Canadian Multiculturalism, Race, Education, and the LatinX Gaze: In Conversation with Paul Daniel-Torres (Artist Round Table Series 1)

PAUL DANIEL-TORRES is a 22-year-old Ecuadorean-Canadian award-winning youth worker, facilitator, director, screenwriter, spoken word artist, and actor born and raised in Toronto, Canada. His films have been screened worldwide, from the TIFF Bell Lightbox to Los Angeles to the Middle East. His latest film, Do Turtles Swim in Maple Syrup?, an action-adventure dramedy about the LatinX-Canadian identity and the immigrant dream, is currently on its festival run.

I met Paul-Daniel four years ago. He used to read me his slam poems at heinous hours of the early morning. We have been in creative conversation ever since. When I realized I wanted to do an Artist Round Table series on the blog, his name came to mind immediately. You’ll soon see why.

THE CAMILIAD: I should probably let you know that you’re my first interviewee. I wanted to get that out of the way. This Artist Roundtable series is still in its early stages and, well, I wanted to start with someone who I have mad respect for as a creative — that’s you — someone who’d be an alluring start. You know I’ve always found you alluring.

PAUL-DANIEL TORRES: Hah hah. Thank you. “Alluring” is a big word for my ass.

I’m genuinely curious — what made you agree to let me interview you today?

What made me agree? I fucks with you. You’re a dope person. You’re an amazing artist. 

Oh god. Not what I was fishing for. But thank you.

I respect you as a creative and I think that you’re amazing and great. I think that you definitely are a generational talent — like a young Michael Jordan. Hah. So why not get interviewed by a young Michael Jordan? And — uh, why not talk about myself? Ha ha. I have a tough time doing it, so yeah.

Okay, okay — I’m just going to delve in here. First off, congratulations on all of your successes. They’re hard to keep up with. How are you processing everything? 

I don’t process it, honestly. I don’t keep track of my festivals, I don’t keep track of my wins — and I should start because I always have this impostor complex, like I’m not an artist, like I’m not a filmmaker. And I have proven myself, but I keep the underdog mentality. And a part of that comes from — I don’t feel like I’ve made it yet.

For me, making it is like making a big blockbuster film. Getting into a big festival. And, you know, my goal — of being, like, at a Raindance, a Tiff, making a big budget movie. It’s the same mentality I had when I played soccer — wins are great, but they last for one night. You want to win a championship. 

I want to start at the beginning with you. I already know all this, but for readers — tell me who you are, where you came from.

Um — my name’s Paul-Daniel Torres. I’m the son of two Ecuadorian immigrants, raised by my grandma, my mother, my father, and my sister. I’m born and raised in Toronto, in and around North York — then we moved up to Thorn Hill. 

I was one of the only Latino kids in a primarily Korean, Chinese, Jewish, Russian, Italian, Filipino neighbourhood. In a racial way, I never had a place to ‘be’ myself. I was always a wallflower, fly-on-the-wall, I think that’s why I’m a writer — I’ve always been an observer, like, watching but never a part of things.

I was lonely as a kid. But I had a really nice childhood, surrounded by a lot of love. What we didn’t have in money, we had in love. That was really dope.

I know this is a loaded question. Brace yourself. How’d you get into filmmaking?

Okay. So — starts off when I’m a little kid. First movie I watch is Tarzan, then I start walking around the house in diapers beating my chest like I’m Tarzan. Then I fall in love with Spiderman — I just want to be Spiderman. He was like a regular joe who wanted to help people. I really saw myself in him. But I realized I couldn’t become Spiderman, but I could help people like Spiderman.

So I thought — how could I be like Martin Luther King? Or like, Malcolm X? And like — move people? And make movements? Time went on and I decided to be a lawyer. My dad let me do drama class in high school because he thought that would make me a better lawyer. I was an artistic kid — I could dance, sing, create stories with action figures — I loved dancing, I would dance salsa and when I was around 12 one of my uncles called me a faggot (in Spanish) and that really stunted me, but that’s a whole other conversation about toxic machismo. I had this very creative soul but my parents were like, “math and science, math and science — we came to this country so you could have security.” So that’s what I was doing.

Thing is, I loved making movies. My parents would take me to the movies every Tuesday, then we would rent movies from Blockbuster every Friday. I was watching 5, 6 movies a week. I was in theatre every week. My dad instilled his love of film in me — which is funny because he was mad when I got into it — which I get now ’cause he came to this country so I could have an easy life… and I decided to make it harder.

In high school, my depression and anxiety got really bad and I became suicidal. I wanted to kill myself — but then I didn’t, because I heard Kanye West’s “Lost In the World.” And I hadn’t seen The Avengers yet. I told myself I’d been waiting for the movie for more than five or six years — and if I don’t see this fucking movie — I can wait, you know? When I was down, I would tell myself: “Rocky could get up for one more round! Be like Rocky!” Movies have always been a safe space for me, a place to escape — a safe haven. They helped me through a lot.

Film should be accessible — that’s why I don’t knock big blockbuster films because they’re films for the everyday person. I see film as a public service. Because the people who make the film industry go aren’t the critics, aren’t the bougie ass people with film degrees and the people who show up at Tiff. The people who keep the film industry going are the people who fill up the seats on a Tuesday. You know what I’m saying? That’s who I want to speak to.

I just want to help people. I want to give a kid a character like Spiderman. If I do that, I can die happy.

All of your films, in some way, speak to the experience of growing up Latino in Canada. It’s an integral part of your artistry. I was wondering if you could speak to that a bit.

I’m pretty far away from the Latin community in Toronto. That’s because my family moved away from them — we’re not just “Latino”, we come from so many different places. We’re Ecuadorean, Bolivian, Columbian, Mexican, Cuban, Dominican, Puerto Rican. I was raised Ecuadorean in every respect. I was always surrounded by Ecuadorean culture — I only spoke Spanish at home, the food I ate, the telenovelas, soccer, the music we listened to at home, all LatinX. And I didn’t have a lot of friends growing up, so it feels like I was born Ecuadorean, grew up Ecuadorean, and my Canadian identity developed later and is still developing (though I was born at St. Mike’s, right in Toronto’s core).

Plus my dad didn’t push for us to be surrounded by other Latinos because he wanted us to be “Canadian.” He wanted us to assimilate to Canadian culture because, in Latin America, there’s this saying — “if you don’t love your country, you don’t love your mother.” His Immigrant Dream was to assimilate. But I’m not — Canadian, you know? I’m not a play-hockey-drink-maple-syrup type of motherfucker. 

My generation of kids, we all had this understanding: we’re Canadian, but we’re from somewhere else, too. When you ask someone, where are you from? You don’t mean the neighbourhood, you mean: where are your parents from?

Right. And I think that’s a complex part of second and third-generation mentality.

This has always been a big fight in my household. I say I’m Ecuadorean, my dad says no, you’re Canadian. I feel Ecuadorean-Canadian.

The experience is one of being lost. It’s not in the States where you have a giant block of Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Cubans — around you. A lot of the time, I feel more Latino than Ecuadorean. Because when you’re a Latino in Canada, and when you’re removed from the community, the most predominant Latin media comes from Mexico and Columbia, or it’s Cuban-American, Dominican-American, Mexican-American, Puerto Rico-American. And I have so many roots artistically in Latin music like salsa, bachata, merengue, and reggaeton. And so many of the greats of those genres come from those cultures. Latin media’s informed my identity here in Canada because I’m so removed. To be Latino is very, very fucking complicated. I can’t really say I’m a part of the Latin community. It’s just now that I’m starting to interact with other Latin artists and people.

That’s really interesting, actually. One of the most provocative things I’ve heard you say — and I read this in some online promotional material for Turtles — was that Canada as a country is this kind of liminal, between-space for you. And that’s a loaded space to play in, creatively. You’ve written about the subway and the marketplace as being racialized spaces, spaces for people of colour to exist at the limits and boundaries of the city. Peter Parkour — he’s a liminal figure. You also write, I’m reading here, that your identity has been experienced “in between two worlds, the outside (Canada) and [your] home which [is] a microcosm of Ecuador.”

And I read in the Turtles promo that you call Canada a “beautiful dilemma of multiculturalism.” Beautiful dilemma — why beautiful? 

It came from a few things. It came from when someone called me a burrito n-word. Right outside of my condominium. Me and my sister have also been called sand n-words (which, in a lot of ways, is ten times worse and is proof of even bigger problems) multiple times. People have told my sister she’s not a real Canadian. These events have made me question, you know, what’s my place here in Canada? The white people don’t like me. What the fuck even is Canada? It’s not even a real place — we stole it. Actually, I didn’t steal it. White people stole it. And I’m here because a bunch of white people stole my shit from South America so I had to go follow the funds, which happen to be here in Canada.

The weird thing though is, that like — let me get this right, Camille. Multiculturalism comes from immigration.

Yeah, and immigration and colonization are sister forces.

Immigration is the direct cause of colonization. We had a bunch of white people come to all these places, okay? The conquistadors, colonizers, whatever you want to call them — they took all the shit that we had developed ourselves into big, beautiful nations as if they never happened — so you have all these people living in third world and developing countries. So what do we do? We follow where the money and resources went. That’s Canada, America, Spain — wherever you want to go.

But here’s the thing — Canada has a bunch of people moving there because they’re suffering the consequences of colonization. But why do we have Canada? Because Canada is a colonized nation — it’s stolen land. 

Multiculturalism is beautiful! But it’s also built on the blood and death of Indigenous people. And my relationship with that is — I’m a Latino, I’m the product of genocide and rape, ’cause of the conquests. You feel me?

Yeah. I’m with you.

It’s a beautiful dilemma because multiculturalism is a beautiful thing that’s a result of colonization and conquest. It’s beautiful — look at when the Raptors won the playoffs. That’s why I love Toronto. We look like a fucking rainbow. You get on the subway, you hear 7 different languages and nobody looks the same. That’s a beautiful, amazing thing. But it’s also built off of something really fucked up. And that’s the macro — but the micro, as Canadians we use multiculturalism as a “forget about genocide, racism, and residential schools and segregation in the 1980s!” We’re supposed to be peacemakers, hey?

But — people of colour are racist to each other! You feel me?! We have prejudices against ourselves — Look at Latinos, we have beef with each other rooted in Colourism and Nationalism. Multiculturalism has lots of growing pains. We have to recognize that it’s an ideal. So we need to reflect and analyze when we’re having destructive thoughts, processes, and actions — so we can continue and strive towards the beauty perfect multiculturalism is. We need to be honest with where we need work so we can move forward.

The thing about Toronto is that what makes you accepted is that you’re different. If you’re here, you’re allowed to be different. That’s the beauty of the city. You walk through Toronto and you’re walking through different microcosms. Kensington Market — Augusta’s very Latino — then Baldwin’s Caribbean, Jamaican, and a bunch of other cultures, which is right next to Chinatown. It is beautiful.

Growing up in that multicultural, kaleidoscopic landscape – I know you said you felt a disconnect from the Latin community in Toronto – but were there any LatinX filmmakers and/or artists that you admired as you came into the early stages of your career?

I didn’t look up to a lot of LatinX filmmakers. As a young child of lower middle class immigrants, my parents didn’t show me, like, European cinema. I grew up with superhero movies, animated movies.

The people that I looked up to as a kid were Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali, Bruce Lee — athletes and activists. People who were greater than themselves. I didn’t understand art’s influence on me until I was a teenager. 

Even now, I don’t look up to a lot of Latin filmmakers. Look, the Latin diaspora is very complicated. So many cultures, dialects, languages. And people like to throw in my face when I complain: “Oh, what about Guillermo Del Toro? Alejandro Iñárritu?” Here’s the thing. They’re white guys from Mexico. Their experience is a lot different than mine as a visible minority Latino in Toronto. The filmmakers that inform my art are Taika Waititi, he’s a Polynesian filmmaker in New Zealand. Edgar Wright, he’s another one. I also look up to Spike Lee. He’s so political — and Ryan Coogler, and Frank Capra. Except for Edgar Wright, they’re all men of colour and immigrants near big cities.

In high school, I got into theatre so I discovered Lin-Manuel Miranda. I really loved him. And I started looking into Big Pun, Fat Joe, Cypress Hill — looking for Latinos in rap — then Desi Arnaz, Gina Rodriguez, Rita Moreno — I discovered all these amazing Latin creatives. 

But even Lin-Manuel Miranda — his dad’s a politician. They came to New York with connects. You know what I’m saying? At the end of the day, I’m much more blue collar than [Miranda]. It’s so hard, as a young Latin person, to find people who are like you. I don’t feel like there’s a lot of people making art that speaks to my experience as the child of Latin immigrants living in Toronto. It’s scary, but comforting — that I can be the first.

Yeah, I can really feel the Lin-Manuel influence in Sit Down/Rise Up — but you also cite your influences as being Casablanca and The Get Down. Your work comes from a chaotic hodgepodge of places, but it’s so cohesive. Your film Here We Go is an ethnic magic realism rom com. In Sit Down, you’re taking on sacrifice, revolt, resistance — using art and music as a political mechanism to focus on social change. 

So what is it that, at your core, motivates you in your work? Rage — against sociopolitical bullshit, racial oppression, classism? I understand it’s hard to pin down forces, but — if you could? 

Ha. Ha. HAHAHA. (He laughs so hard he coughs.) This is a really funny question, Camille. I’m going to chalk it up to the fact that I’m just a pissed off brown kid.

HA. I love that.

Here’s the thing — rage against sociopolitical bullshit, classism — that’s just my experience. Ugh. What motivates me in my work? Um — Camille, this is a hard question.

I’m motivated by two things. I’m motivated by being an entertainer — I want to make movies for the everyday person, for the people who come to the movies on Tuesdays.

But — um, growing up as a young kid of colour, I also just want to make the movies that I wish I had when I was a kid. That’s why I made a rom com with an Afro-Latino dude. Because, you know, why can’t people who look like me fall in love? The reason why I never saw myself on screen as a kid is because of sociopolitical bullshit — classism and racial oppression.

Yeah, I’m a hodgepodge of a lot of things. Like — I talk about a lot of whack shit, but I’m motivated by love. Love of my life. Love of the world and people around me. I love life, I love my country, I love where I’m from, I love my family — and things like racism and classism, these are things that threaten what I love. And I make movies to defend that shit.

I’m also a product of Toronto. I was raised in the multicultural mosaic of Toronto. I’m all over the place because Toronto’s all over the place — the people, architecture, music, art — I walk Toronto as a young artist, happy to have a space to grow and create, as a social worker, aware of its shortcomings and defending what I love about the city, and also as a grateful son of LatinX immigrants, grateful to be a part of the mosaic. This unique relationship with the city is a big chunk of what informs my art.

Your Sit Down/Rise Up short film made waves — I’m seeing a long list of showings here, among them Toronto New Wave Film Festival, Los Angeles CineFest, Toronto Youth Shorts, AM Egypt Film Festival – and it won Best Student Film at the Emerging Lens Cultural Film Festival. Did you ever have, like, a “holy shit, I did it” moment? 

I have not had a “holy shit, I did it” moment because I feel like I haven’t done it yet. I’m very much doing a bunch of baby steps right now — I will feel like I did it when I’m on the Jimmy Fallon Show, promoting Avengers 25.

HA. I’m looking forward to watching you on Fallon. Then there’s your latest film, Do Turtles Swim in Maple Syrup? – which, if I’m summarizing this appropriately, is about a Latin teen coming up against racial stereotypes and choosing whether to succumb or to rebel against. As you know, I’ve read it and seen it — several times — and the-importance-of-you-telling-this-story-as-a-Latino-Canadian aside, you’re one hell of a talented storyteller. How did Turtles come to fruition? What was that process like? 

Thank you. Turtles came from a weird storm of shit. I touched upon racism, my identity, my Latino experiences — but also, uh, after I made Here We Go, I heard that one of my professors — in a closed room — said that one of the reasons they didn’t screen my movie is because audiences would be confused as to why there was Spanish narration over two black leads because “black people don’t speak Spanish.” 

So — that was the first time I felt that because of who I was, and the stories I was telling, I was being stopped purely for that. So I was just really mad. Between getting called a burrito n-word and that, I was really fucking upset.

I was also coming off a really, really bad breakup. My ex — uh, there was this alt-right rally in Nathan Phillips Square where a bunch of protestors were yelling at refugees and immigrants to “get back to where they came from” — and I took a moment to sit down because it’s literally a bunch of people telling me I don’t belong in my own city — and she looked at me and said, “why are you so dramatic?”

Turtles was a way of trying to find myself after getting beat up by strangers, my professors, and my ex. It was a process of trying to find myself again. Turtles is also a love letter to my mom — she hasn’t seen the film yet, actually — and to my dad and family to say thank you for all the sacrifices that they’ve made.

It’s weird, because it came from rage, love, and anxiety. I have anxieties about not being good enough because people count me out — because of the way that I look and talk.

Even in very white, liberal spaces, I go up and use my slang and people look at me like I’m some random street rat that doesn’t deserve respect — but then they go up on Instagram and talk about how “woke” and “with the movement” they is. Same thing with teachers. You know?

The artistic process was just like —I don’t know how to describe it. A lot of mental and physical pain.

There were, I think, twenty-nine drafts of Turtles before it went into production? I just kind of delved into it. Visually, it was inspired by Do The Right Thing. Thematically, by The Iron Giant. [Giant] is about this alien robot who everybody thinks should be a gun or weapon — but he decides to be a good person. That’s what a lot of men of colour go through, especially Latin and black kids — people villainize and demonize them, and tell them that they’re bad. Those kids have to make a choice. Do I succumb, or do I fight against those stereotypes? And how complicated the answer to that question is — And how it shines some light on the pressures that go into answering it (living in a postcolonial world that took advantage of our ancestors, and now takes advantage of us). That’s what Turtles is about. Our choice, how WE make it.

So you’re creating space. You’re transgressing. You’re disrupting. This is what I love about you – you’re unapologetic and loud about who you are and what you’re doing. And you’re pissing off your old white male professors at Sheridan, because of that. That’s why they’re threatened. I love that. That gets me off.

Ha ha. Transgressing and disrupting — it’s like — yeah, I want to do those things, but it’s just the way that I tell stories. You know?

Yeah, I get it.

It’s not that I want to be edgy. I just make whatever movie I want to make at that moment and it’s usually inspired by what I’m watching. 

I guess that I’m just a disruptive, transgressive, unapologetic, and loud person. Ha.

Actually, I’d love to hear more about Sheridan College. I commend you for going through a practice-based film program like that. I always say — I don’t let the university get their grimy little hands on any one of my projects. This is really what I’ve been dying to ask you: what was that like, studying film there?

Um — Sheridan was weird for me. I met a lot of beautiful, amazing people there. But I wasn’t expecting the culture shock. It’s a lot of international students, lots from small towns. There’s two different kinds of Canadians — Letterkenny Canadians and Kim’s Convenience Canadians is how I like to describe it.

Haha. That’s funny. That’s good.

I felt like I was alone — going through college and university as a person of colour, your eyes get opened to white academia and how that fucks with you. My eyes opened up to anti-oppressive frameworks, the effects of colonialism — how capitalism and colonialism have essentially crafted all of the problems that I’ve had to face.

When you’re a person of colour in a prominently white — and white as in, like white-away-from-urban-centres, white people who aren’t always around people of colour or people of other cultures — you start to feel really alone. As a person of colour, I felt lonely.

When something racist would happen, I would talk to one of my white friends and they’d do that thing where they’re like, “Are you sure? Are you sure that really happened? Are you sure they meant it that way?” And you feel like you’re alone and you’re crazy — as opposed to when you’re in Toronto and something goes down, you turn to your POC friend and you’re like “that was whack” and they’re like, “yeah, that was whack.” So it was hard.

What about the actual faculty? 

Well I had this one teacher who was reading our scripts aloud — and this is the first script I ever wrote for Sheridan, in first year — and this is when I knew I was fucked: He read the line, “Yo what’s up, fam?” And he’s like, “What are you trying to do? Make these characters talk like black people?” And I’m like — oh my god. I’m absolutely fucked.

So I started writing Turtles in Bill Robertson’s class and that was fantastic because he really kicked my ass and pushed me. Then Turtles got green lit and Elinor Svoboda took us on as our supervisor — thank God she took a chance on me and Turtles so we could make it. Then they sent it out to the rest of the faculty supervisors, and I got a note about, like, the “burrito n-word” part. And it said, “I don’t believe something like this would happen.” That happened to me. There was another note: “I don’t think Latin people would experience this level of racism.” So I read that and I broke. 

I cried talking to my supervisor, Elinor, on these notes made on my script — I was just trying to make a movie. And be fucking understood.

My two films Sit Down/Rise Up and Here We Go did not get screened at Sheridan. But they got screened around the world. Sit Down/Rise Up won two awards, went to the Toronto Youth Shorts, played in Poland and Greece at humanitarian and social justice festivals…. but it didn’t get screened at Sheridan. Here We Go didn’t get screened at Sheridan but it was screened at the Tiff Bell Lightbox as a part of a conference about multicultural storytelling — and at the AGO. Here We Go also got a distribution deal in New York and it got shown around high schools and colleges for this mental health initiative through a non-for-profit. But yet Sheridan doesn’t put my shine on.

Exactly.

So — how am I getting recognized in the outside world but not at school?

But then you walked away with two major awards — Best Screenplay for Turtles, which was your thesis film, and Best Critical Paper for an essay you wrote about Reclaiming the Latinx Identity from the Colonial Lens via film. 

That’s right.

The tango with the neoliberal university is really tough. I have a lot of complex feelings about liberal arts education — you know that already. Those departments can be provocative, but for me they were also frustrating and regressive. Especially when you’re trying to make breakthroughs, when you’re trying to experiment, when you’re trying to figure out who you are as an artist. You can’t do that within the confines of “structure.” That’s my experience anyways. What ended up happening with the racist professor?

Yeah, that professor said those things about my script and the Latin experience, and I was so attached because so much about Turtles is — it’s really just me. It deals with my insecurities: am I good enough? Is my effort sufficient to my parents’ sacrifices? My insecurities about my relationship with my mother, myself, my own level of authenticity… it’s a very personal film. So when I saw those comments, I lost it. But I know that they’re also really ignorant comments made by someone who is really ignorant.

As a person of colour, I don’t think that they’re making strides with trying to tell stories of colour. They’re doing a phenomenal job when it comes to white women, but when it comes outside of the “minority” of white women, they’re not doing a lot.

That’s, sadly, true for a lot of institutions that like to label themselves as progressive. Speaking as a white woman.

That’s the shitty thing about film school. You really can’t teach directing, writing. You can teach people how to be a technical force. You can teach people structure, all that jazz. But film school, really, is about helping you find your voice. And if you have teachers that understand your lens, you’re good. But the issue at Sheridan is that directing teachers don’t understand those different lenses, don’t understand that different people from different cultures and different places have different modes of storytelling and different ways of seeing things.

So — white academia and white art says that, because you’re presenting this in this way, it’s not good enough. But it’s not that it’s not good enough. It’s not white enough.

It’s a shame. A few other people of colour at Sheridan fell through the cracks because the proper teachers with the proper lenses aren’t there. I always felt like I was operating alone because I didn’t have those teachers either.

Trying to make art in a predominantly white space is that — Ugh. You want to get a good grade, but you forget that art’s not for a grade. But then also, you want to be able to get a scholarship? Because you’re broke? And also, you have to fight being conditioned into thinking what’s white is right. But then, you think — am I being authentic? To me, to my people, my ancestry, my culture? When it comes to that, white people can’t tell you if you’re being authentic. Thank God I had my friends to go to — Christian Anderson and my sound recorder, mixer, editor, and foley artist Naomi — a Latin woman and an Afro-Latin woman. Christian would call me out if I was being problematic, lacking a lens of empathy, if the script was villainizing people of colour — especially at the end, where there’s a stand-off between Tony and another Latin man. My friend Naomi would double check me on my Spanish and cultural references and would keep me honest and remind me of who I was making the movie for. Her and my DP, George Bull, really were partners in crime, always in the trenches with me — obviously led by our amazing producers.

But when you work in a white environment, it’s hard to do that. I did not feel safe at Sheridan, and I really hated that.

That’s a part of a way bigger issue when it comes to postsecondary education and these spaces of art and culture — they’re not there. Look at Black Panther. It’s a great film. When you watch the film, it feels like all the crew members understand how important that film is. You can feel the difference between projects for paycheques and projects that are really important to everyone involved. Black Panther — they care. You can sense that throughout the film. It’s because they’re a predominantly black cast and crew.

But when you’re a person of colour in a student environment, trying to make something that’s racially motivated, that’s based in your race and culturally motivated… they don’t feel the experience of the subject matter in their soul and at their core. You know?

The other thing, too, that really broke me at Sheridan — Sorry, this is so long…

No. Please — keep going.

So — the Canadian Consulate in Georgia wanted to make a film with a Canadian school and a film from Georgia. So they sent out this competition to make pitches to a bunch of different schools in Ontario. I was asked to make a pitch and my pitch got selected. So I was responsible for writing a script with a writer from Georgia — I don’t remember which college it was for.

I worked really hard on that. It’s like I was writing another thesis film while making my own thesis film. It was a really proud moment for me. It was a really proud moment for me. Because, as a writer, I got to represent my country. Like — one of my childhood dreams was reppin’ Canada at a world cup. I always wanted to get good enough at something to represent my country. Especially as the child of immigrants. That’s the dream. I know I’ve talked all my game, but I’m so critical of our country because I fucking love it. That’s why this experience was incredibly heartbreaking when it went sour.

But what ended up happening was… uh, this is really hard to navigate and people don’t know this and I’m not sure if I want the world to know this —

It’s okay. Say whatever you’re comfortable with. Besides, probably like four people read my blog.

By the end of it, I felt like I won the pitch because I was a person of colour. Because I brought that level of authenticity. But when it came to bringing that authenticity, and keeping in mind that it makes the script — that was thrown out the window when it came to other aspects of the film.

So — it was supposed to be the story of two Syrian refugees who were separated at birth while trying to escape, and one of them lives in Georgia, one in Toronto. By the end of it, I felt tokenized. I felt like the school used me to “get it.” Like, “Oh! We have this brown kid! We’ll use him.” 

Then when I kept writing it, I kept asking the school — Hey, I need a mentor who’s actually Syrian, or someone who’s actually a refugee, to help me out here. I’m not Syrian. I’m not a refugee. But they never helped. So I was running around to my friends with similar experiences like a chicken without a head trying to get a sense of authenticity and respect.

The school always showed that they were excited to do a co-production on a movie that was “woke”, but they never took the necessary steps into making sure things were authentic. I felt weird about doing it because it really wasn’t my story to tell. I feel ashamed and tokenized by the entire experience. 

Another weird thing about Sheridan — the favouritism. I got an early “green light” on Turtles. I put together a 60 page package, a whole crew, a finished script — to get in. Other people didn’t even have, like, a producer. Some teachers were like “your script was bad, but we like your group.” We couldn’t get a lead and I had to act — we almost got “red lit.” But other groups got month-long extensions for not having a script ready after being “green lit” and having casting issues… which were things we had, yet we almost got “red lit” for them instead. The favouritism is rampant. That’s why I’ve taken a break from film. I’m so sick and tired of the bureaucracy, of being pushed around by white people. You feel me?

Yes. I mean no, because I’m white — and I feel like I should acknowledge my status as a white interviewer, because this is delicate ground. I only hope that I’m doing my appropriate part to serve the conversation that you want to have. 

I understand why you’d want to take a step back. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you giving me all of this energy.

Yeah. I don’t want special treatment because I’m a brown person. That’s why I have an issue sometimes when I win shit. Did I win shit because I deserve it or did I win shit because I’m brown and got a handout?

That’s what people don’t understand — we don’t want handouts. We just want to be on an equal playing field. We want to earn it. It’s like this feeling of having to work twice as hard to get half as far.

Before, I let all that anger about race really fuel me. But that anger and that hatred just consumed me and — you know, I’m just tired.

That was all the bad shit. But for the good shit — I was really lucky that I had a teacher, David Barlow, take a chance on me. He really pushed me, he’s amazing and phenomenal and put as much work teaching you as you would into a script. He really taught me structure. Then Bill Robertson, he taught me how to trust myself and develop my own style, be my own artist and writer. He would always push me. He believed that I could be better. Then my teacher Elinor Svoboda, who helped me when I was going through a tough time — after the strike. She is just so kind, knowledgeable, and tells it like it is. She was always in my corner, she understood that I was trying to tell stories differently.

Then there was this teacher, David Gray, who told me the most important thing that I’ve ever heard from somebody about my art — about my movies in first year. He said, “the movies you’re making are reflecting the person you think people think you are.” Like, I was making movies that reflected the image that I thought people had of me. I told him I wanted to help people and he said — if that’s what you want, go volunteer at a soup kitchen or at a non-for-profit. And now I do social and youth work. I haven’t told him. I probably should.

But I don’t feel like I grew at Sheridan. My growing happened in Toronto, when I came back home. [Sheridan’s] a small, tiny place. I had a fucking terrible time. But I met amazing, beautiful people who I’m so grateful for. Yeah.

Were most of your teachers white? Because I imagine that’s tough — vying for the “respect” of an audience that your films aren’t even for. That racial tension in the film school world — how did you deal with that? Overcome it? 

Yes, most of my teachers were white. There were two teachers of colour. I was taught by Tracy German, who’s Indigenous, and Aisha Jamal.

I’ve had some amazing teachers, like this one teacher Desiree who is always behind everything that I make, every single little thing that I did. She would always be open and listen.

How did I overcome it? I’m really fucking stubborn. I don’t know — you’ve just gotta be stubborn and believe in things. You have to keep reminding yourself why you’re doing it, and that you’re not making films for white audiences. Turtles was not made for Sheridan. It was made for children of immigrants. For children of colour. For Toronto.

We’re also always taught that, you know, you’ve gotta hustle every day! Go for it! Fight fight fight! Nah, G. You know what I’m saying? You’ve gotta do self reflection because fighting every day takes an emotional and physical toll. That’s what Turtles was. Playing the playoffs with a sprained ankle. I know I’m capable of doing that. I know that I have that fight within me. But that capacity, that amount of work, better be fucking worth it. That’s the question I’m trying to answer right now: is this gigantic fight worth it? That’s the relationship between what you love and what you want to do. If you love it, you make it work. Film isn’t sunshine and rainbows. It’s fucking insane. So this thing that I put this warrior spirit into — I just want to make sure that it’s worth it. Film school can take that burning desire, that interest, that mystique, away from you.

That’s a huge lesson to learn, one that I’m still learning. On the subject of the hustle, with Turtles, you really went for utmost visibility — you wrote, directed, and starred in. That’s insane — but the film never seems self-indulgent. And I think it’s tough to do that without self-indulgence, it’s impressive. How did you juggle those worlds? 

Um, I don’t know how I did it, Camille. Thing is, I’m a writer/director. I have to write what I direct. I think you can relate — it’s like singer/songwriters. When you have a singer who performs a song that they wrote, you feel that shit. You feel that. You feel the emotions. But when someone sings a song that isn’t their own, it doesn’t have, like — it loses, like, a layer of emotional complexity and authenticity. And both versions are authentic, but when you’re showing people your soul — you know? That’s how I feel about writing and directing.

For me, writing and directing are synonymous. They’re part of the same thing. I don’t see them separately. You know? 

That’s why I have a weird relationship with film — because some people just love film. They just love working in it. I really can’t say that I love film. I love storytelling — that’s why I’m also a poet and an actor and I love music and I love plays. I just love stories and their emotional affects — what they can do and how they can help people. Film is just the manner in which I’ve chosen to do that.

The starring thing, I never wanted to do. I was like, I don’t want to be that douchebag. But we just could not find a lead. So everyone stepped up. We were a real team. Everyone stepped up, took pressure off of me, and allowed me to perform. Everyone put their confidence in me, my crew was the only reason I pulled it off. They were all in my corner and I am eternally grateful.

As a director, your job is to take the talents of everyone and collaborate. My job is to develop with my crew and help develop each other. Directing should be a symbiotic relationship with your head creatives, where you go back and forth and learn and grow stronger together. If you stay genuine and authentic, auteurship comes naturally? Trust your vision and style and it’ll happen. If you’re trying to be different and not BEING different by being you. That ain’t it, chief. And the beauty of film is collaboration. So collab!

I think I could have done a better job as a director if I wasn’t acting. I could have done a better job acting if I wasn’t directing. That’s a big question, Camille, and I’m so sorry that I gave you that answer. If I ever come to England, can I buy you lunch? 

No, I’m buying YOU lunch if you ever make your way over here.

I understand you’re doing the festival run thing now, which is nuts. What’s the festival experience like?

The thing is, I haven’t been to a lot — I have lots of coming up.

I feel like I really can’t comment on it because I’m still very much in the minor leagues. But you just show up, see your movie, see other people’s movies, and if you think a movie is dope, you go up to that person and you say “Hey! Your movie’s dope! Can I get your number for networking?” Essentially it’s like going to a bar and trying to get laid but getting laid is getting someone’s number so they can give you a job or work on your set or you can work on their sets.

HA.

It’s a fun time. You get to be with other filmmakers and share your art with people and they think it’s dope, you know? It’s always great when you love somebody’s film and the person whose film you love comes up to you and is like, “yo, I think your film is amazing.” It’s super nerve-wracking, watching people watch your movie with theirs. You just put a movie in and hope the right person watches it. 

And you find people. I found my Production Designer for Turtles at Toronto Youth Shorts, two years ago. It’s not about the big things, it’s about the tiny connections that really come in clutch.

You’re making waves in a predominantly white industry. I know Toronto is a very multicultural city, but I suppose that multiculturalism is performative if we’re still having issues getting people of colour to the front lines of their respective creative industries.

Do you feel like intercultural film (or theatre, or art in general) is still looked on as lesser? I think that’s a big mistake white people make — they (or, I should be saying ‘we’ — I’m Northern European, I’m the whitest) don’t understand the experience of being racialized, so we try to measure your stories up to our own — because we’ve had textual authority for so long — but there’s nothing in our canon that they can be compared to. So we express our critical disinterest. I’ve been seeing a lot of that nowadays. White critics (and even just patrons of the arts) don’t know how to productively and critically talk about race. Most are afraid of the word.

Yeah. I think that telling stories of different cultures and races really gets lost in translation. People of colour have a different viewpoint. When you’re a white artist or critic, I think for them, it’s about “telling a story.” But for people of colour, we’re just getting excited about telling our own stories for once, we have this really different relationship with storytelling. We have that personal relationship and the pressure – will it serve our cultural communities and the general audience? We have to balance those two together. You don’t know who is going to understand the sensibilities of these two cultures.

I think it’s true that people kind of look down upon that intercultural – when you have characters speaking in slang. Because it’s a world that’s different from where they come from.

I think that we’ve just gotta keep making space.

How do you want to see the landscape of Canadian media change? In representation/diversity, POC voices getting out there — What’s it gonna take?

Here’s the thing, a lot of the emerging filmmaking programs aren’t really for “emerging” filmmakers. They’re for people who – like, they’re for young filmmakers between the ages of 28-36. And that’s not really where the young filmmakers are. For you to apply to these programs you have to be deep into your career and have a lot of shit to start.

So it’s like, you have to deal with an immense amount of bullshit to get your foot in the door and get into programs where – ugh, this is a hard question, Camille.

We don’t make enough space for people of colour. And because of that, they don’t think that they should or can be in the media. We’re in a world where people of colour are told they can’t be doctors or engineers – why the fuck would you want to be an artist?

If we need more POC voices out there, we need stronger art programs in our schools. We need more grants for emerging artists – but like super emerging, who are only one or two short films in. We need more agencies, communities, safe spaces for people of colour, but also more networks between POC. We need more ways of developing.

I really don’t know the answer. For me, I do my workshops at work and I try to tell the kids that they should go into the arts and I offer them help. That’s a part of it, reaching marginalized and racialized communities and giving them the resources where they can delve into it, or even ask the question: Should I be a director?

Then our film schools aren’t good for POC. They don’t take care of us, nurture us, help us grow. We need spaces where people who are like us can mentor us properly.

I’ve been talking to other industry professionals and asking, like, where are the writers of colour? And they say, well, they’re not good enough. So I ask myself, why are they not good enough? But the answer is that when you’re a POC, you don’t have the resources or places to go to really hone in your craft. To get your foot in the door as a POC, you have to start the game incredibly talented. You need a lot more talent and luck to really get places because opportunities aren’t set for you properly as if you were a white person to grow or practice. It’s like practicing soccer without a ball, basketball without courts. So the vast majority of us aren’t improving fast enough, so we have to be fucking exceptional. You have to present yourself as fucking exceptional. Your work ethic has to be ridiculous.

With all that being said, I think CBC – between programs like Kim’s Convenience and Tall Boys, who they have staffed in their positions of power, they are really great. They have POC, women of colour in high-ranking places. And they’re making room for really distinct Canadian multicultural voices. The CBC’s doing a really great job.

What’s it going to take? Not voting Conservative, because they want to cut CBC’s funding!

Amen to that.

And Tiff has to do more. What kind of working class person can afford to go watch a movie for 50 bucks at 3PM? How the fuck do you expect a family to go enjoy a movie?

I get that pirating and stuff is ruining the film industry but, like, these movies have to be made more accessible. If there were rulings at, say, Cineplex – like, 10% of all played films have to be Canadian – we could get an audience for diverse voices.

We’re forgetting who we make movies for! I know there’s the art and the critics and the people who to go film school, like myself, who can sit down and intellectualize a film about a white dude complaining about how terrible life is but – we are the ones who are dealing with how terrible life is, and WE don’t want to GO TO THE MOVIES! We don’t want to go to the movies! We don’t want to go to the fucking movies because we don’t want to feel like shit, we want to go to the movies and come away humming the Rocky song and feeling like we can beat any of our problems!

People forget about that. People hear the word “general” and think “unintellectual.” But nah, man! You can move people! The indie and big-budget film games – they’re different skill sets.

We have to stop waiting for POC to navigate white academia, learn shit from school, and then enter that “intellectual” hemisphere of filmmaking. You have to start looking at the general audience more. It’s a really complicated thing. And what’s it going to take? A lot more energy and time into the development of young POC.

There has to be a lot of more done at the absolute bottom. Kids. Give them chances.

My last question isn’t really a question. I just wanted to say how proud I am of you. My respect for you knows no bounds. I believe you can go anywhere and do anything — I’ve loved and respected your artistry even before you started winning shit and going to LA or wherever. You know I’ll support you however I can, without being too annoying of a white person — you know what I mean? Ha. Thanks for being my first subject. Hopefully these questions weren’t shit. 

These questions were not shit. You’re the best. Thank you for supporting me.

And you’re not an annoying white person. You’re a really nice white person.

WAIT. One last thing. Where can people see your stuff? Anywhere online? Sorry. Should have asked that earlier.

Follow the film up on Instagram – @turtlesfilm, and then follow myself on Instagram @pauldanieltorres. I will be posting up the full length version of Here We Go – just go to my website or send me an e-mail to view any of my fucking movies. You can watch them if you like.

Actually, there’s one thing I forgot to mention. You’re going to hate me. A LatinX artist that influenced me – Celia Cruz. The Latin artist who has affected my work the most. She was a woman who, when she came down with brain cancer, she made la vida es un carnival – it’s about how life is a carnival, life is beautiful, you have to take the good with the sad. In these last moments of her life, she made all these songs for people to enjoy and appreciate life. And to dance. She faced death with such fucking vigour and courage. She doesn’t give a shit what people think. I try to be like her.

Anyways, that’s me. I hope you’re having a great day up in England. Thank you so much for interviewing me. You’re the best. And I’m sorry for how long all of this has been.

No. This is amazing. You are amazing. Thank you.

PAUL-DANIEL TORRES’s FULL BIO:

Paul Daniel Torres is a twenty-two year old, youth worker, facilitator, director, screen writer, spoken word artist and sometimes actor. His films have screened all around the world, including in the TIFF Bell Lightbox and the AGO. He is the son of Ecuadorean immigrants, born and raised in Toronto. His art is informed by his upbringing, as he delves into topics such as race, multiculturalism, the Canadian identity, and his love for Toronto. Always the black sheep, he enjoys telling stories of lost misfits trying to find their place in the world. His love for writing and acting came started as a coping mechanism for his depression and anxiety. He believes art has the power to teach, unify, inspire and help. The main motivation behind his work, is that hopefully through trying to understand himself, he’ll help others feel understood and as well be entertained. He makes movies for the everyday person who go to the movies on Tuesdays to escape. His style is eclectic, he’ll switch tones narratively and visually on a dime without a care for consistency. This is because he draws great inspiration from the multicultural mosaic that he grew up in and his belief that life isn’t just sad, or just happy. His favourite movies are The Iron Giant, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Do The Right Thing. His favourite directors are Frank Capra, Taika Waititi, Spike Lee, Ryan Coogler and Edgar Wright. His latest film “Do Turtles Swim in Maple Syrup?”, an action-adventure dramedy about the LatinX-Canadian identity and the immigrant dream, is currently on its festival run.