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Indo-Canadian helmer Deepa Mehta has a long history with the Toronto Intl. Film Festival, where nearly all of her films have premiered, starting with “Sam and Me” in 1994. She returned to the festival to help mentor up-and-coming filmmakers. Currently finishing up a feature film based on Shyam Selvadurai’s book “Funny Boy,” which is a “a coming-of-age love story set in 1970s-’80s Colombo [in Sri Lanka] with the backdrop of the civil war.” Mehta took time out to talk to us about her connections with the festival via email. 

The earliest mention of you in Variety is a review of your debut film, “Sam and Me,” starring the late Ranjit Chowdry. That film played in TIFF in 1994. “Sam and Me” was a direct result of my rumination about transnational identity. I was a Canadian who still thought of herself as an Indian. After no backing from Telefilm [Canada] but support from Wayne Clarkson at OMDC, for “Sam and Me” to have won an award at Cannes and playing in Toronto was a big deal. It was a high point in my career, and would have felt like it, I’m sure, if I wasn’t going through a rather ugly divorce at the time. So the highs were cancelled by the lows, so to speak. A great lesson in the unpredictability of life. 

As a Canadian filmmaker, having your debut film play in Toronto, how big a deal was it? What was the festival like back then? The festival then was far more intimate. Fewer films with a real desire to focus on/promote Canadian talent. I remember [now-TIFF co-head] Cameron Bailey introducing “Sam and Me” for its first screening in a now-defunct movie hall (not a multiplex) on Bloor Street. Atom Egoyan, an already established filmmaker of immense talent, was particularly kind to me, a first-timer, clearly out of her depth. There was an easy camaraderie between filmmakers, programmers, the press and the audience. 

Who were your mentors? Atom Egoyan comes to mind immediately. His feedback on the film, his kindness and generosity in helping a clearly nervous first-timer is something that has become a path to emulate for me. 

In later years your element trilogy “Fire,” “Earth” and “Water” all premiered at TIFF. What stands out in your mind about their reception at the festival? I love TIFF and am eternally grateful to them for showcasing my films as Canadian films regardless of the fact that they were neither in English nor French nor an indigenous language. Getting into prime spots at the
festival [opening the Perspective Canada Section of the Festival for “Fire” and opening the festival with “Water”] can only be described as moments of pure elation, after what we had been put through in India with both films. 

I know you have given back to the festival with your volunteer work for young filmmakers there. Can you talk about that? I feel not only a huge responsibility to a festival that nurtures talent, established or emerging, but also am compelled to respond to whatever I can contribute to and whenever TIFF might need me. I have been a part of numerous Talent Labs, run by superb international talent. TIFF has a great program that promotes first-time filmmakers and actors as well. But perhaps what I am most happy about is their effort with Share Her Journey, a kick-ass effort to bring forth and support female filmmakers. Being an ambassador for Share Her Journey has definitely been the high point of my association with TIFF. Creating this awareness and raising funds has directly resulted in huge participation of women in the industry. Perhaps the largest in percentage, compared to any other festival.