Kyra Zagorsky on making art in a time of change
Sometimes all it takes is the space between two SkyTrain stops for the world to feel less safe.
That’s all it took for Kyra Zagorsky. In 2009, the veteran actress and her husband, actor-producer Patrick Sabongui, stepped onto a SkyTrain in New Westminster with their two young children.
The doors slid shut, and almost immediately, a stranger began bombarding the family with Islamophobic slurs.
“Patrick was holding the stroller and the man started cussing me out for making terrorist babies, and we got off at the very next stop,” says Zagorsky over coffee in East Vancouver. “It happened between Columbia and New West Station. It’s a minute. Things can happen quite quickly.”
This wasn’t the first time that Zagorsky had witnessed racism, prejudice, and vitriol directed toward her husband, an Egyptian-Canadian man of colour. But this particular event lingered in her consciousness for years, as traumatic moments often do, until there came another moment when it could not only be laid bare, but inspire some change in the telling.
That moment came nearly one year ago with The Prince, a short film that Zagorsky wrote and directed as part of the Crazy8s filmmaking competition. Crazy8s selects six filmmakers (from more than 200) to shoot, edit, and lock their films in eight days; Zagorsky – whose acting credits include Helix, Continuum, and an upcoming arc on The 100 – had numerous theatre directing credits under her belt, and she would make her filmmaking directorial debut with The Prince, which screens this Saturday at the 2018 Vancouver Short Film Festival.
The Prince stars Lee Majdoub (Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency) as Amir, an Arab-Canadian actor who faces a moment of crisis in his career shortly after a racist incident on a bus, and Zagorsky’s daughter Ashé as his niece, a tap dancer who choreographs a work inspired by her uncle’s struggles. Zagorsky’s son Bodhi also appears in the film, as do J. Alex Brinson, Jennifer Copping, Alyssa Hanson-Smith, Scott McGrath, Brendan Taylor, and Kim Villagante.
The Prince has thrived on the festival circuit, particularly in the States. It’s made stops in Beverly Hills (Lady Filmmakers Festival), Philadelphia (First Glance Film Festival), Los Angeles (Cinema Festival of Hollywood), Costa Mesa (Irvine International Film Festival), and Saint John (Canada Shorts Film Festival), picking up awards along the way, including an Award of Distinction in New Brunswick and a Best Supporting Actor Award for Majdoub in Beverly Hills. In the coming months, The Prince will screen in Maple Ridge, Los Angeles, Sedona, Dubai, and Irvine.
Zagorsky has embraced the opportunity to travel with the film. She journeyed down to Georgia for The Prince's screening at the Savannah Film Festival and attended panels featuring Hollywood heavy-hitters like Aaron Sorkin, Salma Hayek, Holly Hunter, and Dee Rees.
But the most fulfilling part about making and touring The Prince, says Zagorsky, has been the feedback she’s received from audience members who have seen something of their own experiences in the film.
“People identify with the story, and feel like they are seen,” says Zagorsky. “It touches them, and it moves them.” In addition to the transit incident, the film also explores more subtle forms of racism via Amir’s work as an actor in an industry that has long pigeonholed Middle Eastern men as terrorists.
“I’ve had conversations where people have come up to me to discuss the subtle racism that’s happening in this film,” notes Zagorsky.
This is especially poignant in Canada, where it's not uncommon to hear claims that racist incidents don’t happen here. Zagorsky even encountered this point of view while filming The Prince. “And then a few months later, a woman was attacked on the Skytrain,” says Zagorsky.
Zagorsky describes the experience of making The Prince as empowering, and intends to explore similarly important topics in her future projects.
“Artists have a lot of power, and that’s part of why I’m intent on directing,” says Zagorsky. “I want my films to be about something. I want to have a voice about topics that matter to me and that I think can help affect change.”
Zagorsky’s next project will explore the emotional trauma and health issues associated with military service. The as-yet-unnamed short film was inspired by Zagorsky’s father, a Vietnam veteran who worked as a parole officer after the war; Zagorsky's film will be centered on a female veteran of more recent wars whose PTSD is triggered by the suicide of fellow soldier. “There’s no resolution for soldiers,” says Zagorsky. “You might be doing really well, and then maybe something will come up. It’s surviving the post-war. If we’re not taking care of our vets, they don’t get to go into society and be normal. We have to deal with this.” The plan is to go to camera this spring.
Zagorsky is developing her projects during a time of profound change in the film and television industry; the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have encouraged dialogue, reflection, and action on topics like sexual harassment and violence, the pay gap, and gender parity both in front of and behind the camera.
Even Zagorsky – who has dozens of film and television credits to her name – has “only been on set with a few female directors in my time. I’ve been doing this for over a decade, and I’ve only worked with four [female directors]. Two of my episodes on The 100 were women [directors], and so my experiences working with women, half of it was in the last five months.”
(As for Zagorsky’s role on the upcoming fifth season of The 100, all she would reveal was that she plays “one of the characters in the bunker. That’s all I’m allowed to say”).
Like many women in the film and television industry, Zagorsky has lived her own #metoo moments that have long weighed heavily on her mind and spirit.
One thing that Zagorsky hopes will change in the wake of #metoo involves bystanders to sexual harassment and abuse. “Those times when I’ve been on set or been harassed or had an incident happen, and it was very public and nobody stepped in to say anything or do anything, those are the things that I hope just stop. People need to speak up: men and women,” says Zagorsky. “I have been outspoken, and then to get bullied for it, in different ways, is something that completely changes the way that you can handle doing your job.”
“For all women I know, this has been both an emotional and empowering moment, because we’re carrying the weight of each other’s stories, and we’re carrying the weight of our own stories,” adds Zagorsky. She notes that abuse and harassment “shape your life and the decisions you make and the way you carry yourself, and it affects who you are as an actor and an artist,” and that she is hopeful that he daughter “won’t have to go through anything like this, and other young women on set, like the ones that I see working on The 100, have this power. I want to see young actresses walking with their heads held high.”
ABOUT THE VANCOUVER SHORT FILM FESTIVAL
The 2018 Vancouver Short Film Festival (VSFF) runs January 26 and 27 at VIFF’s Vancity Theatre. This year’s line-up features 24 films, including eight by students and eight by female directors.
VSFF is packed with locally produced standouts, including:
- Mayumi Yoshida’s Akashi, about a Japanese painter living abroad;
- Bestia by Gigi Saul Guerrero, which follows the lone survivor of a disaster as he awakens on a deserted beach discovers new dangers;
- Cypher by Lawrence Le Lam, about the long-term impact of the 1992 Los Angeles Riots;
- Michelle Kee’s Send Us Smokes, a fantastical World War I odyssey featuring Sara Canning (A Series of Unfortunate Events; Eadweard), Matthew MacCaull (Tomorrowland; Black Fly), and Ada Jones-Kuranko;
- Soggy Flakes, a stop-motion masterpiece about out-of-work cereal mascots from Vancouver’s Affolter Brothers that was nominated for a 2018 Canadian Screen Award; and
- Unintentional Mother, which stars filmmaker Mary Galloway as a nanny in an impossible situation.
Schedule and tickets at https://www.vsff.com/
Follow Vancouver Short Film Festival @VSFF.