Interview with Ananya Ohri
February 3, 2020
Ananya Ohri, artistic director of the Home Made Visible Project (HMV)
Home Made Visible (HMV) is a nationwide archival project by the Regent Park Film Festival, Toronto’s longest running free community film festival. HMV highlights the histories of Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC). Under the artistic direction of Ananya Ohri, HMV collected home movies from BIPOC communities across Canada to digitize and archive them for free. It also brought together Indigenous and visible minority artists to explore the connections between our vast and varied communities. The commissioned artworks and digitized home movies were presented through a series of public screenings across Canada. HMV ended in 2019 but the archival material produced remains accessible through the York University Libraries.
Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your relationship to film and archives?
I was born in India and came to Canada when I was 10 years old. When my grandmother finally moved to Canada to spend the last years of her life with family, she could not bring the trunk full of photographs and documents that were sitting in her apartment in New Delhi. In many ways, this feels like a huge loss. And I also know that there are other ways for me to connect with that history. I have living relatives I can speak to, I can visit sites, and there are digital copies of some of the contents of that trunk somewhere. I consider this a privilege. What happens, though, when you do not have ways to connect with your past? What happens when others piece together what your history looked like? And shape ideas of where you come from, what and who you can call your own, or not? This has been a reality for many communities who have experienced (and continue to experience) displacement, enslavement, and colonization. People in these communities have worked hard to reach back and find connections with the past that bring integrity, pride, anchoring, and resonance with who they are and who they are becoming.
Archives, and personal and community archives in particular, are important to me because they give a glimpse into histories that have been overlooked, marginalized, and misrepresented. They hold nuance and complexity that has been glossed over or simplified. They demonstrate that our individual histories are important to us AND the wider communities we belong to. They are a reminder to honour our own stories, especially when we feel like there is no point or the task seems too difficult.
While I have time on my side, I should get to tracing the contents of that trunk. They give insight into the forces of history that have shaped me and offer up a slice of history that belongs to an entire peoples.
Tell us how the Home Made Visible Project (HMV) came about:
HMV came about because home movies by BIPOC communities were not part of our institutional archives and because, unless they were digitized, the tapes and reels on which these home movies did exist would soon be falling apart.
The project also came about because through our work at the Regent Park Film Festival, I have come to recognize the immense importance of representing joy in BIPOC communities. And home movies are full of joy. So we got to work asking people if they had home movies, we then digitized them for free and added a copy of a portion of each to the York University archives. There is a repository of BIPOC joyful instances through this archive, which I hope will inspire new stories, images, and representations that reinforce our capacity to be joyfully complex people.
What were your initial thoughts on the power of archives to shape who we become? And how did they evolve as you embarked on the HMV project?
I wanted to preserve home movies and put together an archive that would encourage new kind of stories – joyful stories – about BIPOC communities, which can often get lost among the more challenging stories that get told.
Through the three years of the project, I gained better appreciation for how long it takes an archive to come together and how much longer it can take for it to reach people. After digitizing 300 films and archiving excerpts from each donor family’s collection, we need to create ways that artists, academics, and curious minds will not only come across this archive but create something from it for a wider audience to engage with. This archive has just been around for less than 2 years – it has ways to go, not only in terms of the material it can preserve and collect, but also the people it can reach, before it can make a big impact on greater representation of joy in BIPOC stories.
How are home movies different from other archival materials, and what can they do for representation?
Archival documents have traditionally been official records (like ownership documents) or anthropological records (like documentation and photographs taken by explorers). BIPOC communities, in all their diversity, have often been excluded from the official records, historically disenfranchised to be landowners, etc. Or been misrepresented or left out by someone else in the anthropological records. Home movies are a type of historic where at least one person from their own community captured a moment that they wanted to capture, in a way they wanted to capture it. It is a record of self-preservation and self-representation.
BIPOC communities have fought to tell their stories. And most of these, given the history of Canada, are very challenging. With the addition of documentation of joy to the archive, it is my hope that the stories we tell will increase in complexity, where we are not continually an issue to be reflected upon, but whole humans, with a range of experiences.
Could you speak more about your interest in exploring how our diverse histories converge?
Black, Indigenous and People of Colour communities, BIPOC, is such a vast term, bringing together identities based on the similarities they share with each other in their relationship with whiteness and white supremacy. But how do these various identities, their experiences, their beliefs, their histories intersect with one another? And how can these intersections better lead us to a shared liberation? These are the questions that spark my interest in exploring how our diverse histories converge on this land called Canada. In particular, I want to cultivate a context where Black and POC artists feel supported in extending their engagement beyond ideas of migration, displacement, and diaspora, to also exploring their connections to Indigenous peoples and colonization.
What was the response to the artworks and selected clips?
There was a range of responses: marveling at new information, to simply being dazzled by the joy. My hope is that the pieces sparked people’s interest in personal archiving of their own. In some cases, especially in the workshops, I could see that.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
The Regent Park Film Festival is Toronto’s longest running free community film festival, dedicated to showcasing local and international independent works relevant to people from all walks of life, with a focus on inviting those from low income and public housing communities. The films presented break stereotypes and show that no one place or person has just one story.