Luisa Alvarez Restrepo ’15
By Jennifer Matthews
Just five short years after graduating from Trinity, Luisa Alvarez Restrepo (LinkedIn: luisa-alvarez-restrepo) has already made a name for herself in the film industry. She co-wrote and co-produced Forbidden Tikka Masala, a 2018 short film that won seven awards at film festivals around the world and has been viewed more than 160,000 times on Omeleto, an online free streaming site for award-winning shorts. The film was co-written and co-produced by her fiancé, Rahul Chaturvedi, of Raincatcher Media.
And that’s in her after-work hours. By day, Alvarez Restrepo is Senior Coordinator of Festival Programming at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), a role she landed after volunteering with TIFF post-graduation and completing an internship with the internationally renowned film festival. In October, she was awarded the 2020 Meridian Artists Agency Mentorship from Women in Television and Film Toronto (WIFT), which has helped her further deepen her understanding of the industry.
Driven by a passion to share stories of marginalized people, Alvarez Restrepo reflects on her days at the College as a time of self-discovery, personal challenges and growth. “I had a great time at Trinity,” she says. “I went to school with extremely talented people who pushed and inspired me.”
Finding her path
After applying to U of T’s Aerospace Engineering program, Alvarez Restrepo found herself having second thoughts. Also drawn to the International Relations (IR) program at Trinity, she ultimately enrolled there. While she found her courses in the Margaret MacMillan Trinity One Program interesting, she quickly realized that IR wasn’t for her. It was instead her first-year electives that captured her attention: “I loved my history classes,” she remembers. At the end of her first year she changed her program, later completing a double major in Fine Art History and Renaissance Studies.
Living in residence was “one of the best parts” of Alvarez Restrepo’s Trinity experience, and enabled her to participate in a range of extra-curricular activities. Although she had no prior exposure to the theatre, she decided to join the Trinity College Dramatic Society (TCDS) in first year, where she says “a whole new world” opened up for her.
“One of my favourite memories was sitting through a rehearsal of Rent,” she recalls. “I cried my eyes out. I was so moved by the actors’ performances and the scope of the production. It was unlike anything I’d been a part of before and that’s when I knew I wanted to be a part of the TCDS and wanted to eventually lead it, to share that feeling with as many people as possible.”
Describing herself as “not at all musical,” Alvarez Restrepo was assistant stage manager for that production, and went on to lead the TCDS. She also co-wrote and produced a musical with her roommate, Marina Moreira, which played at the Toronto Fringe festival in 2014.
Feeling like an outsider
While she enjoyed her time in TCDS, Alvarez Restrepo was also keenly aware that she was one of only three racialized students in the club. It wasn’t a new experience for her: After emigrating from Colombia to a small town in the U.S. with her mother, father and grandmother at age 11, she was enrolled in a mostly white school, where she went from speaking only Spanish to being fluently bilingual in five months. “In the U.S., kids thought I was ‘weird’ for speaking Spanish,” she says. Canada, where she and her family arrived as refugees when she was 16, was more diverse, and at Trinity she saw opportunities to get involved.
As co-president of TCDS, she spearheaded a campaign to attract students from a wider variety of backgrounds, promoting “hands-on” learning sessions for those without theatre backgrounds. Over time, TCDS’ membership, leadership and audiences became more diverse.
Alvarez Restrepo also stepped up to lead the WUSC (World University Service of Canada) chapter at Trinity College. The chapter’s main function is running Trinity’s Student Refugee Program, which is sponsored by WUSC. When she moved off-campus for fourth year, she became non-resident head for her year.
Highlighting BIPOC stories
In her post-Trinity career, Alvarez Restrepo is committed to sharing BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) experiences. “I want to tell the stories of marginalized people,” she says. “Representation is so important.”
Forbidden Tikka Masala, her award-winning short, is a “coming-of-old-age” story that follows a devoutly religious vegetarian who finds a new lease on life after mistakenly eating chicken at her retirement party. It is alternately funny and touching, and has been an audience favourite worldwide.
“In writing and producing the film, Rahul and I were thinking about our immigrant mothers,” says Restrepo. “They arrive in Canada, the husband and the kids integrate through their jobs and through school, and the mothers can get left behind. The film shines a light on the loneliness that many older immigrant women experience. Audiences want to see these stories, but there’s a resistance among the gatekeepers—who are mostly white—to put them on the screen.”
Encouraged by the overwhelmingly positive response to Forbidden Tikka Masala, Alvarez Restrepo and Chaturvedi have written Namaste, Santa!, a diverse Christmas film that won the Toronto Reel Asian pitch competition in 2018 and received Ontario Arts Council funding. TheCOVID-19 pandemic put production on hold, but the partners hope to resume sometime in 2021.
In addition to her lived experience, Alvarez Restrepo gained valuable perspective from her Meridian Artists Agency Mentorship, a three-week immersive placement, this fall. “My main takeaway is that we need to expand our definition of experience and diversity,” she says. “Many BIPOC creators pursue other careers before getting into the arts, either for financial or cultural reasons. A lot of the programs for emerging artists are aimed at a much younger demographic, so we’re missing some fantastic points of view in our content. There’s a willingness to hire more diversely, but it’s still within the same framework that has marginalized creatives. At the end of the day it’s not only diverse creatives that we need, but also diverse gatekeepers and decision-makers.”
“Let’s get started”
Through her role at TIFF, her Meridian mentorship, and her writing and producing work, Alvarez Restrepo is gaining a broad understanding of the film industry. “My ultimate goal is to do what feels right, and to understand where I can have the most impact,” she says. With that in mind, she proposed a new TIFF award to recognize BIPOC creators, which was launched at this year’s virtual film festival.
Inspired by her Trinity experience and empowered by the TIFF leadership team, Restrepo is excited about what the future holds. “My approach has always been ‘let’s get started.’ It doesn’t have to be perfect. Just give people a seat at the table and things will keep changing for the better.”