In Adam Garnet Jones's feature debut Fire Song, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this week, Jennifer Podemski plays a shattered Anishinaabe woman whose son is secretly gay and whose daughter commits suicide. Podemski, of Saulteaux and Polish descent, is an actor as well as an advocate for indigenous filmmaking. The Globe spoke with Podemski about her 15-year struggle to try to change the way Canadians view native people on screen.
It must have been something of a risk to get involved in a movie in which you were just about the only professional performer on screen.
In any sort of indigenous filmmaking you have to enter uncharted territory. In this case, the director and producer really wanted to work with unfamiliar talent, and in order to do so they had to train and bring in young non-union actors. That was presented to me as a mentoring experience, and I'm always interested in strengthening visibility from the indigenous-storytelling perspective. It was a leap of faith in many ways, but that's always exciting in film because anything's possible.
Tell us about the story.
It's a lovely, two-spirited love story about this young man with some sexual-identity issues in a very northern community against the backdrop of some other pretty traumatic social issues happening at the same time. It's definitely a story we haven't seen in this way. I was really taken by that and I think it's cool for me to sort of be in the position where it's like, "Will you come out and play the mom?"
Was there a turning point where you decided acting in movies wasn't enough?
My turning point, where I absolutely made the decision where I had to make movies instead of be in movies, was when I lived in New York City and I was sort of going the American route in terms of getting my name out there and doing auditions. I knew the way I looked was not what people were ready for. So after constantly hearing things like "Can you play Asian?" or "You don't look native enough" or "Your look is just too unusual" or "You're too pretty to be the ugly best friend but not pretty enough to be the ingenue sort of starlet." I thought, "I can't do this. I need to make meaningful work." That's pretty much what I started doing.
How would you describe the progress you've made?
It's moved a lot slower than I had dreamt. But when that happens you have to look at baby steps as really significant moves forward. So the fact that this film is at TIFF this year is a remarkable milestone. Hopefully this will lead to something else. Not just for Adam Jones but maybe other people involved. But I am a little bit disappointed over all that there's not been giant leaps forward.
What's held things back?
We're not at a place yet where people believe they can relate to our stories as much as their own. There's still a very tangible belief that an indigenous story can only penetrate a certain part of the audience. I've heard people refer to native filmmakers as fulfilling a niche. Unfortunately, that also holds us back from being able to penetrate a larger audience and prove that we, too, have stories that can access a global market. It's frustrating.
So what's got to happen?
Everything has to work hand in hand. As storytellers we need to collectively focus on staying true to the stories we want to tell and not be deterred by the fact that there may not be an audience for it. Political movements like Idle No More and the people fighting for recognition about missing and murdered women, these things filter down into our stories in a very natural way. But until Canadians can stop being separate from the indigenous experience, our storytelling will not be able to penetrate on a deeper level.
Will developments such as Truth and Reconciliation influence this process?
Truth and Reconciliation is about so much more than residential schools. It's a climate. It's created a conversation that has to do with everything: the education system, entertainment, conversations around the dinner table, everything. It's working toward all of us as Canadians understanding we have a shared collective experience. The other day I heard there was a teacher near where I live teaching that Indians came here after so-called "Contact." After Columbus. They crossed over a bridge, a landmass, well after the white man was here. This was being taught today. When we hear these kinds of stories of misinterpretation or misrepresentation or just outright racism, it's so difficult to focus on people paying to watch your story in a movie. That's so big compared to the fact that we need to change the curriculum or we need to figure out what's happening to treaty rights and land titles. There's so much happening simultaneously. But we also need to really nurture our storytellers because that's how you change history.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Fire Song plays at TIFF on Sept. 20, 10:15 a.m., Scotiabank 10.