Professor Lilia Topouzova of the Professional Writing and Communications program at UTM specializes in history and documentary filmmaking. As a University of Toronto alumna herself, Professor Topouzova teaches a variety of courses that focus on the importance of storytelling and how we can learn from one another. Particularly, she explores how we should listen to the experiences of members of marginalized communities who are rarely afforded the chance to share their stories.
Originally from Bulgaria, Professor Topouzova had a rich and transformative upbringing. “I have vivid memories of watching the fall of the Berlin Wall on television,” she said. Professor Topouzova also recalls her fourth-grade teacher removing the portrait of a dictator from the classroom wall, telling her students, “I have nothing more to teach you. History is being made.” After immigrating to Canada, she attended U of T’s St. George campus, where she had the chance to work with professors and other interdisciplinary scholars to formulate methods to put words and images together through storytelling. Professor Topouzova highlights, however, the lack of gender integration on the campus at the time, stating that there was a lot of emphasis on male-centered learning.
After a long break between her masters and Ph.D., Professor Topouzova realized that she was not only interested in storytelling but also in the underlying ideas and theories that influence our perception of these stories. “I wanted to be able to frame the stories from a theoretical standpoint as well as giving them the representation they deserve,” said Professor Topouzova. She didn’t always know she wanted to be a documentary filmmaker. However, her background heavily influenced her interest in historical studies, and her natural inclination for telling stories drove her to pursue documentary filmmaking.
One of her projects, The Mosquito Problem and Other Stories (2007), is an expository documentary on the Bulgarian town of Belene and the sentiments of the citizens living there after the closure of the forced labour camps that once dominated the city. When asked how the sentiments of the individuals featured in the documentary differ from the sentiments expressed by others from similar historical backgrounds, she replied that one major difference is whether the states responsible take any onus in addressing the past. “It shouldn’t be the responsibility of citizens to educate their leaders and others. That’s on the institutional leadership,” Professor Topouzova explained. She added that this motivated her in producing films and historical work to create documentation and acknowledgment so that the stories of survivors do not become lost.
Professor Topouzova has consistently aimed to redefine the word ‘history’ in her work. “I think it’s important to use the word ‘near-past,’ as opposed to using the word ‘history,’” she said. Professor Topouzova explained that the use of the word ‘history’ presents a sense of distance, when in reality, we must be aware of the recency of a lot of these major historical events.
When asked if she wishes she had done anything differently in the filming of The Mosquito Problem and Other Stories, she replied, “Of course—I wish I had made it shorter, I wish I had focused on more subjects. But at the end of the day, I realize that there will never be a perfect body of work—I just have to let my work go out into the world and improve on the next project.”
Professor Topouzova teaches a variety of courses at UTM, including Narrative Inquiry (WRI292), Journalistic Investigation (WRI430), and Documentary Experience (CCT454), the latter of which she designed to explore what makes up a documentary and the different methods in which we capture digital stories. When asked if she had a favourite course to teach, Professor Topouzova laughed and said, “While I love teaching all of these courses, I believe the intrinsic value of the learning is heavily influenced by my students in each of these courses.”
Professor Topouzova tries not to make a distinction between the way she approaches teaching and filmmaking. She often carries lessons from her historian and documentary filmmaker perspective into the classroom. Professor Topouzova emphasizes the importance of learning from her students and making discussions and takeaways from classes a mutual process. She also stresses the importance of always seeking answers within ourselves. “Before encouraging my students to engage in outside material, I always think they should find the story within themselves,” she added.
Outside of teaching and researching, Professor Topouzova enjoys yoga, reading with her son, and going for long walks. She believes in the importance of taking care of herself to effectively carry out the work she does—especially in a profession that requires her to work inside her head most of the time. Like many others, she has had to spend a lot of time at home during the pandemic and together with her son, they read and explore the natural world around them. “It’s important to focus on the small things in life,” she said. “I love that I’ve had a chance to be more organized than before, as well as having a chance to spend more time with my son.”
When asked what she envisions for her future as a filmmaker, historian, and person, she mentioned a film with a friend of hers that she plans to release in the near future. She additionally hopes to continue to make films and write books. One of the books she’s currently working on is about the practice of oral history in different migration groups and throughout Indigenous culture. Professor Topouzova emphasizes the importance of sharing stories that would otherwise not be told—stories in which characters are silenced. “Oral history ruptures the stories we tend to see on paper,” she added.
To those interested in becoming journalists, and to all university students in general, Professor Topouzova stressed the importance of engaging with media that transforms you into the writer you want to be. “You need to read, and you need to write. Everyday. Make it a goal to spend 20 minutes with your ideas and 20 minutes with someone else’s.”
She also recommended the book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments by Saidiya Hartman, which explores the experiences of Black women in the early 20th century. After realizing there was no objective archival information about the experiences of young Black women, Hartman wrote this book to fill the archival gaps. Professor Topouzova also recommended The Wire, a crime TV show, for anyone looking to broaden the way in which they view race. Professor Topouzova’s approach to addressing history is paramount to understanding race and the experiences of marginalized communities today. Through her teaching and documentary work, she explores journalistic and oral traditions and alternative ways to think about our past.