Hot Docs 2021 Women Directors: Meet Yasmine Mathurin – “One of Ours”

Yasmine Mathurin is a Haitian-Canadian writer, director, and award-winning podcast producer. She produced the audio-fiction podcast “The Shadows,” which won Gold in the fiction category at the 2019 Digital Publishing Awards, and the CBC podcast “Tai Asks Why,” which won a Webby People’s Choice Award. Mathurin is also a recipient of the 2019 Netflix-BANFF Media Diverse Voices Fellowship. She is an alumnus of numerous film and storytelling labs including the Hot Docs Documentary Lab, the UnionDocs Feature Documentary Lab, DOC Institute’s Breakthrough program, and Yale University’s THREAD multimedia storytelling fellowship.

“One of Ours” is screening at the 2021 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival, which takes place April 29-May 9. The fest is digital this year due to COVID-19. Streaming is geo-blocked to Canada.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

YM: “One of Ours” is my attempt at understanding what it means to heal and what it means to belong. The story looks at how the politics of Blackness and Indigeneity intersects in the life of a young man, Josiah Wilson, and how his family and his nation rallied around him to support his healing after being racially profiled at a basketball tournament.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

YM: I knew the family when I was young: I was born in Haiti and spent my early childhood in Port-au-Prince, Haiti then spent my teenage years in Calgary, Alberta. I grew up around them in some ways because they were a part of the Haitian community in Calgary. I saw a headline on Facebook about Josiah’s ban from the All Native Basketball Tournament. I was struck first by how the media framed these big questions about Indigeneity on the shoulders of someone I knew as a kid — the scale of those questions on the shoulders of a then 21-year-old trying to play a sport he loves with his community. The contrast of that was jarring to me.

Even though I felt the news coverage was important, my own memory of Josiah and his family made me really curious about how they were all doing on a human level. I’m always trying to make sense of my own identity and sense of belonging as a Haitian-Canadian who grew up in Haiti, Montreal, and Calgary. I also think a lot about my sense of belonging in my own family, and so when I approached the Wilsons about documenting their journey, these were the things I was curious about.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

YM: I made this film in an attempt to understand what it means to belong as a Haitian-Canadian and reflect on what it means to heal. In the process of this attempt, I shared a story showing that healing is not linear and that families are complex.

I hope “One of Ours” encourages folks to expand their imagination on what it means to belong and what it means to be both Indigenous and Black.

I’d also hope it challenges folks to reflect on the ways anti-Black racism exists around them, whether out in the world or in their communities.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

YM: The biggest challenge for me, especially earlier in the film, was fighting through my own imposter syndrome. I had this looming feeling that I found a way to scam people into helping me make this film. I directed one short film prior to this, and it was a project that stayed on my laptop out of fear that it wasn’t good enough to be seen. While I knew how to tell stories through the work I had done as an audio documentary maker at CBC and freelancer, I had nothing as big as this.

Needless to say, the experience was a baptism through the fire. What I thought would be a learning curve really sometimes felt like a cliff, especially in making this in a global pandemic. But with these challenges along with the support of a great creative team and community, I found my way through the other side.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

YM: Early in the development process, I took part in the DOC Institute’s Breakthrough program, which helped me harness my pitch and introduced us to broadcasters and industry makers who would offer feedback on our pitch and projects. This was incredibly valuable for me and helped strengthen the project overall.

Through this program, I was able to meet Jordana Ross from the CBC documentary Channel. I was also able to partner with Sienna Films, which has an incredible track record of producing great films and television. Their support of me and the project early on helped open the doors for us to receive support from Ontario Creates, the Canadian Media Fund, and Hot Docs Ted Rogers Fund.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

YM: I don’t think a single thing or event inspired me to be a filmmaker: it was a culmination of events that led me here. I was always curious about film and television. When I was growing up in Haiti, I remember watching dubbed cartoons, anime, and movies. I remember being captivated by these different worlds and I felt like they were portals to the world outside of Haiti.

When I moved to Calgary, I learned English by watching these dubbed shows, trying to mimic its speakers’ intonation. Over time, I saw how much the stories on screen shaped me, my imagination, and those around me, and I felt like I had to be a storyteller in whatever way I could.

The contrast between my childhood experiences growing up in Haiti, Montreal, and Calgary has guided my curiosity as a storyteller: this curiosity first led me to journalism and now filmmaking.

W&H: What’s the best advice you’ve received?

YM: Fail fast, fail often — making mistakes is the only way you’ll learn.

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?

YM: Trust your instincts. Surround yourself with collaborators that will give you room to fail safely and make you better at what you do. Always stay curious about the world around you.

So much of my journey while making my first feature film was riddled with self-doubt, and it took a community of people who work in film as well as folks who don’t to help me overcome these moments of doubt.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

YM: I’m deeply inspired by “Time” by Garrett Bradley. I want to make a film that feels like that one day. It’s a film I found visually striking, tender. and so human. I love that the protagonists in the documentary were seen with agency and nuance while exploring the very real impact of mass incarceration on their lives.

I often find that when social issues are explored through people’s stories in documentary film the filmmaking process may rob subjects of their own agency in some way. But to me, “Time” weaves together both the protagonist’s personal archive and Garrett’s direction. It feels less extractive and more collaborative, which is something I really try to do in my work.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

YM: I’m not sure that I’m fully adjusting to this new reality. Like most, I’m going through different stages of grief of “the before,” as I like to call it. Some days I’m able to be productive and get my work done, and other days the anxiety and the doom of the pandemic makes it hard to do anything at all.

I’m not keeping creative like I normally would, but I’ve been prioritizing my wellness and my health. For me that looks like going on walks, bike rides, scheduling calls with friends and family, and therapy.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?

YM: Hire more people of color behind and in front of the screen, but also in decision-making capacities. I also think that folks who hire BIPOC need to work harder at creating an environment for them to succeed.

The onus of remedying this long history of underrepresentation or misrepresentation should not only be on the shoulders of BIPOC — the onus is on everyone to do anti-racism work.

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