TIFF 2019 Short Takes: Filmmaker Sandra Ignagni walks down Highway to Heaven: A Mosaic in One Mile

by Andrew Parker

Walk, drive, bus, or bicycle down any road in North America long enough, and you’re likely to stumble upon a church. In some cases, there will be more than one. But few roads compare to No. 5 Road in Richmond, British Columbia, the subject of filmmaker Sandra Ignagni’s short documentary, Highway to Heaven: A Mosaic in One Mile (which makes its world premiere this week at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival in Short Cuts Programme 4).

Along this stretch of road is a multitude of churches, all of different faiths and specific denominations. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sunnis, Shiites, Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs all have houses of worship along the same roadway; some of them living in harmony with one another, and sometimes existing within the community at large with some degree of tension, conflict, and fear. 

With Highway to Heaven: A Mosaic in One Mile, Ignagni spends a considerable amount of time in each of these churches, temples, and mosques to observe their practices without embellishment, remaining respectful of all traditions and ceremonies to create a larger picture of the Canadian cultural melting pot. Ignagni also branches out into the community at large to see what these faiths operating in such close proximity to one another means to the overall population and the sometimes conflicted feelings and biases that arise as a result.

We caught up with Ignagni just before the start of the festival to talk about the film and what made this patch of highway and overall experience so special.

What was your knowledge of Richmond’s No. 5 road before the project?

Sandra Ignagni: The very first time I found myself on the short stretch of No. 5 road featured in Highway to Heaven, I felt it could be a film. It was unlike anything I had seen before, such grand and architecturally unique houses of worship side by side on what would otherwise be a nondescript suburban road. I remember stopping the car to look around. 

There was so much activity on the street that afternoon! I saw two Tibetan Buddhist monks in their traditional red robes wearing matching Converse high-tops walking down the street. I watched them walk past a sign proclaiming the love of Jesus outside of one of the many Christian churches on No. 5 Road. It was that very moment—witnessing the convergence of old-world tradition and new-world culture against such a remarkably eclectic landscape—that I started to imagine the documentary. 

From that point onwards, I started conceptualizing the film in tandem with reaching out to various organizations located on No. 5 Road. In 2016, I held a summer fellowship at the UnionDocs Center for Documentary Art in Brooklyn, NY, where I had the time and space to develop the first iteration of the treatment for the film. 

Given that we live in culturally sensitive and contentious times, how did your perception of that stretch of highway and the community surrounding it change?

Sandra Ignagni: When I started the project, the organizations on No. 5 Road were largely unfamiliar to me. It was over the three years in which I made the film that I really connected with the people who live on and visit the road for worship. A few things have changed. First, my knowledge of the practices, languages and philosophies of each of the faiths represented on No. 5 Road has deepened significantly. I feel that I’m better able to understand and relate to people from all over the world because of this film. Second, I’ve forged very meaningful connections to each of the participants in the film. When the moon brings forth Eid, I think about my friends at Az-Zaharaa. When I’m in a yoga class, I sometimes reflect on what I learned from the ladies at the Vedic Centre. And when tragedy strikes in a religious space anywhere in the world, which has happened many times since the start of the project, I think about all of the groups on No. 5 Road, their sadness, their fears and their strong hope for a peaceful world. 

I could imagine that given the current cultural climate – and also as a byproduct of certain religious beliefs and privacy concerns – each house or worship and school that you visited would have a different set of filming guidelines and restrictions. Logistically speaking, how difficult was it to put Highway to Heaven together, and what did you say or do to ensure to the members of these places of worship and schools were comfortable with your presence?

Sandra Ignagni: Each of the scenes in Highway to Heaven was constructed collaboratively with the help of each of the participating groups. During the development phase of the project, I visited many sites—many more than appear in the film—to observe and better understand what daily life is like on No. 5 Road. I also conducted dozens of interviews. From all the information I gathered, I began to distill a simple structure for the film. Then, producer Teri Snelgrove and I visited each participating organization and began to dialogue around some of these ideas. Some were a no-go, others received enthusiastic support. And in many cases, the communities themselves had ideas about what we should film. For example, Balwant Sanghera at the India Cultural Centre of Canada (Nanak Niwas Gurdwara) insisted on a wedding. The Gurdwara performs over 80 weddings a year and has a three-year wait list. In his estimation, if we didn’t film a wedding, we’d miss the essence of the building. So in went the wedding! But in cutting the film, my editor, Milena Salazar, and I tried to capture a unique moment—a bride sighs listlessly after smiling for a picture. It is a beautiful human moment—so real. 

Thankfully, I had an amazing production crew who explained the film and its purpose to every person who arrived on site during filming days. Hundreds of people. And in multiple languages! In every space we knew we’d be filming in, my director of photography, Andrew Coppin, helped identify “off-camera” areas in advance to accommodate anyone who didn’t want to participate.

It seems like some of the places you visited could spin off into movies of their own. For you, what were some of the most enriching experiences during the filmmaking process?

Sandra Ignagni: If there is one standout experience in my mind, it is that we were able to film the early morning meditation at the Lingyen Mountain Temple—a Buddhist monastery. The roughly 30 nuns who live there begin their first meditation in darkness at 2:45 a.m. every single morning! The sights and sounds are mesmerizing and I’m so pleased that we were able to capture those moments and share them through the film. It was the first time we had witnessed it and only had a rough sense of the movement of the nuns. 

But truthfully, I learned so much from every group in the film and the lessons keep coming! Every time we screen the film and I listen to people talk about it, I have the opportunity to understand someone else’s perspective, and that kind of experience is eye-opening. The film resonates with people in very personal ways and so it is infinitely interesting to discover what’s arising when people watch it. Ultimately, I hope this film is one that sparks dialogue and exchange around issues that are sometimes difficult to discuss, such as racism and ethnocentrism, xenophobia, and religious and cultural diversity. 

In your director’s statement for the film, you mention some locals opposing the expansion of the Lingyen Buddhist Temple and fears that signage at the Richmond Jewish Day School might provoke anti-Semetic attacks. Knowing these facts when you’re going in to the filming, how do you process that tension, and do you feel it whenever you enter one of these spaces as an outsider?

Sandra Ignagni: There is a visual motif of surveillance that runs through the film. It’s very subtle, but it is there. I included this material to gesture to the fact that No. 5 Road is not free of tensions. Yes, I would argue that many of the statements made, in some cases by public officials, in opposition to the expansion of the Lingyen temple were xenophobic. And, yes, it is true that for 10 years the Richmond Jewish Day School did not have an exterior sign. Fear and surveillance are a fact of life—you can’t just walk into the schools; the doors are locked. To me, it’s a tragic fact that those who learn and teach in religious schools in Canada, or any school anywhere for that matter, experience fear. 

But these realities, as uncomfortable and unfortunate as they are, are balanced by many positive activities that unfold in the buildings every day. While faith is the obvious element that unites people, the organizations on No. 5 Road play a multifaceted role in the community: they serve to educate children and adults alike; they offer space for physical activity; they feed people; house people; foster friendships; preserve language and cultural tradition; help in new immigrant and refugee resettlement and so much more! 

Knowing what actually transpires in these spaces of worship, beyond simply worship, can help dispel myths and break down prejudices. 

At what point in production was the decision made to make the film almost strictly observational and let these spaces, people, events, and moments speak for themselves?

Sandra Ignagni: From the outset! Artistically, the film builds on an approach I developed in my last short film, Ranger, where the finished piece operates more as a short space for reflection than as a story per se. 

There’s something great in this film in that it goes beyond the strictest definition of “holy spaces,” and spends time at a floor hockey game and down at the local pub. Was it important for you to include these kinds of moments and human interactions, or was that just a byproduct of getting to know the community better?

Sandra Ignagni: While I was developing the project, in the early years before the pub became part of the film, I visited the Kingswood a couple of times to have coffee. I often used public transit to get to Richmond from Vancouver, and being on foot for the day, the Kingswood was the easiest place to rest and check my email. It is about halfway down the stretch explored in the film, on the opposite side of the street from the buildings of worship. Spending time in the restaurant, sensing its own unique energy and seeing its details, it dawned on me that the space is itself an important part of the landscape in Richmond. It isn’t a faith-based organization but it nevertheless speaks to the broader secular population for whom faith may not be a way of life. And like its neighbours, the Kingwood fosters a distinct culture of community and camaraderie.  The film is a mosaic and the Kingswood is a part of the picture. 

Highway to Heaven: A Mosaic in One Mile screens at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as part of Short Cuts Programme 4.


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