By Kim Hughes
Darlene Naponse checks a lot of very significant boxes with her new feature, the drama/thriller Falls Around Her, which had its world premiere at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival and opens in limited release this week in Toronto. (Details below).
Falls Around Her — written, directed and produced by Naponse — is the first-ever starring role for Tantoo Cardinal, an actress with decades of acclaimed and award-winning work behind her. Cardinal plays Mary Birchbark, an Indigenous woman of a certain age who decides, after years on the road as a successful touring musician, to “return to the vast wilderness of her reserve to reconnect with the land and her community.”
Easier said than done, of course. The film also explores Mary’s relationship with her protective and outspoken sister Betty (Tina Keeper) as well as powerful themes of agency: agency over land and agency over self.
Perhaps most notably, Mary is also portrayed as both sexually active and as genuinely desirable by multiple men. Wait a sec…. Indigenous, older and foxy? That’s some radical stuff in the cinema-sphere, but Naponse is happy to own it.
The filmmaker — who was selected by Cardinal last January as the recipient of the $50,000 Technicolor Clyde Gilmour Award from the Toronto Film Critics Association — is determined to tell her story, and those of people like Mary, in her own words. (Naponse has earmarked that cash for a short film currently being written; Cardinal will serve as an advisor).
Original-Cin spoke with Naponse from her offices in the richly forested Atikameksheng Anishnawbek First Nation, about 20 kilometers southwest of Sudbury where Falls Around Her is set and was filmed, notwithstanding three April snowstorms during the 17-day shoot (plus one day in Sudbury). Mother Nature, Naponse laughs, always has her own agenda.
Original-Cin: Where did this story come from?
Darlene Naponse: Lots of places, including the media and what we see of the lives of women and girls every day around ownership, people taking power and suppressing other people. Those ideas were rolling around in my head about seven, eight year ago. I wanted to create something where we talked about people taking ownership, which paralleled with the story of taking ownership of the land.
OC: What was the hardest thing to get right in the movie?
DN: Definitely authenticity. Even though it’s a fictitious story, I wanted to show and respect the ways of our people and the community and the land. We also wanted to be sure that as we were creating, we were working with the community and in the community and giving opportunities to other voices. For many people working on the film, this was their first time being in key positions. Just being able to shoot in the north and to empower each other that way.
OC: What were some of the biggest logistical hurdles to shooting in northern Ontario?
DN: Weather was a huge issue (laughs) and of course, a lot of things had to be shipped up. Also, we had to put up a lot of people which was super-expensive and daunting. We went far into the bush to shoot and so we were getting to work every day by four-by-four trucks and ARGO ATVs and then three snowstorms and an ice storm and then the melt and then a lot of mud. But the crew was very caring for each other — and there are always issues on set, as in life. Everyone wanted to tell this story. Tantoo was such a warrior: long days, cold days, wet days. She just kept going, so we just kept going.
Filmmaking isn’t just about what you put on screen; it’s also about that process of collaborating. So being out there shooting on the land means you understand it a lot more. The struggles and the beauty but also the loneliness and isolation. And how difficult it can be just to go and get [something as simple as] lunch. People are used to concrete under their feet and things moving forward easily. When you take that away it becomes more difficult but you also get to experience different things. One day our carpenters were out working and a moose just walked in the yard. And then he walked away. Being there meant that we could all be part of this experience.
OC: It’s pretty amazing that this is Tantoo Cardinal’s first-ever leading role. Was part of your hope to right that wrong, if we can call it that, or was it a happy accident?
DN: I have always admired her work. In my film Every Emotion Costs (from 2010) I brought her on as the auntie. On the first day on set, she came and said, ‘OK!’ And I was like ‘Oh my god, what am I doing?’ She’s just so amazing and so good at her craft and I knew I wanted to work with her again. But I also wondered why we weren’t seeing her in a leading role. I never wanted anyone else to be Mary Birchbark.
OC: Mary is also portrayed as sexually robust: rare in films about women over age 40 much less 50 or 60 or 70…
DN: That was an important thing to push forward on. I had a bit of pushback but I think it’s important to share the confidence, beauty, sensuality and sexuality. I mean, what should an Indigenous woman be? And what should any woman in life be like? People have sexual lives and are sensual beings but that’s also that issue of power and control, where [in the film] Mary’s manager wants to take that away from her.
OC: What will success look like for you with this movie… or maybe it already feels successful now that it’s finished and receiving theatrical release?
DN: I do feel successful that it’s been made and I’m very happy with our distributor. I’m happy that we’re getting theatrical release and that people are talking about Tantoo. There’s an amazing respect for the work she has done and she is wonderful in this film. Also, on a larger level, when we talk about Indigenous perspectives, being able to tell this story the way we told it without compromise is great. It was shot in the community with the community with Tantoo Cardinal who is portrayed as a sexual being… you see this community in a different way. We wanted to push that Indigenous perspective and that our story is being told by us. This is the first of many.
Falls Around Her. Written and directed by Darlene Naponse. Starring Tantoo Cardinal, Tina Keeper, Johnny Issaluk and Gail Maurice. Plays one night, March 27, at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox (and featuring a post-screening Q+A with Cardinal and Naponse); opens March 29 at Toronto’s Imagine Carlton Cinema.