TIFF 2022 Interview: Tyler Mckenzie Evans on the Changing Face of a Neighborhood in “Diaspora”

When Tyler Mckenzie Evans was looking for locations for his latest short “Diaspora,” returning to the places that might’ve inspired him to write it in the first place to film wasn’t easy.

“I grew up in Mississauga, but the grocery store scene [where] we shot, I went there as a kid, it hasn’t changed at all – one of the few things that hasn’t, actually,” says Evans, who can’t help but laugh when considering what “Diaspora” ended up being about.

His disillusionment with how rapidly communities are changing is mirrored in the experience of Melina (Cara Ricketts), who it would appear has established a comfortable life in the suburbs with her husband Daniel (Rainbow Sun Francks), but there is cause for concern after new family moves in across the street, which in and of itself isn’t alarming, but the fact that LeRoy, the previous tenant, left without a trace. It isn’t the only thing in the neighborhood that has changed recently, but it’s hard for Melina to know whether she’s just been too busy to take notice or something more disturbing is going on as prices rise at the local market and she no longer sees the diversity she once did in the area she grew up in.

A stalled out water tap leads Melina to cross the rubicon to meet her new neighbor and it opens the floodgates for Evans to create sharp horror comedy about the havoc wreaked by gentrification when as disconcerting as it is for Melina to no longer recognize the community she’s living in, it’s even more unnerving how it now seems to refuse to recognize her. Evans deploys increasingly surreal imagery to convey how Melina is unsettled by her surroundings and Ricketts can be counted on to reflect how these exterior changes to her home are having an increasing effect on her emotional well-being. Shortly before the film’s premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, Evans spoke about why he was inspired to make “Diaspora” and how it became just one way he was able to stay productive during the pandemic, as well as how he was drawn to filmmaking in the first place.

How did this come about?

It’s just a lot of childhood memories of seeing my neighbors disappear and then seeing other people take their place that kept to themselves and were really private. It stirred this whole idea in my head and then not until high school, I really learned the term “gentrification” and how it’s affecting certain neighborhoods as well as family members and friends. I was thinking about how it is horrific in a way just how much people are pushed out of their own neighborhoods that they’ve lived in their whole lives. You see these people that might’ve owned a place and then they end up in the street like a week or two later just because they’re priced out. That led to an idea brewing of maybe there’s some sort of cult that’s taking these people out and dropping them somewhere else. I didn’t really know I could make that as a film until I watched Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.” You see a lot of horror movies about social issues in general, but not really social issues about black or brown people, so “Get Out” kind of kicked me into the high gear of I need to make this now.

How’d you find your cast?

I actually watched Cara [Ricketts’] CFC short film [where] I was like, “Oh yeah, she’s the one.” She’s just so brilliant and just very accepting and generous with her performance and so easy to work with. And a lot of these actors brought a lot more character than I could think of – I’m thinking of Rainbow, who plays the character of Daniel in the film, who wasn’t fully developed [as far as having] much personality and he brought like this comedic element that I think [makes you] more sympathetic towards him, and Cara, because her character is more of a watcher and the short film is more about the world that’s happening around her, I still think you feel some dread for her towards the end of like what’s happening [because of] how she’s able to bring that character to life.

I really appreciated the vadouvan reference, which seemed like a particularly deep cut, as an ingredient for the dinner Melina prepares. What was it like to find the humor in this?

I was doing research because I know a lot of it is about colonialism and that part was supposed to be funny because colonizers went to these countries, killed a bunch of people, took their spices and then brought it back to them, so I thought, “Yeah, Europeans don’t really have their own spices. They’re all taken.”

A few of the scenes were supposed to be comedic – especially the grocery store scene when there’s the asparagus water and she’s picking up little things where she’s like, “What the hell is this?” And then just having the total [cost] be double what it [typically] is, just to laugh about how ridiculous gentrification is.

I haven’t had a chance to see “I Live Here,” which also made its premiere this year, but it seems to deal with a similar theme of displacement. Were they developed in tandem?

Yeah, I made one other film “Teething” before this and I think it was a combination of those two films that morphed into this one. “Teething” was more of a psychological thriller and then “I Live Here” was more so about the racial/social issue elements [involving] Black people almost being gaslit into believing that where they live isn’t where they should be living, so in that way, those two are almost like a little sibling to “Diaspora.”

In these crazy times, you managed to be productive. Were you bursting at the seams to start shooting these?

“I Live Here” was difficult to get off the ground because we maybe got funding, but the pandemic hit, so a lot of times we went from lockdown to being out of lockdown like three or four times, so as soon as we were planning to shoot this, there’d be another lockdown, and that happened two or three times, so we were like let’s just delay it until we have the vaccine. In that time, I was writing “Diaspora” while planning this shoot, so it happened simultaneously where I finished “I Live Here” and a few months later, I’m gearing up to shoot “Diaspora.” So the lockdown was nice in some ways because it let me sit down and do what I need to do in terms of writing and had me self-reflecting and bringing the story of “Diaspora” to life, but “Diaspora” is actually something I wrote as a feature first and then I dialed it back to a short film. I’m still hoping to make the feature one day.

It’s really ambitious for a short.

Yeah, it was four days and I would’ve loved five, but it was a lot of go-go-go and a lot of actors, which I think was also a challenge just in terms of finding these actors and having them appear on screen for maybe a couple minutes while also staying with you throughout the film. Every actor that we got brought their A-game and they did a wonderful job. There were shots I had to cut, but I think it turned out pretty well considering.

It looks great and I know the premiere is still to come, but what’s it like getting into TIFF?

It feels amazing. It’s wild to even be a part of TIFF. In high school, I used to be too broke to watch movies [there], so I used to watch celebrities come out on the red carpet and then try to get a photo with them. Then being able to watch movies while I was in college and being inspired, I was always like I really want to play a film here at some point, so being able to now, it’s just like a dream come true.

How did you initially get on the path to make movies?

It was just living in the suburbs of Mississauga. There wasn’t much to do really, so my friends and I would go to the movies maybe once or twice a week and that started my love for films. Then I was reading a lot too and that started the love of storytelling. Being able to write something that is true to me while also being universal, you didn’t feel alone in terms of your struggles. You realize other people are going through that and I realized those are the kinds of films I want to make because if you can touch one person, I think you’ve done your job as a filmmaker. That’s what made me want to become one is just making people feel something.

“Diaspora” will screen at the Toronto Film Festival at the Scotiabank 14 on September 10th at 9:45 pm and September 15th at 2:30 pm and September 17th at the Scotiabank 8.