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Toronto filmmaker discusses effect CNE’s air show has on those who fled war-torn countries

Toronto filmmaker Maya Bastian's new short film, Air Show, uses a real family of Tamil refugee actors to illustrate the fear she says the Canadian National Exhibition's annual display of thundering warplanes strikes in some of the city's refugees, many of whom had to flee aerial bombardment in their various homelands.

On Friday, she spoke by phone with The Globe and Mail as military aircraft – either rehearsing for the air show or part of a flyover for a Royal Canadian Air Force ceremony at Nathan Phillips Square – zoomed over the city.

What gave you the idea to make this film about the air show?

I was born in Canada. My parents were born in Sri Lanka. I worked in Sri Lanka during the war as a journalist, and then I worked for various local NGOs. … I wanted to know what was going on. I couldn't sit here. I had never experienced conflict. I was completely new to this. And when I came back to Toronto, I was very shaken up, struggling with everything that I'd seen and the stories I had heard. I came back during the air show weekend. My day job at the time was a dog walker. So I was walking down the street walking dogs and planes started flying overhead and I was paralyzed with fear. And I had to actually call my boyfriend at the time to come and get me. I couldn't move. And it turns out, I went to see a counsellor and it was PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], a slight form of PTSD. From there, for years – that was 2009 – I started to think about, what if I were a refugee? How would that feel?

Did you speak with refugees who have had this experience?

The actors in the film are all real refugees who experienced aerial bombing. I live in Parkdale [which has many immigrants and refugees.] I went and spoke to refugee counsellors. There's a lot of Syrian refugees and refugee help right now, so I spoke to various people in the organizations. Refugees themselves are very hesitant to speak out against anything Canadian, though I have spoken to people who say it sounds exactly like what was happening to them back home and people who have been frightened.

We've seen people in Parkdale kind of jump into bushes, cover their children. You see it happen, just walking down the street, when the planes are going. It's nothing new. It's just the conversation is new. And I think it's really important, at this point in time, when we're seeing so much anti-immigrant, anti-refugee sentiment and the rise of this sort of alt-right feeling. Part of the reason that I wanted to further this discussion this year was that I got heavily attacked by the alt-right when we started speaking out about this. I got a death threat on Facebook. It got ugly. I got a lot of e-mail hate mail. And to be honest, I don't know that my agenda is to have the air show go away. I just want the discussion.

Surely, it's not just refugees who might have problems with the air show?

It's a bit of an antiquated thing that we picked up over the years. But now, things have changed. I don't feel that we need a large display of militarism. I don't think it's necessary. And if it is, and if people really want it, we could have it not in the city. We could have it in an airfield somewhere. It doesn't have to be right over a neighbourhood that is full of immigrants and refugees.

The actors in the film are refugees. I prepared them. I said we were going to shoot during the air show. It's very, very loud. It's going to remind you of things. They said it's fine, it's no problem. And then, the first time we were shooting, and one of the planes, the CF-18s, went by, he [Katsura Bourassa, who plays the dad in the film] jumped, and his daughter jumped into his arms and they were both heaving with breath. And I had to go and put my arm on him and say, "Are you okay?" And he said, "I didn't realize that's what it would sound like." I said, "Does it sound like back home?" And he said, "It sounds exactly like back home." That, to me, was motivation to keep going.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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