When Pixar animation studios’ Turning Red was released early this year, it was reported that it cemented diverse stories in animation. The movie’s director, Domee Shi, was raised in Toronto, Ontario, studied animation at Sheridan College, and is the first woman to solo-direct a feature in the studio’s 36-year history.
The movie follows the story of 13-year-old Canadian-Chinese teen Meilin Lee through the throes of puberty. Critics say it is a tribute to Toronto, its diversity, and its strong Asian community. Turning Red has therefore been praised by critics, including Rotten Tomatoes, which gave it a rating of 94 per cent, and many viewers have tweeted positive reviews.
However, despite Canada’s diverse community, why do movies centred on diverse characters continue to be a rarity?
Nattasha Shreshta, a Vancouver Film School (VFS) graduate and a finalist writer for the Netflix’s Women In Animation Program, said despite more than 50 per cent of Canada’s international students coming from two countries – India and China – the system is not fair to them.
“A lot of film schools in Vancouver pride themselves on being international and having international students,” Shreshta said. “And yet, there’s hardly any BIPOC representation in their faculty.”
Despite international students paying four times what domestic students pay, Shreshta said there’s no proper nurturing for their stories and art in classrooms since the majority of film school instructors (at least in the writing department) tend to be older, white Canadian men.
Lack of representation
Shreshta said she would get comments from teachers that her characters are “so great” and “exotic,” or that the premise might be “too cultural for Canada.”
“It’s taxing having to constantly explain your culture and subtext that occurs in scenes and between the BIPOC community that white folks might not understand or pick up on,” she said.
Shreshta says she graduated with a lot of knowledge and gratitude, but also left school feeling like there was hardly any space for the kind of narratives she wanted to write in the industry.
“Having been in the industry for two years now, however, I know that’s not true and the success of Turning Red is further proof that most Canadian audiences want to see authenticity, especially from BIPOC stories,” she explained.
Adding that “it’s an education issue at a national level for BIPOC creatives,” Shreshta said, “I can name plenty of BIPOC and international film school graduates in Vancouver and Toronto who feel the same way and share the same problem.”
“Universities and film schools need to start by prioritizing diversity and equity training for all instructors.”
Shreshta said she thinks language is the most important aspect that instructors need to be sensitive about. “I genuinely think the teachers in our film schools don’t mean to say the harmful things that they say, they’re just not aware of how it can affect BIPOC and LGBTQ+ kids,” she said.
In addition to hiring more BIPOC instructors, she said being more conscious about how inclusive the content of the class’ curriculum actually is, is also important. “Because most of my classes were taught by older, white men, a lot of the films and shows that they showcased to us were either made a trillion years ago and/ or only focused on white narratives.”
While they’re important to watch, she says, “at the same time, having BIPOC and LGBTQ work to be studied in school is also crucial.” She wonders, “How can we set our emerging BIPOC creatives up for confidence and success if they can’t see themselves in any of the stories we highlight in school?”
Pushing for change
Shreshta says she has spent the past year trying to figure out how to help her film school improve the diversity of their teaching body.
“I did some active listening and connected with many BIPOC writers and showrunners in the industry, all of whom have either experienced the exact same thing or are strong allies for the cause,” she explains, adding that many of them have put their names down to guest speak or teach virtually.
However, she said the school is still ignoring her request to have a dialogue about the issue, so she is looking into creating a panel this year about it.
Shreshta says when she raised the issue of “all-white staffed school for 30 years (except for one Indigenous teacher)” with the department, she was told it’s because they haven’t been able to find any qualified and available BIPOC creatives to teach.
“I found this to be shocking, that after three decades of searching, we haven’t been able to find one,” Shreshta said.
Earlier this year, when she asked VFS to get on a Zoom call to come up with solutions, “they ghosted indefinitely.”
Shreshta said though VFS had zero BIPOC writing staff when she was a student two years ago, they recently hired two BIPOC instructors. But “that’s two out of nine,” she says.
When she set out to get data on the diversity of writing faculty in film schools, she found that most of them don’t provide the information easily. In Focus film school, where only one out of nine instructors is a BIPOC instructor, cancelled a meeting and asked her to reschedule for a later date.
The creative writing staff at University of British Columbia has five BIPOC out of 43 writing staff, according to their website.
When NCM reached out to Toronto Film School, despite follow-ups, no date for an interview or data were provided.
Due to the lack of availability of data, it’s difficult to put national numbers forth, but Shreshta said the available numbers point towards skewed representation among writing staff in film schools.
”I talked to two Capilano University graduates and they said they had zero BIPOC teachers when they were there and how it impacted them in storytelling,” she says.
Fortunately, she has been able to engage with many BIPOC creatives in the industry after creating a post about it on inkcanada.
“Not only did I create a list of available and qualified BIPOC creatives who were passionate about this cause and willing to guest speak if not teach, but I also found that this issue is not exclusive to just VFS,” she explained, adding that the goal is to create change by shining light on the issue.
“I hope talking about it evokes self advocacy dialogues for emerging BIPOC talents that are in the same situation, and also lets our institutions know that we don’t intend to be quiet about it this time around. Time’s up.”
According to the International Education Strategy (2019 – 2024), currently, more than 50 per cent of Canada’s international students come from India and China, but the staff in Canadian universities and colleges are not representative of the student body.
Anne-Marie Pham, executive director at the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion, says “post-secondary educational institutions continue to be challenged with entrenched systemic and historical issues of inequity and exclusion that need to be addressed such as lack of representation, cultural norms that are not inclusive, need for addressing curriculum exclusion and limitations, limited cultural competency and accessibility, to name a few.”
According to Pham, one of the issues is the under-representation of diverse educators and administrators.
“Their lived experiences may differ significantly from those of international students, who may also experience through an intersectional lens other barriers to access and inclusion, including being racialized, different cultures, learning styles, lower income and limited support networks,” she added.
Over the past several years, Pham said though we are seeing more educational institutions diversifying their workforce and establishing processes to consult and engage marginalized members (student, staff, faculty, community), much more work is needed to commit to building accountability for change so that international students are not stigmatized and further marginalized.
“Teachers and educators also have to unlearn in order to learn from other students or colleagues, and find ways to be more comfortable with the uncomfortable,” she added.
“It is an uncomfortable space to be in,” she said, but one that educators need to role model in order to achieve inclusion beyond one’s comfort level.
In 2018, the Toronto Star reported that lack of diversity persists among teaching staff at Canadian universities.
According to a report by the Canadian Association of University Teachers, when it comes to the academic workforce, little has changed in the last decade, with only a handful of Black and Indigenous professors, fewer women with coveted full-time positions than men, and “significant wage gaps” that penalize female and racialized staff.
As per the report, faculties fail to reflect the range of backgrounds and identities of the students they teach, even as visible minority numbers are projected to increase in the coming years.