Content warning: This article discusses a film that contains themes of anti-Black racism.
On September 23, Screenwriting at Victoria College (SVC) launched the first episode of their film-based podcast, Fade In.
Hosted by SVC co-president Vikram Nijhawan, Fade In promises to “take a critical look at film storytelling” and explores topics like literary themes, framing devices, and social commentary. Nijhawan also invites weekly guests — student filmmakers and professionals, located at the University of Toronto and beyond — to offer their insight about the films.
What does the phrase “based on a true story” really mean? What is the responsibility of the film maker to the person whose life is being adapted? What’s the responsibility of the audience in interpreting the truth? All are questions that Nijhawan and club members Connie Zeng and Marta Anielska attempted to answer in the appropriately titled episode “Based on a True Story,” which explored the ethics of films that are based on the lives of real people.
To prepare for this episode, Nijhawan, Anielska, and Zeng watched three films: Green Book; I, Tonya; and The Farewell. As a preface to the episode, Nijhawan explained that, while each of the films were in part created “to shed light on a marginalized group of individuals,” their accuracy has since been debated by the public.
The 2018 film Green Book is set in 1960s America. A Black classical pianist, Don Shirley, hires an Italian American driver, known as Tony Vallelonga, to help him get to his venues. Though Vallelonga is originally racist toward Shirley, the two characters eventually become closer and Tony learns to let go of his racial prejudices.
The initially problematic aspect of Green Book, Nijhawan explains, is that its title was created in reference to the safe travel guide that author Victor Hugo created for Black people travelling in the south at the time of Jim Crow laws. This reference “takes a backseat” in the Academy Award winning film adaptation, which was written by Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, and Peter Farrelly.
Nijhawan also talked about an accusation he’d seen that the film is an “inaccurate portrayal of the central characters’ relationship, as well as an overly simplistic portrayal of race relations in America at that time.”
Before the production of Green Book, the real-life Don Shirley was approached by writer Nick Vallelonga. However, the film was only released after Shirley’s passing. As a result, the film was created with Vallelonga as its protagonist, as its creators had access to more information about him through interviews.
“It was a creative decision that many viewers felt negatively impacted the story’s overall presentation,” explained Nijhawan. The host also added that viewers feel this choice contributed to Vallelonga being portrayed as a “white saviour figure.”
Shirley’s family was quick to call the film out as “a symphony of lies.” They asserted that Shirley and Vallelonga maintained a strict “employer-employee relationship” and were not close friends, as depicted in the film. However, recordings of Shirley from the 2010 documentary Lost Bohemia seemed to support many of the details of the film, including his close relationship with Tony Vallelonga.
Anielska noted that the film’s responsibility to be accurate is a “complicated question” that stems from the separation of fiction and nonfiction. “They’re trying to gain something from the fact that they’re based on a true story. There’s clearly a reason why the filmmakers are telling us it’s based on a true story,” they explained.
“The concepts they’re trying to express through their storylines are somehow more legitimate and more true,” Anielska added. They then contemplated whether or not nonfiction films inherently exploit experiences to express a theme or idea. If so, they said, “that feels like the use of another person’s life.”
“I think responsibility depends on whether [filmmakers] are trying to paint or determine characters, or if [they’re] trying to chronicle an event,” expressed Zeng. They also noted that what “[viewers] know about Shirley is based on his race.”
“I don’t think that the changes that have been made in the Green Book are necessarily working towards… something really powerful in terms of the storyline,” argued Anielska. Pointing out that all of Green Book’s writers were white, they added, “It claims to say something about race… I imagine it must have been [insulting] to Shirley’s family to not be consulted on it.”
I, Tonya is a 2017 film, which, as its title card states, is based on “irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true” interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly.
The film is based on the experiences of Tonya Harding, a former American figure skater. It specifically focuses on Harding’s involvement with an attack on her figure skating rival, Nancy Kerrigan. Kerrigan was clubbed in the right kneecap by hitmen hired by Jeff Gillooly, Harding’s husband at the time.
During the year of the attack, Harding went on to win the National Figure Skating Championships. Despite her injuries, Kerrigan made the USA Figure Skating National Team, and won a silver medal at the next Olympics, at which Harding didn’t earn any medals.
Harding eventually pled guilty to the charge of conspiracy to hinder prosecution. She was then banned from the USA Figure Skating Governing Body, probiting her from ever competing or coaching again.
Steven Rogers, the movie’s screenwriter, described the film as an “attempt to rethink the narrative [people] know about Harding and create a nuanced portrayal of the primary cast of characters.” Rogers was also “interested in exploring truth and perception of truth.” However, Anielska notes that Kerrigan’s perspective is absent through the film.
Zeng began the discussion of the film by citing a TikTok video they found about Harding. Zeng noticed that many of the video’s comments were supportive of the skater, which Zeng compared to the comments of a YouTube video about Harding they’d watched before the film’s release. “Most of [the YouTube video’s] comments [were] not very sympathetic towards Harding… the general sentiment has changed, a lot of people in our generation… are very sympathetic towards her.”
Zeng also noted a “special animosity towards Kerrigan” in the comments under videos they’d watched about the figure skater.
“The [film’s] message that the media twists things is not subtle,” Anielska pointed out. “It’s ironic that people have so quickly latched onto this movie as a redemption arc for [Harding]. It breaks the fourth wall because it wants to point this out to you.”
Zeng argued the film was misogynistic, and fed into a woman-versus-woman narrative by pitting Harding and Kerrigan against one another.
Zeng introduced the 2019 film, The Farewell, as being “based on an actual lie.” The film follows the story of Billi, a girl living in China. Billi finds out her grandmother is diagnosed with lung cancer and does not have much longer to live, a reality that her family tried to hide from her grandmother by forging hospital documents.
On one hand, Billi wants to respect her grandmother’s autonomy, and on the other, wants to please her family and conform to their wishes of hiding the truth from her grandmother.
The semi-autobiographical film is partially the story of the film’s director, Lulu Wang. It explores her experience of being Chinese-American — “something which I can personally relate to,” noted Zeng. Like her protagonist, Wang’s grandmother was terminally ill at the time of the film’s shooting — in fact, she only found out about her diagnosis after the film’s screening.
Zeng noted that Wang offered to write the film’s script in both Mandarin and English, but could not read or write the former. As a result, Wang worked alongside her mother and professional translators to translate her film’s script.
“Is it worse to have a film that’s based on someone who’s still alive without telling them or without getting their consent? Is it more responsible to wait until someone’s passed to tell their story?” Zeng wondered. “I didn’t think it was a problem at all due to my Eastern-Western heritage… you do anything ‘family’ and there is no concept of boundaries or personal privacy, especially if it entitles success.”
Although Western culture “[thinks] of it as bad,” Anielska admitted that they thought that hiding the diagnosis is a “type of honour.”
“[There’s] something beautiful in…‘We’re going to hide what we feel because we want you to be happy,’ ” they explained.
The first episode of Fade In was a success. Though the films analysed in this episode portrayed unique experiences, they shared the similarity of depicting real occurrences. Thus, the episode’s content flowed smoothly.
Nijhawan, Anielska, and Zeng articulated their ideas clearly and respectfully, while tying in their experiences to help listeners better form an opinion on each film. They had also extensively researched the films they discussed to help prove their claims.
So, what’s the truth about my article? I’m looking forward to hearing more from Fade In and the SVC.
Disclosure: Marta Anielska is currently The Varsity’s Deputy News Editor.
If you or someone you know has been affected by anti-Black racism, you can call:
- U of T’s Anti-Racism & Cultural Diversity Office at 416-978-1259, or