When Monica Mustelier became a mother six years ago, her time immediately became more precious, shifting the trajectory of her career path in line with her priorities.
“After having my daughter, time shrunk and everything became a matter of, ‘OK, so I only have this amount of time, what is the best use of it?’” said the former actor-turned-writer/director, who’s currently enrolled in Toronto Film School’s Online Writing for Film & Television program.
“It was then that I knew I wanted to become more involved in the industry and start changing it from within. I want to give women, particularly women of colour, content that we can actually relate to and where we’re actually speaking human beings.’”
And so it was that, after more than a decade of unfulfilling ‘hustling’ as an actor, the award-winning Afro-Latina Vancouver native decided to begin creating content of her own – telling stories she hopes her daughter, Oshun, will be proud of one day.
“As an actor, I wasn’t ever really happy with the roles I was getting submitted for – like, ‘Beer Girl’, or ‘Spicy Latina,’” she said, noting that she got killed off in several her roles, including those in the Steven Seagal action series True Justice, Val Kilmer’s direct-to-DVD sci-fi flick, Hardwired, and as the ‘Screaming Nurse’ in the WB’s Smallville.
“I think having my own daughter, it became kind of, like, ‘Oh, what would I like her to see me in?’ And, ‘What kind of female role models and influences would I like her to see represented on the screen?’ So, I started creating my own work.”
So far, the transition from acting to writing and directing has been a rewarding one for Mustelier both personally and professionally, as she continues to rack up accolades and opportunities for work she now takes pride in.
The first project Mustelier both wrote and directed was Weeping Willow, a three-minute short she created as part of CineFAM’s Micro Cinema Challenge. The film was shot entirely on an iPhone 10x and went on to screen internationally – winning Best Micro Cinema Short at the CineFAM Film Festival, and being chosen as an Official Selection at Lift-Off Sessions Pinewood Studios UK, the Toronto Black Film Festival, The International Gullah Film Festival, the Legacy Film Showcase and the Fern FiIm Festival.
Her most recent directorial effort, Rainbow Baby, which she just wrapped post-production on, was selected by Toronto ACTRA Women’s Committee (TAWC) for their 2020 Short Film Creation Lab. Written by Kate Fenton, the film tells the story of Susan and Ria – a couple trying to heal after a heartbreaking miscarriage while running an ice cream shop.
Mustelier was also recently selected as a recipient of the Indigenous Screen Office’s Solidarity Fund to write and develop two feature films – one of which, called By The River, tells a “deeply personal” story that centres around a young Afro-Latina woman recovering from a devastating loss and turns to photography as a healing tool.
She called working with Indigenous producer and story editor Eva Thomas on the project an “amazing” experience so far. Once the pair get the draft of the screenplay to where they want it, they plan to start applying for funding to go into pre-production.
“It’s kind of inspired by events in my life. In my 20s, a lot of people that were close to me passed, so I experienced a lot of death and I really utilized art as a healing tool to move through that, just because I didn’t really know what else to do,” Mustelier said of the inspiration behind the film, which she bills as a drama with comedic tones.
“I feel like, as a first-generation Canadian (mom immigrated from Spain, dad from Cuba) – I can’t speak for all of us, but for a lot of us with our parents, therapy was not a thing that we talked about. So, I just used art to heal.”
Recently nominated for By Blacks’ People’s Choice Award for Best Black Canadian Film Director, Mustelier has also been named a recipient of a Writers for Writers Diversity Initiative Award from the Toronto Screenwriting Conference and was selected to participate in the Women In The Director’s Chair’s Career Advancement Module in Vancouver.
So far, Mustelier is relishing all the learning opportunities her new career path has opened up for her.
“I personally love education and I love being part of collectives. I’m super collaborative as a director and writer and I just love learning in a group setting – so I love being part of Women In The Director’s Chair, and being part of CineFAM, and being part of the Toronto ACTRA Women’s Committee,” she said.
“I feel like it’s just part of creating community first, which I love. And through that, I think it creates connection and inspires your work. For me, personally, being part of a community creates better work than just working all by myself in a vacuum. Some people thrive in vacuums, but I need people.”
Now six years along in her journey as both a mother and a writer/director, Mustelier said she’s enjoying fully embracing both roles, oftentimes bringing Oshun – whose own many aspirations include directing and producing – to set with her.
“She wants to be a dancer, she wants to have her own dog treat company called Pup-tastic Treats, and she wants to be a director and a producer,” she laughed.
“She always comes to set with me…and it’s really cool, because she understands story – she understands how stories work, and how there’s a bad guy, and how the hero never dies, you know? I think it’s pretty cool that she wants to follow in my footsteps.”