‘Seek out the unfamiliar’ honorary degree recipient Deepa Mehta tells graduands

Chancellor Greg Sorbara, Deepa Mehta and President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda Lenton
Chancellor Greg Sorbara, Deepa Mehta and President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda Lenton

“Seek out experiences which are unfamiliar and seemingly disquieting.”

This was the powerful message that honorary degree recipient Deepa Mehta delivered to graduands at the afternoon Spring Convocation ceremony held at York University on June 18.

Deepa Mehta
Deepa Mehta

Mehta, a filmmaker whose work is described as courageous and inspiring, received an honorary doctor of letters degree and delivered an address to those graduating from the School of Arts, Media, Performance and Design, as well as a cohort of graduands from the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies.

Introduced by Chancellor Greg Sorbara as “one of the great storytellers in Canada, and in North America, and indeed around the world,” Mehta is an artistic leader whose accomplishments in the film industry push boundaries, address controversy and strive to battle cultural intolerance.

Mehta was born in India and studied philosophy at the University of Delhi before starting a career as a filmmaker, and began producing her own documentaries before moving to Canada. Since then, she has created numerous television series, and directed and produced many critically acclaimed documentaries and feature films.

Much of her career has reflected the duality of her cultural identity, as well as her tendency to cast light on more proscribed or taboo topics. This is noted in her celebrated Elements Trilogy: Fire (1996); Earth (1998); and Water (2005).

She has received both a Genie Award and an Oscar nomination, and in 2012, she received Canada’s highest honour in the performing arts, the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards for Lifetime Artistic Achievement, and was made a Member of the Order of Ontario in 2013. She has received 16 honorary degrees and in 2013 was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada.

Mehta opened her remarks by reminding graduating students of the dedication, sacrifices and efforts it took to reach this day, and offering a congratulations on their achievements. She remarked that education prepares one for critical thought, rational analysis and considered debate – and that accepting differing opinions may be uncomfortable, but is necessary to succeed in life.

This requires accepting and even embracing the notion that there will be opinions which differ from one’s own, she said.

Chancellor Greg Sorbara, Deepa Mehta and President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda Lenton
From left: Chancellor Greg Sorbara, honorary degree recipient Deepa Mehta and President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda L. Lenton

In contemplation of the possibility of another opinion perhaps being correct, she advised to “observe your own discomfort and use your conclusions to gain greater self-knowledge, great self-control and a greater ability to discern the truth.”

Divergent opinions will happen, she said, and will be uncomfortable at times, but those opinions should be heard.

“The idea of creating comfortable spaces and comfortable contexts is a noble and indeed a necessary one, but if it ends up being used as a tool to divide us into isolated communities whose views become hardened and uncompromising then ultimately we will become a culture of warring factions,” Mehta said.

A comfortable space, she suggested, is one where everyone is listening with openness and without personal bias.

As a film director, Mehta said she has come across varying creative views that have challenged her direction. She admits to feeling uncomfortable and even insecure in those instances, but learned through those experiences to listen to, and respect, opposing views.

She urged graduands to embrace potential valuable experiences by engaging with others of difference.

“Be open to opposing viewpoints,” she said. “Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate. You will build richer life experiences and a richer and more healthy society.”