U of Tal Alum Ruth Masuka Talks About Her TIFF Short – The Varsity

Mother tongue! opens with a photo of a mother’s hand holding a knife, cutting green onions into small pieces and cutting rows and rows of carrot sticks. Next to the vegetables are smiles, as well as close-ups of two different pairs of eyes.

When the mother starts chopping red onions on a wooden board, her eyes mist up, just like her daughter’s. In retrospect, this seems to foreshadow the tragedy at the film’s climax.

Due to its grainy look, choppy zooms, and handheld shots, watching Mother tongue! can feel like watching a home video. But in reality, the short, directed by U of Talum alum Ruth Masuka, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) Next Wave Film Festivala youth-led event that encourages young filmmakers and moviegoers to get involved in the Toronto film scene.

Specifically, Masuka directed the film for Score Battlea Next Wave Film Festival competition that challenges four groups to compose two silent short films. the university contacted Masuka, as well as the two bands that marked his film, Pigeon the group and grassto discuss their involvement in Battle of the Scores, their artistic inspirations, and their filming and scoring process.

On Mother tongue!

Masuka learned about the competition from the Cinema Studies Institute mailing list, through which she found the Battle of the Scores call for submissions for short films about nostalgia – a theme she liked. She specifically tied the theme to her immigrant background and ethnic cuisine. “Food has been a very powerful vehicle for how I connect to my home,” she explained.

Although Mother tongue! portrays food in an intimate way, it was not Masuka’s original plan. “It was originally supposed to be a really big family party,” Masuka said, as she originally planned to cast her extended family members in the short.

However, she had to refocus her film on the intimacy between her and her mother – whom she portrayed with a food connection – when several members of her family contracted COVID-19. “I think it actually worked out for the best in a lot of ways because it was my first time directing a movie…I think it was a lot easier with four people than 20,” said said Masuka.

The eye motif, which Masuka draws from his Ethiopian roots, reinforces the film’s intimacy. She explained that paintings from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church usually depict Ethiopians with prominent eyes and that the eyes traditionally express intense emotions. “I think the eyes correlate with food in the sense that you don’t need verbal language [to communicate],” she says.

Capturing the essence of Mother tongue! through music

Masuka also spoke about the vulnerability she felt entrusting other artists to add music to her film. “It was like passing on your baby and hoping the babysitter had first aid training,” she said. However, it seems both bands took this task seriously, as they carefully crafted their scores to reflect the emotions of the film.

In an interview with the university, Pigeon the groupwhose members include Sky Ravinn, Oliver Williamson, and Josie Scott, explained that they signed up for Battle of the Scores because Ravinn was interested in taking on a challenge.

Williamson said they needed to make a “conscious shift” between writing songs that tell their own stories, which the band normally does, and creating a track for a specific story. “It was a completely different musical journey that we took there,” he commented.

For Williamson, Mother tongue! focused on how loved ones continue to live through our practices. “We are made by the people around us,” he said.

He added that Mother tongue! has a “fullness” that Pigeon the Band wanted to convey in its score. In fact, they were so determined to do so that they dropped their first score and started over three hours before the submission deadline.

In the revised track, Ravinn took inspiration from Ethiopian songs to compose guitar chords. They also added buzzing voices to convey the “mmmm” onomatopoeia that is associated with the contentment one feels when eating comfort food.

“Not everyone will understand a specific language, but everyone will understand the feeling of a specific buzz,” Ravinn said.

Meanwhile, grassthe other band that scored the track, is a group consisting of Chloe Lederman, an undergraduate student at University of Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD).

They began their musical journey in 2021 when they completed the Art and Social Change course with filmmaker and community activist Min Sook Lee. In this class, Lederman created a long play about settler colonialism and climate justice. This experience made them more confident about releasing their own music and ultimately encouraged them to broaden their horizons and sign up for Battle of the Scores.

While Lederman was initially at a loss on how to create a musical score, as they had previously only written songs for live performances, they eventually settled on an “experimental” approach. “[It’s] definitely a bigger challenge when the music really has to speak for itself… and make sure you do the movie justice,” they said.

Lederman was particularly inspired by the film’s focus on cooking. In addition to vocals and guitar, Lederman used various wooden instruments in order to reproduce the sounds of a kitchen, such as the chopping sounds that knives make on a wooden board. In doing so, they hoped to evoke the feelings of home and nostalgia that Mother tongue! made them feel.

“I don’t think it was a movie that needed something big and flashy,” Lederman said. “TThe story is so beautiful and impactful on its own, but it’s also told through something so simple.

Ultimately, Masuka was thrilled with how the bands’ scores elevated the emotions of her film. Both groups also commented on the pleasure they felt at Masuka’s approval. “It was the greatest honor,” Ravinn said.

Empowering Youth in the Arts

The TIFF Next Wave Film Festival ran from April 22–24, with Pigeon the Band and Grass performing their scores live in person on April 22 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox Atrium. Although another group, School, eventually won the competition for their music for the other short titled one last stopBattle of the Scores left Ravinn inspired by the joy and energy they see young people bring to the artistic community.

“I am happy that a company like TIFF gives space for [youth] because more people need to follow suit and see [what] young people create,” they said.

Lederman was also drawn to the scoring battle because it was run by young people. “It’s always a really rewarding experience — to be able to see young people and students being the ones leading and creating the opportunities that we want to have,” they said.

Masuka agreed and added that she thought the whole event was an ode to that sense of community. “I’m a very big community advocate,” she said. “I think that’s the highest form of love.”

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