Interview: York professor and Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival’s spotlight artist, Ali Kazimi

Photo by Donald Tong on Pexels

The Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival highlighted Ali Kazimi, associate professor in the department of cinema and media studies and prolific Canadian filmmaker, as their Canadian spotlight artist at their 25th annual festival.

The festival aims to highlight media created by Asian-Canadian filmmakers, along with international Asian-identifying artists, as a not-for-profit organization that “advocates for Asian representation through media arts,” according to their website. Toronto Reel Asian also holds Q&A’s with featured filmmakers, along with panels and workshops for visitors.

Kazimi is an internationally renowned filmmaker who centres on themes of race, history, and memory, often seen through his documentary projects. He has been working with Toronto Reel Asian for the past 25 years, and three of his films were screened at the festival: 1997’s Shooting Indians: A Journey with Jeffrey Thomas, 2004’s Continuous Journey, and 2016’s Random Acts of Legacy

Kazimi came to York during his undergraduate degree. From the beginning of his journey, he says he had his sights very much set on pursuing documentary, and that over time, it became a form of “personal essay.”

“I approached documentaries not from the place of an expert, but as someone who was deeply curious and passionate about the subject.”

On the documentary form, Kazimi says that thanks to his mentor, Jim Beveridge, who created York’s film department, he learned through a Griersonian idea of using this form as a tool for social change. Kazimi says it allows him the “incredible privilege as a documentary filmmaker to delve into people’s lives more in a way that perhaps no other form does.”

Archives are the backbone of Kazimi’s featured films, with each telling stories of the legacies of racialized people within their communities. 

“As I’ve explored the history of race and immigration in Canada, and spent a lot of time in archives across the country, one of the key things that stood out for me is how little documentation there is on racialized communities through the archives in Canada, in the U.S., and particularly through visual representation for the photographic and moving image.”

Kazimi continues to say that archival documents are not just academic, but they act as a way of examining “lives lived.” 

“For me, it’s not just academic — it also offers an insight to what was the presence of racialized communities in Canada, which is often not part of in historical terms. But it also opens up conversations about what people did. What do they look like? What did they wear? What were their lives like?” 

Kazimi says examining these archives opens up a whole line of questioning that just a written document can’t provide. 

Kazimi notes that archives are a “carefully curated repository” that has its own inherent biases built into what is collected and deemed important. “The archives themselves are repositories at an institutional level, repositories of collective memories of place, province, and nation.” 

He says the role of the artist is to activate these archives, and while they are not art themselves, they can be “transformed by engagement.”

Kazimi hopes that more people engage with archives on a personal level. “What’s been exciting for me over the years is watching film students delve into their own archives, delve into their own personal histories, their home movies, their families, and often tell very personal, very revealing stories about a range of experiences in the country. 

“I cannot underscore how important a festival like Reel Asian has been to the growth of Asian filmmakers in Canada and the term ‘Asian,’” Kazimi says on the influence of this event. “What I like about the Toronto Reel Asian festival is that the term ‘Asian’ is used in the true continental sense of the word, not just about East Asians, it’s about Asia as a whole, and that it has provided a very important platform for young filmmakers.” 

When he graduated from York, Kazimi notes that avenues such as this festival for Asian-identityfing filmmakers simply didn’t exist, and that current local festivals such as Toronto Reel Asian play a “vital and crucial role” in the growth of Indigenous, Black, and POC filmmakers. 

“It’s wonderful for me to see and meet some of my students, and students who have gone through York, participating in the festivals at all levels and exhibiting their work there,” Kazimi finishes. 

About the Author

By Sarah Garofalo

Former Editor

Sarah is in her fourth year of Film Studies at York University. She is passionate about using writing as a tool to educate herself and introduce others to hidden stories and new ideas. In the future, she hopes to continue her studies in film and merge it with her love of writing and journalism. You can always find Sarah sketching, painting or endlessly watching films while waiting to get back into movie theatres.


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