With the future going high tech, what will society look like in another 20 years? Will there be cyborgs, AI androids that replace labour jobs and will self-driving cars take over the streets and highways? It’s difficult to forecast with 100 percent accuracy but it’s also not difficult to imagine artificial intelligence evolving enough, to be able to console you and offer comforting words in times of crisis. Technology is advancing at bullet train speed and there isn’t much talk about the ramifications of taking it too far. We discuss the climate change and the plastics in the oceans… but technology has been creeping up on us much like a sly cyber fox and we haven’t had enough conversations about the danger to humanity, if AI decides that we are no longer necessary.
HENRI is a short sci-fi film that provides a window into the future of AI and the implications of welcoming it into our daily lives. It makes its world premiere at the Toronto Black Film Festival, February 10-21 and is written by award-winning filmmaker Ryan Singh and directed by Katarzyna Kochany. Ryan’s six-year-old twins, Ava (Tall Boyz, Handmaid’s Tale) and Sebastian (Suits, Handmaid’s Tale, Silent) also helped write and also appear in the short film alongside actor Andrea Grant (Get Rich or Die Tryin’, The Listener).
Ryan Singh became a young performer in his homeland of Guyana, South America at just 6 years old. The stage for his life’s calling was set out when he performed poetry in what was to be one of many national performing competitions. Next, Singh moved into larger roles and was immediately cast in local plays that took him on regular tours throughout his homeland. In 1993 at the age of 16, Ryan immigrated to Canada and focused on realizing his dream of becoming an actor.
I caught up with Ryan in Toronto and he gave me all the nuts and bolts on this film as well as some very insightful industry knowledge as an Indie filmmaker.
HNM “You have your children down as writers? Did they create their own dialogue?”
RYAN “They wrote much of their own dialogue and my daughter negotiated her character name. It wasn’t just about giving them a title because I could… I wanted them to understand what they were doing, what they were engaged in, how we were developing the character; it’s important to give them the tools now, so they can become stronger as they get older.”
HNM “I had read that you began performing poetry at the age of 6. Are you trying to put your children onto the same path of a performer/actor?”
RYAN “My father has always been a writer, which is where my story begins. He was doing a performance at a town hall in the old country of Guyana. He brought me up on stage and that was my first introduction to live performance. I really wish I had the mentorship from my father, but he didn’t really know the ins and outs of the film business. He knew the stage but only from a community level. Over the last 20 years I’ve been making my way through the business, trying to learn as much as I can. As I learn I mentor people and as a father, I want to mentor my kids on how to be successful and how to strive toward something. If they want to fall back to a job at fast food, at least they have an option.”
HNM “Do you have another family member helping out in visual effects?”
RYAN “(Laughing) No, he’s not family. We just happen to have the same last name. This was my first sci-fi project and I wanted it to have some level of significance. Colin Walcott was the first to jump aboard – he made all of the drawings and really set the pace for my expectations… but then Covid came in and he became busy with life and family matters. We had to offer the project to Caitlyn Salmon and she brought it to another level. I then took it to India for a final polish and worked with Akash, who happened to have an entire team of people that could help with the visual effects.”
HNM “Was it costly to add the visual effects to your film?”
RYAN “It is a very hands-on job, Colin is well versed and has advanced knowledge in the process, but Caitlyn is at the introduction level. It’s a multi-team involvement; you’ve got the artists, the colourists and all the others coming together to build it, but we only had one person at any given time working on all those tasks. When Akash came on, he was able to build the right team that allowed us the opportunity to capitalize on the team effort, at a very reasonable overseas rate.”
HNM “Was that one of the reasons you chose to finish the post in India?”
RYAN “It was, because for me to have found the same help in putting together the final package, it would’ve been a lot more expensive to do it in Canada. As short as the film is, we spent 8 or 9 months between processes. We had about 40 different iterations of the film, with the picture edit, sound edit, visual effects edits, drawings, the final cut and so on. My director Katarzyna Kochany has been part of the post production since March and we’re still polishing up the trailer – she’s very detail orientated. She is European and wanted to understand and be sensitive to the project. She didn’t want to just correct it, she wanted to respect the artist behind it. We have a lot of multi-culture in it but 80% of it was bipartisan.”
HNM “You’ve directed in the past but you had Katarzyna Kochany direct HENRI. Why did you pass on the directing?”
RYAN “I really wanted to work with Katarzyna, we’ve been meeting in networking spaces for a long time. Ever since my children were young, I told her I’d like to have a conversation with her about putting together a project. When we came up with the script, it was an opportune time to work with her on it. She read it, she loved it and gave me some feedback on it. I invited her to be a part of telling the story and part of this business is about collaboration and networking. She was a wonderful collaborator and she took my game to the next level. She was also recently inducted into the Directors Guild of Canada and it’s a name you’ll be hearing a lot more from.”
HNM “I read that you moved to Canada at 16 and wanted to continue your acting career but there weren’t many diverse roles in film. Have you seen the industry opening up to a more diverse cast?”
RYAN “Quite frankly, there has been a significant push by all parties to be more inclusive in their casting and their breakdowns. I’ve also been pushing other people in my career to participate and partake. If we’re not visible in the room, then we can’t complain that we’re not visible onscreen. I see my kids watching Dora and once they see any visibility of blackness, they immediately make the connection – thinking it was me and their mommy on the show and also seeing themselves. There’s a new movie out right now, called We Can Be Heroes with a set of Black twins on it. They get so excited to see that representation because it reminds them of themselves and the opportunities that they have.”
HNM “I had also read that you have also been involved in helping your own community with some theatre projects. Can you tell me more about that?”
RYAN “In 2007 I was working with my father to develop a play. It was then that I had said to myself, ‘I want to provide an infrastructure so that we could succeed.’ I didn’t want to just approach it from a community level, which is building something in the community – it’s the lowest hanging fruit and you’re able to meet and deliver to the community… sometimes they show up and other times they don’t. Then you walk away – and you miss out on being part of the larger artistic industry, and you’re left wondering why you’re marginalized again. I created Roots International Theatre with my father and we continue to deliver classes. It was the organization that helped to produce HENRI. In 2017, I incorporated Ryan Singh Productions Ltd. and I also have a theatre – non-profit company, called Roots International Arts Theatre.”
HNM “Aside from your children being in the film, there is another actress Andrea Grant; where did you find her?”
RYAN “Andrea Grant was introduced to me through my agent. She was introduced to me as an actress wanting to make some self-tapes and a demo reel. I suggested that it might be a better idea to create a short film rather than a demo reel. It would give her a passport that she could use as an introduction to other people at festivals to help promote herself. That is how she was introduced to this project. She also came on as a producer. It was great to work with her and collaborate on set; she brings more experience on set from an acting perspective.”
HNM “You became a young performer at the age of 6 when you performed poetry at a recital. Do you still enjoy writing poetry?”
RYAN “I do, I’m still involved in writing and I wrote a piece for CBC after the George Floyd situation. I’m also developing a longer version of HENRI into a half hour television series; the kids are pretty excited about that. Writing is very important to me because it documents a period of time.”
HNM “In 2014, you made a short film entitled MOM that reflects on the tradition of absent fathers. The film won an award for best short documentary. Was the film a tribute to all single moms or was it to put those absent fathers on notice?”
RYAN “I was taking a documentary course and needed to create a project. At the same time, I was learning about the history of my grandmother and her relationship with my grandfather, while discovering her stories and challenges. As I listened, my mother wanted to offer some insights. My wife was also pregnant and wanted to speak about her experiences with me. That’s really how Mom emerged as a film because I had 3 mothers sharing insights about their relationships with the men in their lives. I made it a homage to my children and it’s also something I can reflect on in becoming a better man.”
HNM “What types of films do you want to make going forward?”
RYAN “I have a few projects in development. I have a comedy series and I have the sci-fi series I’m developing for HENRI. I’m also working with a 19 yr. old that’s written a feature film and we’ve submitted it to Telefilm for the racialized development fund. Everyone with an application that meets all the criteria will be given funding. I’ve got a few projects at play right now but they’re all about social justice, human rights issues that are embedded in race but it’s not a topic about race. As a person of racialized background, I want to tell stories that reflect my perspective but with a global appeal. As a storyteller – having a blank canvas, sitting down and painting is quite an appealing thing for me. I can tell whatever story I want and it’s still relevant.”
HENRI is a great little film with scary implications if our future allows our technology to dictate social connection. Watch this film and decide for yourself if it doesn’t cause you pause for a moment and consider where we are headed.