The problem is the “problem,” says actress Cara Gee. “Being First Nations, you’re generally presented as a problem … not a person.”
Whether it’s the legacy of residential schools, urban assimilation, substance abuse, homelessness or teen pregnancy, the whole industry of aboriginal representation is in this country is built around the earnest notion of social improvement.
The intentions are good, but the bottom line is a somewhat drab, uniform image of troubled native souls.
That’s why actor and producer Jennifer Podemski made Empire of Dirt from a Shannon Masters script about three generations of aboriginal women struggling to find peace and pride.
With Gee starring in the central role of Lena, this movie directed by Peter Stebbings (Defendor) starts off in the city as Lena and her teenage daughter Peeka (Shay Eyre) hit the wall. They are short of cash and Lena is contemplating a return to the streets but heads back home to live with her mother (Podemski) instead.
In the space of 90 minutes, the three women come face to face with crippling fears of inadequacy.
Gee says she wanted to make Empire of Dirt because it dissected the problem through the eyes of individuals.
“I think that for me, being First Nations, I find that we’re all just people. And like all people, we actually don’t share that much in common. But there’s this idea that we do, which is strange in a way, because we’re all individuals.”
“I think this movie shows three people dealing with real issues. And I like the fact it brought a human face to the ‘problem,’ but I think as a First Nations person, you are always aware that the version of history you are learning in school is not complete,” she says.
Podemski is fuelled by the idea of shifting the image of First Nations people in Canadian culture.
“I have been driven my whole life. I am the oldest of three children and I come from a mixed family,” says the daughter of a First Nations mom and a Polish dad.
“We had hard times because of alcoholism and my mom having to deal with her own legacy of abuse and leaving our family. I had to step into a leadership role, and I guess I found that experience stuck with me. I don’t like sitting around waiting for stuff to happen,” she says.
When Podemski read Masters’ script, she knew it was a project she wanted to make happen, and in the same breath that Peter Stebbings released Defendor she pulled the young director aboard, even if his personal connection to the material was rather abstract since he is neither female nor aboriginal.
Podemski says it’s about the story and making sure it was cinematic, as well as universal, because so much of what we see could have been treated as stereotype.
“My mom had me just as she turned 17,” says Podemski. “She lived with that legacy of cultural shame that gets passed down generation to generation. And my grandfather was a Holocaust survivor, so all that trickles down through the years and affects each generation.”
The only way to turn it all around is through action and self-possession, says Podemski. “My work as a storyteller has helped me push through obstacles, and telling the story of these three women is important to me because I never saw images of myself reflected back to me when I was younger,” she says.
“I wanted to show them dealing with what’s been handed to them. And I’m happy that the biggest triumphs aren’t all that big at all — but small family stuff. A hug or a smile that some people take for granted, that’s what makes the change.”