Mother Tongue! opens with a shot of a mother’s hand gripping a knife, chopping green onions into fine bits and slicing rows and rows of carrot sticks. Alongside the vegetables, we see smiles, as well as close-up shots of two different pairs of eyes. 

When the mother starts chopping red onions on a wooden board, her eyes tear up — and so do her daughter’s. In retrospect, this seems to foreshadow the tragedy at the climax of the film. 

Because of its grainy look, shaky zoom-ins, and handheld shots, watching Mother Tongue! can feel like watching a home video. But in reality, the short film, made by U of T alum Ruth Masuka, was featured at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) Next Wave Film Festival, a youth-led event that encourages young filmmakers and cinephiles to engage in Toronto’s film scene. 

Specifically, Masuka made the film for Battle of the Scores, a competition at the Next Wave Film Festival that challenges four bands to score two silent short films. The Varsity reached out to Masuka, as well as the two bands that scored her film, Pigeon the Band and grass, to discuss how they got involved with Battle of the Scores, their artistic inspirations, and their filming and scoring processes.

About Mother Tongue!

Masuka learned about the competition from the Cinema Studies Institute’s mailing list, through which she found Battle of the Scores’ call for pitches for short films about nostalgia — a theme that struck a chord with her. She specifically connected the theme to her immigrant background and ethnic cuisine. “Food has been a very potent vehicle of how I connect to my home,” she explained. 

Although Mother Tongue! depicts food in an intimate way, this was not Masuka’s original plan. “It was originally meant to be a very large celebration of family,” Masuka said, as she had initially planned to have her extended family members star in the short film. 

However, she had to refocus her film on the intimacy between her and her mother — which she depicted with a food-based connection — when several of her family members got COVID-19. “I think it actually worked out for the better in many ways because it was my first time directing a film… I think that that was a lot easier with four people rather than 20,” Masuka said.

The motif of eyes, which Masuka drew from her Ethiopian roots, heightens the intimacy of the film. She explained that Ethiopian Orthodox Church paintings commonly depict Ethiopians with prominent eyes, and that eyes traditionally express intense emotions. “I think that eyes are correlated with food in the sense that you don’t need a verbal language [to communicate],” she said.

Capturing the essence of Mother Tongue! through music

Masuka also spoke about the vulnerability she felt when entrusting other artists to add music to her film. “It was like passing on your baby and hoping the babysitter had first-aid training,” she said. However, it seems that both bands took this task seriously, as they thoughtfully crafted their scores to reflect the emotions in the film.

In an interview with The Varsity, Pigeon the Band, whose members include Sky Ravinn, Oliver Williamson, and Josie Scott, explained that they signed up for Battle of the Scores because Ravinn was interested in taking on a challenge.

Williamson said that they had to make a “conscious switch” between writing songs that tell their own stories, which the band normally does, to making a piece for a specific story. “That was a completely different musical journey that we took there,” he commented.

For Williamson, Mother Tongue! was about how loved ones continue to live on through our practices. “We are made by the people around us,” he said.

He added that Mother Tongue! has a “fullness” to it that Pigeon the Band wanted to convey in their score. In fact, they were so dedicated to doing so that they scrapped their first score and started from scratch three hours before the submission deadline.

In the revised track, Ravinn drew inspiration from Ethiopian songs to compose guitar chords. They also added humming voices to convey the onomatopoeic “mmmm” that is associated with the contentment one feels while eating comforting food.

“Not everyone is going to understand a specific language, but everyone will understand the feeling of a specific hum,” Ravinn said.

Meanwhile, grass, the other band that scored the piece, is a one-person band made up of Chloe Lederman, an undergraduate student at the Ontario College of Art & Design (OCAD) University. 

They started their musical journey in 2021 when they took the course Art and Social Change with filmmaker and community activist Min Sook Lee. In this course, Lederman created an extended play about settler colonialism and climate justice. This experience made them feel more confident about releasing their own music and ultimately encouraged them to expand their horizons and sign up for Battle of the Scores.

While Lederman was initially lost on how to create a musical score, as they had previously only written songs for live performances, they eventually settled on an “experimental” approach. “[It’s] definitely a bigger challenge when the music just really has to speak for itself… and to make sure that you’re doing the film justice,” they said. 

Lederman was particularly inspired by the film’s focus on the kitchen. In addition to vocals and guitar, Lederman used various wooden instruments in order to replicate the sounds of a kitchen, such as the chopping sounds that knives make on a wooden board. In doing so, they hoped to evoke the feelings of home and nostalgia that Mother Tongue! made them feel.

“I don’t think that it was a film that needed anything big and flashy,” Lederman said. “The story is just so beautiful and impactful on its own, but it’s also told through something so simple.” 

Ultimately, Masuka was thrilled with how the bands’ scores elevated the emotions of her film. Both bands also highlighted the pleasure they felt at Masuka’s approval. “That was the biggest honour,” said Ravinn. 

Empowering young people in the arts

The TIFF Next Wave Film Festival ran from April 22–24, with both Pigeon the Band and grass performing their scores live in-person on April 22 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox Atrium. Though another band, School, ultimately won the competition for their score for the other short film titled one last stop, Battle of the Scores left Ravinn feeling inspired by the joy and energy that they see young people bringing into the arts community. 

“I’m happy that a company like TIFF is giving space for [youth] because more people need to follow suit and see [what] youths are creating,” they said. 

Lederman was also drawn to the Battle of the Scores because it was youth-led. “That’s always a really empowering experience — to be able to see youth and students being the ones to lead and to create the opportunities that we want to have,” they said.

Masuka agreed and added that she felt that the entire event was an ode to that sense of community. “I’m a very huge advocate for community,” she expressed. “I think it’s the highest form of love.”