Andrew Martin and Harley Legarde-Beacham star as Shane and David in Fire Song | Image Source: GAT Productions Media
Fire Song is the first film exploring two-spirited themes written and directed by a two-spirited Indigenous director that is premiering at TIFF this year and has been selected to screen at ImagineNATIVE. Writer and director, Adam Garnet Jones has created a raw narrative with intricate story lines that unpack and unearth the journey of a young Anishnaabe man living in a remote reserve community in Northern Ontario who comes to a tumultuous crossroad.
We’re first introduced to Shane (Andrew Martin), and his mother Jackie (Jennifer Podemski), as they grieve for his sister, Destiny (Morteesha Chickekoo Bannon), who recently committed suicide. Fire Song explores the complex impacts that suicide can have on a remote reserve community without relying on negative stereotypes for dramatic effect. Shane is living in the closet and teetering upon a complex web of painful relationships. While the family is grieving, Shane must make the difficult decision whether to move to Toronto for school and also decide between his secret lover, David (Harley Legarde-Beacham) or his girlfriend, Tara (Mary Galloway). Director and writer, Adam Garnet Jones fluidly intertwines the many challenges Shane faces that will not only affect his life, but those he loves.
Podemski gives an honest portrayal of a lost and grief stricken mother, conveying anger, sadness and confusion about the suicide of her daughter. Her friend and community Elder, Evie tries to support her with traditional ways, but Jackie chooses to find her own way to deal with her grief. At the beginning of the film, the scenes between Martin and Beacham seem forced- but the pair’s chemistry grows strong towards the end. Galloway nearly steals the show with her sincere performance as the naive and lovestruck Tara.
Erica Commanda from MUSKRAT Magazine caught up with Adam Garnet Jones to talk with him about his first feature film and what’s next for the up and coming director.
MM: As the writer and director of the Fire Song: why did you want to tell this story now?
AGJ: It’s so funny because this is such an immediate question because it takes so long to get films made. I’ve been trying to get it made for 5 or 6 years and it’s only happening now. I started writing it with a tone in mind from a memory I had when I was a kid and overhearing a phone call with my dad and one of his close friends. They called to say that her son had just committed suicide. I remember the incredible grief and weight around all of that. Knowing people who committed suicide, that moment was repeated through my life in all kinds of situations.
I wanted to write a film with this kind of atmosphere of grief and fear in the community worried about who was going to be next. There is always this worry that these things aren’t isolated and if there’s going to be a cycle or a group of suicides.
That’s where I started writing from. I was thinking about and remembering feeling that weight and that fear, and so from that feeling I really started asking a series of questions: Where is that coming from? Who are these people that are going through this? What are their lives like? Who’s in the story? And started the story out from there. A lot of the characters and people are composites of people that I’ve known. I used to do a lot of work with youth, so it’s my life and stories of other youth that all come together in this film.
MM: Are there any similarities between your own story and that of the main character, Shane?
AGJ: The facts of Shane’s life don’t really look like mine, but he’s a lot like me when I was a kid. I was a good kid in high school. I tried really hard, did well in school and was always trying to live my life by doing the right thing and not hurt anyone.
As the film progresses it becomes more impossible for Shane to really pursue what he wants and who he needs to be without causing pain in his life. So that struggle feels really close to who I was.
MM: Are there any tensions in an urban based storyteller telling a northern story?
AGJ: I grew up, for a short period of time in a small town in British Columbia, but other than that I’ve been pretty urban. So yeah I was really worried that I was going to do it wrong.
Early on in the writing and throughout the process of making the film I was sending drafts of the scripts to people who grew up in the north and just asking: Is this ok? How do you feel about this? Am I getting it right? Does it feel right? I was really lucky that I always had positive feedback. I hope that people feel like it’s fair when they are watching it.
MM: In Native culture two spirited people were often honored and revered because they were said be gifted with the spirits and insights of both genders. Are there any Indigenous teachings regarding two-spirited people that you explored in Fire Song? And do you touch on any other Aboriginal traditional teachings in the film?
AGJ: I would love to, but the film doesn’t. It’s part of who the boys are. The film doesn’t really talk about teachings. There’s a couple of little references to the fact that there are teachings. Some people think they are valid and some people don’t, but we really don’t get into what the teachings are and what really what that means.
In the film I wanted to ask a lot of questions and not necessarily give a lot of answers. I feel like there is a lot of pressure, like there’s a trend towards really saying that when there are problems, traditional teachings are the answer. Having worked with youth and different people who have been through things like suicide, substance abuse and all kinds of things, a lot of times it is the answer. But some people don’t respond in that way at all. So I didn’t want to give the example of traditional knowledge being the easy answer.
Evie, who is the Elder in the film is also a little bit homophobic, so there’s this clash between what she sees as traditional knowledge and the way that christian morality has kinda eroded some of that knowledge.
The mother in the film, Jennifer Podemski, lost her faith in the teachings after the suicide of her daughter. Evie tries to get her to smudge and do a giveaway a year after her daughter’s suicide, but she just refuses all of that stuff. The mother finds her own way, which does look and feel like ceremony, but she’s not doing it based on any teachings.
MM: After completing 20 short films, what lessons have you learned from your first feature film?
AGJ: There’s nothing like making a feature, it feels completely different than a short film. There’s something that’s really private about a short. You can explore something that you’ve been thinking about and feeling and it has smaller audience.
I’m learning more and more now that the film is about to be released, with a feature, you need to get it funded. Now that’s it getting released it feels like it needs to be so much bigger, have so much more to say and be able to reach out and interact with people in the world in a way that I don’t think I’ve been able to with short films.
MM: When and how did you know you wanted to be a film director?
AGJ: I actually wanted to be an actor, but I was kind of an abused and neglected kid, so I was just scared all of the time. I was so scared to be in front of people. I’m still scared to be in front of people. When I tried be an actor I just couldn’t get over that fear, I was bad. I didn’t know what else I could do.
I guess the other things that’s closest to my story with Fire Song is my experience with suicide. I’ve had periods where I was deeply suicidal starting from when I was 7 years old and going through my teenage years. And so when I was a teenager I really needed some kind of an outlet. I really tried acting and it wasn’t working. I knew I wasn’t going to be good and didn’t know where else to put that energy.
One day, I saw an advertisement for the Gulf Islands Film and Television School. It was this neat place started by a bunch of queers, hippies and anarchists on the Gulf Islands where they decided that they wanted to open a school just for youth to tell their stories on screen. That’s something that nobody was doing because it was the mid-nineties and equipment wasn’t really available. When I saw an ad for this, I thought ‘that’s it, that’s what I’m going to do’. So I did all kinds of odd jobs and saved up all the money that I could. I even did a work exchange at that school in order to pay tuition to make my first short film.
When I got there the experience was so incredibly welcoming and so rewarding. I felt like that finally I had a way to speak and share my voice without having to stand in front of people and speak. It was a great to find that outlet, but it also gave me a little bit of protection.
MM: What was the first short film that you made there?
AGJ: It was called Past Tense and it was very angsty. My first short film was a drama about suicide. It’s interesting for me because the topic is something that I haven’t really touched on, except for my first short film and my first feature.
MM: Have you discovered an Indigenous approach to directing? How would you describe your approach?
AGJ: It’s all about telling the story the way it needs to be told. When I first started to write Fire Song, it was really important to me that I get some really strong Aboriginal producers on board. I felt like even though there might be non-Aboriginal producers who were more experienced that might be able to help me in different ways, I just knew I couldn’t bring non-Aboriginal producers into an Aboriginal community. I felt like it was gonna just be wrong and that they weren’t going to get it.
I was looking for a director of photography and James Kinistino from Big Soul Productions was interested in shooting. I thought about how I couldn’t imagine anyone who would be more committed to the ideas behind the project.
When we knew where we wanted to shoot, we went to all those different communities and did casting sessions. We tried to bring in as many people from those communities to be involved in different aspects of the film shoot as possible.
So I think that was more of an Indigenous approach and more of a community based approach than what a lot of production companies would do. They would just go into a community, bring all their own people, get in there, do it fast and get back out.
MM: Besides directing movies, what do you hope to accomplish with your film career?
AGJ: I’m interested in a longer form of storytelling, so I would like to get into television or a miniseries. People are going to theatres less and less, they’re watching content on things like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and all of those different platforms more and more. I find a lot of those stories that I’m working on and developing feel like they could spread into a world that world that’s deep, and more something like a mini-series.
MM: Do you have any projects lined up after working on your first feature film? If so how do you decide what you’re going to work on?
AGJ: There’s another project that I’ve been developing for a really long time called The Walking Wounded. It’s about this very chubby, fun, kinda unstoppable, young Native woman who wants to get into fashion design and styling, but she’s also deeply insecure. At the beginning of the film she catches her boyfriend cheating on her and takes off….. It’s almost like an Alice in Wonderland story where she falls into this rabbit hole into a completely different life. Through that she discovers who she is and learns to really stand up on her own two feet. It’s cool to tell a story that original and very urban, very sexy and very queer.
For tickets and showtimes go to: http://tiff.net/festivals/festival15/discovery/fire-song