Urban Housing: Interview with Ananya Ohri and Sanja Zivkovic


The Cinematic Cities series points the lens to our hometown with Charles Officer’s Unarmed Verses, an award-winning National Film Board of Canada documentary that follows Toronto Community Housing’s The Villaways, as it prepares for an imposed relocation. Unarmed Verses will be paired with two short films that also capture the rapidly changing face of urban life in Toronto, Castles on the Ground directed by Ananya Ohri and Cleo, directed by Sanja Zivkovic. Read on to find out what inspires these filmmakers in Toronto, and their personal relationships to urban housing and redevelopments.

Be sure to also check out our interview with Charles Officer, director of Unarmed Verses.

Toronto Outdoor Picture Show invites you to journey to parks across the city for our Cinematic Cities programme all summer long.

TOPS: This year's Toronto Outdoor Picture Show programme is titled Cinematic Cities, a theme that draws bridges between vibrant and complex cities around the world while highlighting the people who make each of these cities unique. Do you have a favourite movie that captures the spirit of a city?

Sanja Zivkovic (SZ): I think La Haine is a film that captures the atmosphere of a city and the people who inhabit it in a strong and poetic way. It seems to me that the film presents its location, a run-down Parisian suburb, as a character in the film. It is one of the references I use in my work when looking at the atmosphere I would like to create.

Ananya Ohri (AO): Although it was shot in a studio and not set in any particular, real place, the movie City Lights by Charlie Chaplin captures so beautifully the different experiences that coexist in the hustle bustle of one city - he relays loneliness, heartache, hope, and possibilities of connection at every street corner and does so without words.

TOPS: Oh gosh yes! There’s some heartache for us that we weren’t able to screen City Lights - so many great films to choose from. Is there a city that you dream of capturing on camera?

SZ: The city I would like to capture on camera, or in this case continue to explore, is Toronto. There’s so much potential and many unique viewpoints of this city that can arise from different neighbourhoods. Yet, I feel that Toronto is so diverse that you really have to pinpoint a certain neighbourhood in order to keep the story and its visual identity contained. In Cleo, my goal was to make a film about the immigrant neighbourhood Victoria Park, and so I used the two main characters, Cleo and Hass, as a means of exploring this particular community.

TOPS: Your films are paired with Unarmed Verses, a poetic documentary about a teenager and her community both in a state of radical transformation. Both your films also address the weight of urban housing. What do you think of this pairing?

SZ: It’s really exciting to learn that Cleo will be paired with Charles Officer’s Unarmed Verses. I really admire his style and the way in which he explores underrepresented communities in his films. I think that perhaps my film does the something similar in a way, by portraying a young woman’s brief but meaningful encounter with a lesser known community.

AO: I appreciate being paired with Unarmed Verses. Redevelopment is always more than bricks, mortar, and money and the soc hits home so strongly the importance of community and the impact on individuals that is so often undermined in redevelopment efforts. Canada now has a national housing strategy! But we have a long way to go.


TOPS: Have your observations of Toronto's housing changed since you made your short film?

SZ: As new immigrants to Canada, my family and I spent the first 7 years in a co-op government subsidized housing in Burnaby, BC. Years later, when I moved to Toronto, I felt like it was very different from my BC experience until I accidentally came upon the Victoria Park neighbourhood. Although visually very different, the atmosphere reminded me of those early years my family spent in Burnaby. It inspired me to make Cleo and my observations quickly changed when I started researching and location scouting for the film.

AO: I deeply appreciate the opportunity to engage with so many different cultures that have made Toronto their home. I am heartened to see greater connections between Black and People of Colour communities with Indigenous communities, the original caretakers of this land and am eager to see this grow as a critical point that will define how this city feels for us in the future.

TOPS: For you, what makes Toronto a cinematic city? Is there something special about Toronto that you draw inspiration from?

SZ: I love the diversity of the city. I love how I can write characters that come from any part of the world, socio-economic background, tradition, religion, and it is completely believable that they could co-exist on the streets of Toronto. It gives me room to tell stories that I want to be telling from my Serbian-Canadian perspective.

AO: Toronto has the ability to both feel like a cozy bubble and an inexhaustible place of discovery, giving room to familiarity, belonging, and wonder. And everything looks so cinematic from those big glass condo windows!

Cleo and Castles on the Ground screen alongside Unarmed Verses, August 16th at Parkway Forest Park.