Deco Dawson Talks Diaspora: “I wrote what was real”

2022 Whistler Film Festival

Simply put, there has never quite been a film like Diaspora. Deco Dawson delivers an ambitious and immersive portrait of Canadian diversity with a unique hybrid drama about immigrant experience. The film, which screens as part of the Whistler Film Festival, follows Eva (Yulia Guzhva), a Ukrainian refugee who arrives in Winnipeg alone. She speaks no English, has no plan, and no support network. All Yulia can do is wander Winnipeg’s North End, strolling aimlessly up and down Selkirk Avenue in search of connection. Throughout her walks, she encounters new Canadians of diverse backgrounds. Each only speaks his or her native tongue. In a shrewd artistic move, Dawson only provides subtitles when Eva understands what is being said…which is to say, the only dialogue translated for audiences generally comes from Eva’s mouth. The film features 25 languages in a unique portrait of isolation and overcoming the odds of connections lost in translation.

Diaspora draws upon the sights and sounds of its locations as Dawson harnesses the character of Selkirk Avenue to build the film’s world. Everything is rooted in realism as all the junk-filled shops are true to the neighbourhood, like a strange vacuum shop that Eva visits when she wants to clean her apartment. The shop resembles a mausoleum of vacuums as old machines and parts fill a multi-floor shop. The trash heaps are something out of Manufactured Landscapes, but not a prop in the location is there by Dawson’s design. “I fabricated this location and it really exists because I wrote what was real,” Dawson tells That Shelf. “Just like all these pawn shops and thrift stores that Eva visits: you can still buy VHS tapes. It’s what the neighbourhood consumes.”

That Shelf caught up with Dawson via Zoom ahead of the premiere of Diaspora at this year’s Whistler Film Festival where it screens in the Borsos Competition for Canadian film.

This is such an interesting film. I’ve never seen anything like it. I realize this is a basic first question, but where do you even get the idea to have 25 languages in a film?

When I finish a movie, I want to make something that people have never seen before. In our oversaturated media content world, it’s very difficult to do that or to get people to feel that, which is a strange and difficult position to put yourself in because people don’t really know how to respond. There’s no barometer. Initially, there were 50 languages and 25 ended up on screen. It all comes from the North End Selkirk Avenue neighbourhood. You get this authentic portrait of the neighbourhood: the buildings and the sounds of it are as significant as any of the characters are. I walked that area over and over in my research. I went into every one of those shops and met the shopkeepers. Sometimes we cast the actual shopkeepers in their roles. Sometimes the film was inspired by something that I saw happen in the shop and the cast it to fit what I experienced. Selkirk Avenue for 140 years has been the immigrant destination of Winnipeg. Over generations, immigrants have not been forced, but there’s always a big segment that needs to settle there economically.


There’s a sense of people trying to find a common language in the film, and I was surprised how much I could follow by only getting pieces of dialogue. How did you work that with the actors? Did people know what say their scene partner was actually saying and were directed how to respond to it? Or was it designed to keep something lost in translation?

The question is the same answer. I wanted to build this lost in translation world while communicating to the performers what is being said. It was often like, “This is the scene, so just play the scene.” They didn’t need to know exactly what each other were saying because it was very obvious when they were pointing to something. I like to make the analogy that when I travel to foreign countries, I don’t just land in the airport and go, “Well, I might as well just wait here until I have to go home again because I don’t speak German or find an English person to help me order off the menu!” There are so many of signposts that we use. A common language comes when we realize that communication is just about listening. Maybe in some cases, it’s not listening to the words that people are saying, but people are communicating. The movie ultimately about boredom and loneliness and this lack of connection, which translates across every human being on the planet.

Were there ways in which the actors informed or shaped the characters based on feedback about their lived experiences?

So many of their stories of people that I met incidentally found their way into the movie. We ended up living experiences that people had described and vice versa—experiences that I had written, that were fictional, ended up happening to us on set. It was this very interesting cross-pollination. We didn’t shut down the streets. We let people walk by and a naturalistic environmental where stuff happened all the time.
I had written the whole script before auditioning Yulia [for the role of Eva]. When she read the script and was performing she said, “This all happened to me. This is exactly what it was like when I moved here.” She didn’t mean it scene by scene, but the emotion of the scene and the psychology of the scene. That was very poignant. For example, there’s this scene where I wanted something like a North American moment of humiliation. Eva’s at the factory and she has to go to the washroom, and the door is missing. It’s a demoralizing moment that we experienced through her, but then Yulia said, “When I grew up in Ukraine, we didn’t even have bathrooms. You’d just go into a box that had three different holes in the floor.” She brought different context to it to say, “It’s humiliating to you, but it’s still a luxury to me.” It really puts the neighbourhood into context when you come from a war-torn country. What happened on screen shifted with the participation of the performers, and was actualized on another level.


What was the inspiration to make the lead character of Diaspora Ukrainian?

I’m Ukrainian and I grew up in Winnipeg, but I was a South End Ukrainian. I had a lot of friends who were North End Ukrainians, and they’re very different. They have a tie to the culture. They know all of these places. It’s ingrained in their day to day, but the south is a very whitewashed side, very Anglo. My sister’s eight years older than I am and so she learned Ukrainian when she was growing up. She had eight more years with my grandmother and my grandfather. I just didn’t grow up immersed in the same thing that my sister had
The whole movie is an autobiography for me. I am Canadian-born, but this search for your own culture, your own identity, and this search connection as you get older in life is a process of asking, “Where do I belong?” I had always felt that nationalism or culturalism were not high art. I thought cultural celebration was somehow crafty and that literature was high art. As you get older again, your perceptions change. You’re looking for depths and complexities. For myself looking for connection, it made sense to see Winnipeg through new Ukrainian eyes.


So the timing with war, etc., is coincidental? That certainly gives the film some resonance.

We shot it all prior to the pandemic, but we had to pause it because of the pandemic and then release it. It’s very much a festival movie, a very theatrical movie. It’s not the kind of movie you want to be checking your phone watching it at home because you’d just get pulled out like immediately. Then the war broke out in Ukraine, but it’s a portrait of any new immigrant’s loneliness.

Yulia actually had gone back to Ukraine once the war had broken out to help. She helped at the Pearson Airport, the Winnipeg airport, and was in Poland, crossing the border into Ukraine and helping with a medical group. She said everyone who she met that had left Ukraine did not want to leave. Those universal themes are already in the film. You go, “I don’t really know why I’m here. All I want is to be there.” The movie retains its universality for decades after the war’s over and maybe before. Ukrainians have been coming to Winnipeg for 140 years. That’s part of the story. That’s why they built those churches, why they built those statues, and put up those murals. If you were to come today, you would see signposts everywhere, but the Ukrainians left.


Diaspora gives such a cinematic look at Winnipeg, but it’s not like the prettiest picture. What inspired the motif of derelict buildings and discount stores?

I love that aesthetic and Winnipeg’s history that is forgotten in front of our eyes. These buildings are the ones you drive by and you don’t notice. The irony is that this film is a loving portrait of Winnipeg, which so many Winnipeggers will not be able to recognize. Eva doesn’t have a car, she doesn’t take the bus. When you spend time on foot and you go through back alleys and you cross fields, you see the city from behind. This is what the city looked like when I was growing up. There’s still fragments of it that exist as you can see in this narrative, but they’re disappearing and they disappear every day. Part of me was trying to capture this fading city. Since we finished filming, about 30% of those buildings are gone. They’ve been torn down, or turned into something else and that’s turned into something else. I wanted to frame Eva’s state of mind amongst this decomposing city. We think of Canada as like the land of milk and honey: “What immigrant wouldn’t want to come here?” But we don’t really think about the places we ask them to settle in.


Where does Diaspora sit in the space between dramas, hybrid films, documentary, and non-fiction?

It goes back to that statement, “It’s like nothing I’ve seen before.” Some parts of it are like reality TV where we’re following Eva from behind. Some of it almost feels voyeuristic where the camera’s left on and we see boredom and nothingness. We’re documenting exactly what’s happening in that moment. We went onto the streets and we didn’t shut them down. When people entered the frame and there were noises, that’s so much about what I wanted to capture. The city’s alive and it’s real. It’s the way that John Cassavetes would do it: he would have a narrative that was loosely improvised and they would go into a real place to perform it and capture it, so, in a weird way, they’re creating fiction, but all they’re do is capturing what’s actually happening in that moment.
I’m a big fan of Ulrich Seidl. He’s the cinematic inspiration for the behind-the-head-filming style. Seidl started as a documentary filmmaker and slowly fictionalized by framing vignettes that he would create until he made Dog Days, which became an actual drama, but he shot it exactly like he had been shooting his documentaries, which gives it a fascinating take on the characters. You feel like there’s permission to observe things are scripted in a certain way because it feels like a documentary. You are voyeuristic.
In this case, the whole movie’s non-actors. No one had acted on camera before and a lot of them were asked to speak your own language and perform this like they would if you were there. Is that not ultimately what documentaries capture?


It’s interesting how the few words of English are spoken by Indigenous characters. What inspired that?

The only English in the movie is spoken by Indigenous characters. It’s about how closely tied are culture and language to one another. The only colonized characters in the movie are the ones who don’t have their own language. Every other immigrant that came from somewhere else is allowed to have their language represented in the movie, but the Indigenous characters no longer have their own language to identify. They have to adopt a colonized language. All the harm that has happened to the Indigenous people by stripping the language and culture away is evidenced in the end when Eva finally meets someone who speaks her own language in a place that’s a cultural institution to her. The Indigenous characters are not wearing any particular clothes, they’re not speaking a language, they’re not in a cultural setting. That was a very direct choice.


Is Diaspora received differently depending upon where it plays?

Our standard Canadian colonized identity doesn’t really relate to the movie in the same way, but every person who I’ve done an interview with or talked to who is an immigrant and says something like, “This is my movie. This happened to me. All of that is so emotionally true.” I think Diaspora has several different caveats that make it unique and unapproachable in the same way. If you can drop your preconceptions of what a movie is, that’s one barrier. The second is the language barrier and the fact that it’s an experiential film. It’s a purely emotional psychological arc and we don’t really have movies that way, yet the audience can relate to that because they’ve experienced loneliness in that way and that feeling of a lack of connection, especially during the pandemic right, is universal.

Diaspora screens at the Whistler Film Festival, which runs to Dec. 4, and then in the online festival running Dec. 5 – Jan. 2.