Kyra Zagorsky tackles Islamophobia in “The Prince”

There’s no one right way to process a traumatic event. Some people do everything they can to forget about it. Others strive to integrate it into their lives somehow, to acknowledge that it happened but not let it define who they are. And others still take that traumatic event, expose it to the light, and rip it apart in order to inspire change.

An example of the last is The Prince, a startling and timely short film written and directed by veteran stage and screen actress Kyra Zagorsky (Helix, Continuum) that premieres this weekend as part of the 18th annual Crazy8s film competition.

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In The Prince, a young tap dancer (portrayed by Ashé Sabongui, Zagorsky’s 11-year-old daughter) and her Uncle Amir (Lee Majdoub) struggle with what it means to be Middle Eastern-Canadian following a violent confrontation on public transit.

The Prince is inspired by a similar incident involving Zagorsky, her husband, Montreal-born actor Patrick Sabongui (an actor on Homeland and The Flash and co-producer on The  Prince), their two young children, and an Islamophobic stranger on the Skytrain in 2009.

“Patrick was holding the stroller, and I was sitting down, and this guy just started cussing me out for bringing terrorist babies into the world,” says Zagorsky, who was born in New York. “It was disgusting. Nobody did anything. People just stared, and that [reaction] was something that was just fascinating to me.” The family disembarked from the train to escape the verbal attack, but the experience was not easily shaken.

That’s not to say that The Prince is a direct dramatization of that Skytrain incident. Zagorsky wove together elements of various racist incidents that have befallen her family and friends, as well as realities (like racial profiling in air travel and showbiz) they and others face on a daily basis.

The goal is two-fold, says Zagorsky: to inspire self-reflection in perpetrators and bystanders of Islamophobia, and to remind people “who are feeling like Amir and his family that they’re not alone.”

Like Zagorsky, the characters in The Prince are artists responding to Islamophobia through artistic practice. Ashé Sabongui’s character interprets her family’s experience through dance, while her uncle struggles with a life-changing decision involving his acting career.

“This is really about this young girl who, as an artist, as a dancer, says early on, ‘I’m going to represent my culture in a beautiful way and make people see us, and I’m going to do it through love and light,’” says Zagorsky.

“For this young man, although he’s a grown man, he’s just been putting up with things for a while, and he then has to make a decision about his responsibility as an artist, and the position that he’s in, and how maybe this is his place that he has to start trying to school people and represent his culture in a positive light.”

Uncle Amir’s dilemma – should he accept an offensive role in a big-budget film? ­– is an all too familiar one for North American actors of Middle Eastern ancestry, according to Zagorsky. “Some scripts even have action lines that say, ‘angry brown men come jumping out of the van,’” says Zagorsky, who co-starred with her husband in Ayad Akhtar's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Disgraced at Vancouver’s Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage in 2015 – which, like The Prince, tackled Islamophobia. “I don’t judge other people for what they are or are not willing to do, but I feel like, shouldn’t we care about what we’re putting out there?”

The Prince also features Zagorsky’s 9-year-old son, Bodhi (says Zagorsky of directing her kids: “They’ve never done this before, and they were incredible. It was a great opportunity for them to think about these issues, because they’re going to have to deal with it for a long time as they get older”), Jennifer Copping, Brendan Taylor, and J. Alex Brinson – as well as a culturally diverse crew, a fact that makes Zagorsky particularly proud. “I haven’t seen a lot of that in Vancouver,” she says.

The Prince was one of six films produced as part of the 2017 edition of Crazy8s. Hundreds of filmmakers competed for the opportunity to shoot, edit, and picture-lock their films in eight days with financial and production support, and premiere their films at a gala.

Besides The Prince, this year’s Crazy8s films include Anh Hung, a family drama set in East Vancouver; Cypher, inspired by the 1992 LA Riots; No Reservations, a satirical comedy about pipeline development; The Undertaker’s Son, a drama about death and relationships set in a 1860s Western town; and The Woodman, in which a lonely man made of wood seeks connection online.

The 2017 Crazy8s Gala takes place on February 25 at the Centre for the Performing Arts. It will be followed by an after-party at Science World. Tickets $35 at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2863624 or $40 at the door. 

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