Canadian women making a difference: Lea Marin

The NFB producer on why it’s important to tell stories that are often overlooked

Growing up in Scarborough, Ont., Lea Marin used to sneak a lot of TV. Her parents, who immigrated from Trinidad and Tobago in the 1960s and worked at the University of Toronto (her dad in research, her mother in admissions), only allowed Marin and her two siblings one hour of television a night during the week (and all the TVO they wanted). But it was never enough.

“There was a love affair between myself and television and movies,” says Marin. “Growing up black, in a city that at the time wasn’t as integrated and multicultural as it is now, that was a therapeutic relationship—it was how I worked through whatever I was going through.” While Soul Train and Good Times were big hits in the house, Marin wasn’t solely looking for representations of black lives. “I was drawn to the storytelling,” she says, “to be able to recognize oneself, one’s otherness, one’s isolation through the stories of certain characters.”

To truly tap into our humanity and to change who we are, we have to expand our knowledge and understanding of one another.

Today Marin is someone who decides which stories will be told. The producer has made 29 short and feature-length films and is currently prepping the National Film Board documentary Throat, featuring Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq. Originally, Marin saw herself as an actor, but when it came time to pursue acting at university, she balked. “With so few images of black women and opportunities for black women in that field, I chickened out,” she says. “I don’t know if I wanted it badly enough.”

After graduating from U of T with a degree in French and Spanish language and literature, Marin followed her passion for Canadian film—especially the movies of David Cronenberg, Jeremy Podeswa and John Greyson—into an entry-level production position at the NFB. In 2004, she completed a six-month stint at the Canadian Film Centre, and produced her first dramatic short, Escape, in 2005.

Since then, Marin has become known as someone who’s interested in voices that are often overlooked by those in the mostly white, male-dominated film industry. In 2013, she produced My Prairie Home, about transgender musician Rae Spoon, which premiered at the Sundance festival to critical acclaim. In early 2017, she released Unarmed Verses, a documentary that follows the demolition of a Toronto housing complex through the eyes of Francine Valentine, a bright 12-year-old girl who lives in the community.

National Film Board Producer Lea Marin seated

Director Charles Officer explained to the CBC how the project never would have happened if Lea hadn’t understood this perspective and seen the value of putting the camera on someone like Francine. “Other producers would have probably steered me towards the boy who got in trouble with the police and was trying to find his way out of it—the typical sort of option.”

Marin describes her approach as a producer in very personal terms: “It’s a desire to explore realities and stories that are unknown to me. To truly tap into our humanity and to change who we are, we have to expand our knowledge and understanding of one another.”

Marin’s next film is almost entirely about a unique voice. Throat is collaboration between a trio of inspiring Canadian women: Marin, My Prairie Home director Chelsea McMullan and Tagaq—and the goal is to introduce Tagaq’s traditional style of throat singing, and her political activism, to a wider audience. “We had a lot of conversations about how Chelsea (as the director) is someone who comes from a completely different background and is a white woman telling the story of an Indigenous woman and her community. We asked, what does that look like? What are we exploring? What does Chelsea’s gaze bring to the narrative? And we decided this needed to be a co-collaboration with Tanya. Tanya’s voice is significant and she needs to own that.”

Last November, the filmmakers shot an intimate concert at Toronto’s Trinity St. Paul’s Church. Anyone who has seen Tagaq live knows that words can’t do justice to the experience. “I think it’s transcendental,” says Marin. “It takes you to another place entirely. She taps into you on an emotional level and it’s so unexpected. I find myself completely riveted and moved to tears.” In Tagaq, she sees someone whose message could be therapeutic to others, who could reconcile the different communities in Canada and beyond. “She’s so connected,” says Marin, “you feel she sees you, she sees things clearly, she has this very real connection to not only the people around her but to the world and nature and all that it has to offer. It’s electrifying.” The feeling is mutual. “Lea has been incredible to work with on Throat,” says Tagaq. “It has been a beautiful, warm and comfortable process.”

The one-time aspiring actor has no regrets about landing behind the scenes—after all, her work now inspires other young TV and film lovers. “I watched Soul Train to see an image of myself,” Marin says. “And now to be in a position where not only do I have a voice, but I’m able to create a space and a platform for others to speak as well — this was the right path for me.”