June 9, 2022

How Associate Film Producer Kenya-Jade Pinto is Marrying Skills with Interests

Alumna Kenya-Jade Pinto used her voice on UCalgary's campus when she served on UCalgary’s Students’ Union as VP Academic before becoming a human rights lawyer. Now that voice is being heard — even felt — on films such as Scarborough
Alumna Kenya-Jade Pinto along with some cast and crew from the movie, Scarborough
L-R: Alumna Kenya-Jade Pinto along with some cast and crew from the award-winning movie, Scarborough

By the time I got around to watching the film Scarborough, it was already buzzy. Premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2021 and nabbing three awards at the 2022 Canadian Screen Awards, critics had been describing it “heartbreaking, inspiring, powerfully transcendent,” for months, so, predictably, my expectations were high. 

Now, six weeks after watching it, I can still conjure up searing scenes and bits of dialogue as though I had viewed it last night. This is a movie (now on Video on Demand) that is so elegant in its gritty documentary style, so poignant in its portrayal of a Toronto neighbourhood and so illuminating in its character portrayals, that you may just want to stand up and cheer. But keep a box of Kleenex close by.

Based on Catherine Hernandez’s 2017 novel, the movie follows three young children (Bing, Sylvie and Laura, all played by first-time actors) over the course of a school year as their lives intersect at a community centre in the Galloway Road area. Nothing remarkable about that, but the location serves as a multi-pronged reference point that may just prick your own socioeconomic bubble. With a paltry budget of less than $200,000, we were eager to chat with Scarborough’s associate producer, alumna Kenya-Jade Pinto, BA’13, who once served on UCalgary’s Students’ Union as VP Academic before becoming a human rights lawyer. 

We lost track of you after you graduated from UCalgary. What have you been doing since 2013?

Frankly, I hemmed and hawed about whether to do a master's in photojournalism or go to law school. I really wanted to be able to pursue a way of visual storytelling that pulls back the layers of larger, bigger issues, but, in the end, I chose law school (at the University of Ottawa). I thought it would give me a very robust tool kit that I could use, however I wished. 

Kenya-Jade Pinto

L-R: Kenya-Jade Pinto (Associate Producer), Shasha Nakhai (Co-Director and Producer), and Sherien Barsoum (Impact Producer)

After making that decision, were you worried that photography would become a sideline to law?

I was a little nervous about what that looked like, so I made a commitment. After my first year of law school, I did an internship with what was then called Canadian Lawyers Abroad. And I went home to Nairobi [Pinto spent most of her childhood in Kenya] on a human rights internship with an organization called the International Commission of Jurists. At the time, they were working on public-interest litigation against the Kenyan government for atrocities that were committed during post-election violence in 2007. It was there that I worked on a photo-portrait advocacy campaign where we, discreetly, made portraits of folks that allowed them to protect their anonymity, but also gave them the opportunity to speak directly about their experiences. That was the first time that I saw how I could work on things that were complicated and nuanced that would contribute to the larger world.

Did you feel stifled during your year of articling?

No, but I was extremely lucky to find a non-profit called Level to article at. I got to work with Level's Indigenous Youth Outreach program where we also spent time thinking through how to decolonize the criminal justice system. During my time there, I also worked with Level's leadership team to take the organization's visual storytelling to the next level. Again, the job served as a reminder that my interests can live together and that I don't have to be a photographer or a lawyer or a documentarian. While I was there, I started thinking about taking the next step: switching from still photography to moving pictures. That’s when a mutual contact introduced me to the filmmaker Shasha Nakhai; we went for a coffee, she was working on Scarborough, and the rest is history. We have been working together for the last four years in some way, shape or form.

Did you use any of your legal skills as associate producer of the film?

Surprisingly, yes. I did everything from a first draft of the film's COVID policy (the last five days of the 37-day shoot happened during the pandemic) to manage contracts for every single cast and crew member to ensure the kids on set were fed. 

Why were you drawn to this script, this specific story of Scarborough? 

While I was carving my way through after law school, I started to drill down on what I wanted to work on because, when you're a person who has multiple hyphens or you are perceived as someone who can do a little bit of everything, it's really important to learn how to say No to things. For me, I wanted to focus on my place in the world as an aspiring ancestor . . . what I do should make my ancestors proud, but, also, I want to leave something for those who come after me. And then I want to focus on issues such as displacement, belonging and access to justice.

When Shasha was telling me about Scarborough, I saw the depth of the intention behind every production and creative decision they were making. I was especially compelled by Catherine Hernandez' journey [the author and screenwriter wrote Scarborough (the novel) while she was daycare provider in Scarborough]. She saw, first-hand, the systemic inequities and inequitable access to justice in her day-to-day life, and so I wanted to help tell her story.

What questions do you hope this film leaves the audience with? 

First and foremost, Scarborough is a story about the power of community. What do we owe each other? There are Scarborough's in every city, so what are the choices that we make every day to support the communities that we live in, whether it's Scarborough or Forest Lawn? Then, how do we lift up frontline workers . . . people like the Ms. Hina's, the educators, the health-care workers, folks who are on the front lines? So, I think the film really encourages us to consider how we should live our lives to support one another?

Do you have any advice for new grads or students who are unsure about their career paths?

I’d say, “Stay curious and be judicious with your time.” I'm certainly not at the apex of my career yet and I'm always learning, but I think if there's something that you are really eager or interested in, find a way to make that happen. It’s also important to think creatively and structurally about what you want and then make a real tangible plan around that.

Where will you go from here? 

I want to direct and produce. I like being able to move between these two skillsets, which is why I am thrilled to flip roles with Shasha on our next project. I’ll get to direct, and she'll produce. I've been lucky to be supported by National Geographic with a grant to begin the work, and you'll have to stay tuned to find out more!