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TFS Alumnus’ Short Doc Shares Story of Refugee’s Struggle to Find Pride

Pride began as a protest. But even before Stonewall, before Compton’s Cafeteria, before taking to the streets to fight for their rights, for many in the 2SLGBTQ+ community there is another battle they must face. The battle within. 


Dimphy van Vilsteren’s documentary short film, Sin, which premiered at the Toronto Film School Film Festival in May, shares the story of one woman’s struggle to find peace within herself and reconcile the opposing forces of her cultural background, religion and self-identity. 


“I was very proud of the documentary,” said the graduate of the Film Production Program, “and I was also very lucky, to be honest, because I found a subject that was prepared to share her story, which was a very personal story.” 


Sin documentary movie poster


That story belongs to “Alessia”, a close friend of van Vilsteren, who remained anonymous in the documentary due to fear of persecution. In fact, initially Alessia wasn’t even sure she wanted to participate. 


“I was nervous at first, because of where I come from. You have people who talk a lot and people can stumble upon stuff and trace it to you. All those privacy and confidentiality things are what scared me,” she said. “But, I know there are a lot of people out there with the same struggles. And at least it helps them to know that there’s someone out there like you, you know? Thinking the same thing, feeling the same thing, battling the same thing.”


Growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, Alessia said she never felt safe to express or explore her sexuality. Nigeria has some of the most severe anti-LGBTQ laws on the planet. Homosexuality is a criminal offence punishable by either 14 years imprisonment or death-by-stoning (depending on region). Three years ago, Alessia was granted refugee status and was able to immigrate to Canada, specifically because of the persecution she could face if she remained in Nigeria. 


Now that Alessia is in Toronto she feels more at ease in terms of her safety, however the internal battle wages on. Her relationship with God is where she finds peace, yet her religion dictates that her homosexuality is a sin. Conversations like the ones Alessia often has with van Vilsteren, give her comfort. 


“Now I have the opportunity to speak with different people, hear different things, different perspectives to life and to everything,” explained Alessia. “But you know, growing up there, growing up with that idea that it’s a sin, it’s so not easy to shed away. It’s always there, it just sits there. It’s like an alarm, even if you snooze it just keeps coming back.”


“I think I’m 50 per cent there, to that point where I can say I have a personal relationship with God and find more peace than I have been. Just feel free, that complete freedom to just be myself.”


“Creativity is not just the ideas, it’s also dealing with the circumstances and moving within those circumstances to find creative solutions.”


From a filmmaking perspective, bringing Alessia’s story to life in the documentary was a challenge, stated van Vilsteren. Because Alessia desired to remain anonymous, van Vilsteren needed to find creative ways to film her subject without showing too many personal details. 


“When you see someone on screen, you connect with the eyes, seeing their eyes,” she said. “So with this, because [Alessia] couldn’t show her face, we had to make another way for it to work. Creativity is not just the ideas, it’s also dealing with the circumstances and moving within those circumstances to find creative solutions.” 


This creativity is something van Vilsteren was missing while working as a real estate agent. At a certain point it just became the same thing, “all business and men in suits”, she remembered. Always a keen writer, van Vilsteren took a screenwriting course in her home country of The Netherlands. Worried that the industry was too small, she looked abroad for film schools and found Toronto Film School. 


“I loved that the Film Production program was only 18 months and you learned all the features of making a movie,” she enthused. “And the people in my class, too. We had a pretty tight group of people. It was a very diverse group, some of my best friends were from Nigeria, Taiwan, Grenada. I learned so much from speaking to people who really experienced these different places.” 


“Also, I worked on a lot of sets from my first term until the end, I think maybe 15 sets. So my network was pretty good. And last year a teacher called me and I got my first paid job, so that was great.”


The future is bright for van Vilsteren, who said she is busy working on film projects and plans to stay here in Toronto, for now. 


As for Alessia, she’s continuing her journey of finding the common ground between her religion and her sexuality and she hopes to get out to The Village this year to celebrate Pride


“Pride, for me it brings a sense of belonging. It’s like family; it gives you the sense of having a tribe. You have your own tribe; this is where I belong.”