In Conversation: Deco Dawson, Diaspora, and the Universalness of Solitude

In the frame of the Festival de Nouveau Cinema, I was able to interview Canadian filmmaker Deco Dawson. The 8th of October had a chilly morning and overcast skies, an almost scripted atmosphere to talk about his film Diaspora, Deco’s first feature after a decade-long hiatus. Since I saw the title of the movie on the festival’s programme I felt an enthralling connection to it. My background as an immigrant, my deep interest in culture, society and how the diaspora is affected by it. Yet, I have to accept I was a bit incredulous. It is not every day that a film from the National Competition in a Canadian film festival feels catered to you. After my first watch of Diaspora I felt frustrated, the film was abrasive and painful, maybe hit too close to home in a way that I was relieving a hurtful past, opening a scar that was far from healed. However, upon my second and third viewing, something inside of me began to change. I understood the loneliness not from a place of pain but a place of solemnity, tenderness and empathy. Before I delve into the dialogue I had with Deco, it is important to recapitulate what Diaspora is about. The film follows Eva, a Ukrainian immigrant that has recently arrived in Winnipeg’s North End. Diaspora deals with her journey, without skipping a single beat, showing Eva’s every single action and interaction as she tries to make her situation the best she can. The film features around thirty different languages and spans over two and a half hours.

Juan: Why is that a film like Diaspora calls you at this point of your career?

Deco: There are two parts to it. Firstly, as a lifelong Winnipegger, I always felt I valued parts of the city other people don’t value. Seeing Winnipeg so empty and destroyed, I felt the need to document my city. It was almost like a love letter to the city and the characters that inhabit it. To achieve this, I had to place myself in an area that people don’t have a lot of association with it. I walked most of the North End and Selkirk Avenue, vibrant places that historically have housed non-colonial immigrant communities for centuries. Eva needed to walk as well because, sadly, most immigrants don’t really know how to take public transportation. This is why they are so confined to a certain centralized area, you can’t get that far on foot. 

I never really grew up feeling Ukrainian, but people that grew up in the North End were more attached to their roots. There were a lot of stories right there in front of me, and I felt, as an artist, the responsibility to tell these stories. At the core, this is what the movie is, a story about loneliness and alienation from the perspective of someone confronted with a different society and culture, whilst also focusing on how language is so vital to our own identities, once you are removed from what you know, you begin to recognize how important language is, and how it gives us stability.

J: How do you navigate a story marked by frustration?

D: I processed the story by walking through all of the locations as I was finding them. The locations motivated the plot and acted as backgrounds for it. I started thinking about what would be the most interesting vignette to tell in each place. Some of them actually happened when I was there. The scene where Eva goes to the Polish store and orders a sausage happened directly to me. I immediately wanted to tell that story. This sparked my interest in exploring the significance of a near miss in two languages. Imagine if what you thought was familiar was completely foreign. I don’t even know how to deal with it, you are at the mercy of someone else’s attitude. For me, that is frustration. But this also can create comedy in the audience. Eva is definitely not having a good time but you as a spectator are relaxed. We wanted to run the whole spectre of human emotions. Every scene, even if they don’t have to be in the movie, plays on this idea: the cumulative effect of the shared human experience. This helps build Eva’s character and our understanding of her experiences. Her frustration is just a way to reveal our connection to her and her human journey.

In short, the stories are right there, we just have to be perceptive. These stories are true, and these vignettes are meant to relate to the core emotions inside of us. That was the type of story I wanted to tell. If you’re disconnected or lonely and looking for a connection, I feel these core feelings are unavoidable, this was just a powerful way to convey this.

J: There are merely two scenes where Eva seems to enjoy herself when she is skating with Vilmos and playing with Chona at the factory, however they are immediately followed by negative consequences, why?

D: To be honest, that’s just fucking life. You get a moment of reprieve when something goes your way and you feel ecstatic, then the next morning you get flattened by life again. These are the unbearable moments that make being human so much harder. When you get brought down, it truly dissolves your happiness. These two scenes are the only ones when she has a friend. Life is so much easier and better when you have friends and companions. Going through life alone, as a human is hard. But just like Eva and Chona say their final goodbyes embracing outside of the factory, this is all fleeting. Eva being happy in these small moments is crucial for her arch, the mundaneness of it all. This shows again our genuine intention to show one person’s journey all through completion.

J: How do you visualize an immigrant’s journey through a single individual when there are as many journeys as they are immigrants?

D: The film itself is my autobiography as someone interested in the arts in a very different way, it’s hard to find someone else who searches what I’m searching for. I’ve felt isolated, alienated, and spinning out of control. All of those psychological aspects are universal. While I am not an immigrant, when I was walking the area, and talking to people, everyone responded the same way: “That’s my story!”. Every immigrant in this movie could be Eva, I could’ve made a movie about every one of them. all these people telling me their stories made the scenes real because the people were living those stories simultaneously. And I was sharing the way they feel. 

Juan: Religion plays special a role in the movie, you see Eva trying to reconnect with her roots through the Church, why is she in the search of religion?

D: I did a residency in rural Manitoba visiting churches built by Ukrainian immigrants and I visited around 40 churches that look just like the church in the movie. They are beautiful, immaculate, and kept to perfection since the 1900s ut opened only once a year. They were built by Ukrainian immigrants who constructed the same buildings they had back home. This shows how many Ukrainians are in the area, they just don’t go to church. The Ukrainian cathedral in the movie should be filled with Ukrainian, because more than a house of worship, it is a house of culture. When you come to a foreign place, the symbol of the church becomes very important to you. The cathedral breaks the horizon like a massive divinity in the middle of a Winnipeg parking lot. It also brings up the question: if Ukrainians that were here before Eva valued their culture to the point of erecting this cathedral, where are they now? The Ukrainian diaspora has expanded to other parts of the city. Their diaspora has subgroups across Winnipeg, and this was even before the war! I deliberately didn’t give Eva a reason to come to Winnipeg, she was just looking for a new life. That doesn’t mean she didn’t want the life she had, it just happens to be this way. I don’t think the movie will ever age, it keeps being relevant, we shot it before COVID-19, and we shot it before the war.

J: How do you balance the quantity of information we receive and the information the character received?

D: The whole movie was originally meant to be without subtitles at all. However, to make the audience relate to Eva we decided to add subtitles to her dialogue. We needed to hook the spectators to Eva’s story from the get-go, it was important to us to build this relationship with the audience. We all needed to understand Eva. Just seeing the way the changes in her attitude and words, really makes the journey worthwhile. 

And all of this is not to disregard any other languages and their significance to the culture. Someone might know three or four languages but no one would possibly know 30 languages, so it makes everyone’s experience the same, a levelled universal experience. 

I feel down the road the movie will return without subtitles. When you don’t know a language in real life, you just keep going. 

J: What were the challenges and responsibilities of working with so many languages? 

D: I wanted to offer first Canadians the opportunity to be in a movie just being themselves, speaking their language, and bringing their own experience to an actual movie. No one was a trained actor, but I trusted them. I directed them to be themselves because they already have their own lives! Yuliia also brought her own experience into Eva’s character, and her life is reflected directly in the movie. The whole process the characters underwent was not acting. I didn’t want anyone to act, there was a naturalism and comfort that you just cannot direct. When you watch it you understand that what they are saying in their language is exactly what you think they are saying. In short, if we spend some time with one another and try to understand one another, we can reach that point.

We are supposed to be so different from one another, but the whole point is being intimate by foreignness. We are all living the same lives. Language is just part of our identity but if you remove that barrier, Eva could’ve been friends with any of the immigrants she met. It wasn’t a movie about cameras, lights, trailers and catering, it was a movie about working with humans, and uncovering feelings through communication. I only cared about the psychological connection with the audience, anything that opposed that I didn’t want in my movie.

. . .

Deco Dawson’s film expands beyond any cinematic quality I can denominate it with. It is, like he well said, a human experience, an experiment in communication and connection. Diaspora will indeed challenge the audience, its structure is not conventional and its content might pose as inapproachable, however, once you stop resisting and soak it all in, Deco’s film is a rare gem. I am glad I had not only the opportunity to see it but to conversate with the mind behind it.

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