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Sandra Oh on boosting diversity in animation with 'Window Horses'

Last Updated Mar 9, 2017 at 6:00 pm EST

Sandra Oh is pictured in a Toronto hotel as she promotes her film "Window Horses" during the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016. Oh remembers growing up without seeing people like herself reflected in popular culture and wants to ensure her two mixed-race nieces don't have the same experience. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO – Sandra Oh remembers growing up without seeing people like herself reflected in popular culture and wants to ensure her two mixed-race nieces don’t have the same experience.

That’s one of the reasons Oh decided to make “Window Horses,” an animated feature in which she voices the character of Rosie Ming, a 20-year-old Vancouver poet of Chinese and Persian descent whose life changes when she’s invited to a literary festival in Iran.

“In animation and animated films, there still is not enough representation at all. So from a personal point of view, I wanted to tell this story and get this character on screen,” Oh said in an interview when the film screened during September’s Toronto International Film Festival.

“My nieces are mixies, two great girls growing up in North Vancouver, and I want to tell stories for them, to see themselves reflected even in an animated character.”

Oh, best known for her role on the hit TV medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy,” is also an executive producer for the film, which blends multiple animation styles.

At the heart of the film is Rosie, who lives with her over-protective Chinese grandparents until she travels to Iran to perform at a poetry festival. There she begins to learn more about the father she believes abandoned her.

The film subtly deals with cultural sensitivities, generational divides and elements of feminism at a time when the discussion of Islamophobia and national identity often dominate discussion.

Written and directed by Japanese-Canadian filmmaker Ann Marie Fleming, “Window Horses” weaves poetry as a common thread through the story and features works from lauded Persian poets as well as Rosie’s own creations.

For Fleming, poetry is a powerful, unifying force.

“Poetry is not something that’s created in another time by another people,” she said. “Poetry is the way we live our lives and poetry shows us how we’ve had this continuum through time.”

The story was years in the making, Fleming said, and ended up including a number of autobiographical elements.

“Things that have happened to me, my life, people I know, stories I’ve collected, everything in the film is true,” she said. “It’s almost a love story to all of the people that I’ve met.”

The character of Rosie actually started off as a boy, Fleming noted, before becoming a female figure based a little on herself.

“I wanted to explore it as a woman because I am a woman,” she said of the main character. “She’s an interesting character, and yes she’s a woman and yes she’s mixed race and yes she’s complicated, she has a complicated history, but we want to know about her because she’s real.”

“Window Horses” opens in Toronto and Vancouver on Friday before expanding to other cities.