story they were bringing to the screen.

What was really interesting to see was the budding relationship between Nian and Bei (Jackson Yee), they started out as a very unlikely pairing, meeting in an alleyway because some men were beating Bei. Nian, who had clearly seen enough bullying/harassment at that point in the film, goes to save him, even if she was manhandled, she wanted to save someone. Nian and Bei lived two very different lives, they are on opposite ends of the spectrum and they slowly become dependent on the other. There is a mutual respect and love for one another, given the cards that they were dealt in life,

“So we told them, not only do you guys have to treat each other like boyfriend and girlfriend, but I want you guys to be family, like a brother and sister, in which you would sacrifice yourself for the other, to survive. So that’s how we really approached that relationship. I mean it was really fascinating to watch the actors slowly getting into that trust and bond as well. We shot everything in linear sequence and it just worked it out perfectly.”

-Derek Tsang, Better Days

The performances from Yee and Zhou were incredible. You could truly see their connection become stronger as the film went on and filming it in linear sequence, presented a different feel to their relationship. Anyone can resonate with this kind of bond. Tsang said, “It was more like two people becoming one entity, in their belief, in their wish, or hope in escaping this situation, or the city itself.” Tsang also shows the class system very well and dives into the hierarchy in the education system as well. There are people who will always have an air of superiority and that is something that can only be dismantled, from within the system, which created that mentality.

When asked about how children can sometimes feel ashamed that they are being bullied, Tsang mentioned that it is a very difficult position to be in. Whether you are the child being bullied, or the authority figure trying to help them. Children do not want to admit that they are being bullied because they do not even know what the consequences could be after reaching out to someone. They live in constant fear of speaking out because they overthink what could possibly happen to them. “Kids in that situation a lot of times, they find themselves very helpless. In a way we kind of wanted to convey that message in the film, that’s why we have the point-of-view of the teacher and the parents.” Tsang said. He explored all avenues and wanted to present a whole piece about those who are suffering from bullying and how to help.

Even though the story was very bleak and poignant, the journey for Tsang and his crew was very memorable. When you bond over a mutual respect for an issue and a love for your craft, that bond is like no other. And Tsang was able to find both throughout his journey. He shared a memory with me,

There is one photo that you could find online, everytime I see that photo it always brings warmth and a smile to my face. There’s a photo of us, it was taken immediately after we shot the scene, when the actor and actress shaved their head. In solidarity, I told my actors, especially my actress because it’s a big thing for an actress to shave her head. So I said, if you’re going to do it, I’ll do it with you guys. I’m going to shave my head and it was just amazing bc not only me but a lot of the crew, we all shaved our head in solidarity with the actors.”

– Derek Tsang, Better Days

In the time they spent together, they became very close and in telling this brutally honest story, it brought them even closer. Better Days is a labor of love and audiences who watch this film will understand the message. Everyone needs a bit more compassion, empathy and most importantly love in their life. For a film to have this much support off-screen, for a serious subject matter like bullying, it can be very rewarding. The importance of addressing these issues authentically will help so many others in the long-run.

cdrama tweets on Twitter: "Director #DerekTsang thanks Weibo Movie Night  for the honor and shares a new BTS pic of #ZhouDongyu, #YiYangQianXi, and  other cast and crew members on the set of #

How ‘Woman In Car’ Presents The Female Experience: An Interview With Writer-Director Vanya Rose


By: Amanda Guarragi

Woman in Car premiered at the Canadian Film Festival last week. It is such a multilayered film, that dives into the female experience through relationships, trauma and deceit. It is always interesting to explore the female characters in high society because there can be so much to unpack. It is an in-depth look at the psychology of past mistakes and how it can affect the future. The script is well-written and Vanya Rose peels back the many layers of Ann (Hélène Joy). There are so many things to unpack in this story and Ann’s experience as a woman is really interesting to dive into.

Rose wanted to explore this bourgeois society because of her interest in Edith Warton’s novels. Warton always wrote about it and more importantly she questioned it, even though she was a part of it,

“We have this neighbourhood in Montreal, called West Mount which is kind of what used to be the center of money in all of Canada. Montreal was the center of everything. It was home to the richest people in Canada. And so that interested me bc it had never been explored in Quebec at all. We see a lot of the working class films, which are great, beautiful films but we don’t really see how Montreal had that historically, and it’s still there.”

– Vanya Rose, Woman in Car
Courtesy of Thievish Films

In order to understand Ann’s internal struggle, one has to understand the society she lives in and the family she is connected to. As we see in the film, Ann’s persona is quite different around her mother-in-law Charlotte (Gabrielle Lazure), stepson Owen (Aidan Ritchie), and newcomer Safiye (Liane Balaban). She hides pieces of herself from the people she meets with. The one thing that really interested me was Ann’s sense of control. Rose wanted to give Ann a passion, so she chose archery,

“I wanted Ann to have a passion. I wanted her to have something that she had given up. What’s amazing about these archers is not only are they complete perfectionists, like to the nth degree, they’re a little bit odd these people, they have a very specific skill that they developed. It’s a skill of shooting something directly on the nose and that’s all you do over and over again. You have to have a personality type, that’s just so foreign this desire and this training that goes into that.”

– Vanya Rose, Woman in Car

Archery has always interested Rose and it came through with the character of Ann. The way that the archery, can be interpreted through Ann’s character is that she always needs to be in control. Even as she was losing herself in her former marriage, she found something in her stepson to regain that control, even though the events made her spiral even further. She wanted to make decisions on her own but this society she was in, this family that she married into, wasn’t easy for her at all. We see that Ann has a clear shot at the beginning of the film, she was composed and reserved. She managed to hit the bullseye. Then towards the end of the film, she can’t even calm herself down in order to shoot the arrow at all.

Courtesy of Thievish Films

Ann slowly unravels as the film goes on, and it is connected to her feeling neglected, in her relationship with her soon-to-be husband. When asked about showing that kind of emotional experience and why it is necessary to show on screen, Rose said, “I think that’s what art is right, isn’t art all about showing our human experience? I think that as a man or woman, though our human experiences, there is a lot of pain and I think joy is actually a very small part of all that.” She goes on to say that we all go through hardships, whether it be relationships or even pandemics, they impact us more than the greater joys in our lives, but that is what makes those moments special.

Woman in Car is all about human connectivity and relationships. Rose explores the way people treat each other and how they can change their perspective. Rose wanted to show a little compassion in this film, especially between women, “I think that’s the key. I think women have been traditionally pitted against each other because of competition and survival. What if we got rid of that? We don’t need to follow that old scenario, get beyond it and reach out to each other.” The relationship between Ann and the women in her life is very strained. There are vulnerable moments shared between the female characters in the film, where they each gain a deeper understanding of who they are. The film is multilayered, nuanced and incredibly sophisticated. It is a film that will keep you glued to the screen and will have you questioning what is possibly going to happen.

‘Umama’ Short Film: Interview With Talia Smith And Malibongwe Mdwaba


By: Amanda Guarragi

Umama written and directed by Talia Smith shows the true story of a mother whose son has gone missing. It is a story of love, loss and acceptance. The morning after Sibongile made a promise to celebrate her son’s academic achievement, she wakes to find he is missing. Sibongile (Connie Chiume) still goes into work and she must care for the children, of her employer, in order to get home and keep her promise. Before heading to NYU, Smith was born and raised in South Africa. She wanted to highlight these stories in the most honest way. Smith had a personal connection to the story because of her childhood. She had a second mother, which is an Americanized way of labelling her as a ‘domestic worker’. Smith wanted to showcase her heritage through these special relationships.

What started out as a class assignment for Talia Smith had turned into a very important film exploring South African culture,

“This is a very common South African story, but on top of that, non-South Africans can relate to the universal theme but also start to see South Africans, not only their stories, but their talent. There are so many incredible stories so I hope that comes across to non-South Africans audiences.”

– Talia Smith, Umama

The beauty of this story is the connection between Sibongile and the children she cared for, even the dynamic between the mother (her employer) and Sibongile. There is a level of respect and love that can only be felt by those who have experienced connections such as theirs. It is essentially like choosing your own family and at the end of the day, they will support you through anything. That is the love that is shared in this film. Sibongile is having a difficult time with her teenage son Thabiso (Malibongwe Mdwaba). She feels detached from his life but Thabiso is trying to venture out and create his own path.

When watching Umama, we see both perspectives in a balanced way. The worried mother, who is trying her best to work and raise her son. And the teenager, who is trying to survive his high school years by making the right decisions. When asked about his own connection to Thabiso, Mdwaba said,

“To be taken back to that sort of timeline, gave me the time to see the bigger picture and heal from those moments. It really spoke to the kind of work that I love doing. That’s any work that has to do with mirroring society, in the most truthful manner and rarely do we get those stories, where we are literally not fabricating anything and we are just telling it as it is.”

– Malibongwe Mdwaba, Umama

We have all gone through our own hardships, in our teenage years and Mdwaba used this character to heal from his own experiences. There was so much thought, care and love that went into this story.

What Smith and Mdwaba hope audiences gain from this story is the connectivity of human relationships. It does not matter how you are connected to the other person, all that matters is the love and respect that is shared. Smith has had discussions with psychologists that deal with families in a lot of these situations and she is trying to create a toolkit,

“Once people have watched the film, if you relate to a character you will be able to kind of see how you fit into that category and figure out something that you may need, or how you can help other people in your life find resources.”

– Talia Smith, Umama

To see an extension of love and support in this way through filmmaking, just shows how genuine Smith is. Her stories will always be rooted in something honest and personal. It is a reflection of how she sees the world and how she wants people to perceive it through universal themes.