I have found that some of my favourite films are the ones that I wish I could have written myself. They’re the ones that make me immediately want to run to my laptop, open up a new document, and find the bravery to put my ideas out into the world. These films have inspired me along in my own journey as a writer, which can sometimes feel like a pretty impossible path to be on. That being said, as someone who has recently begun exploring my identity as a queer Indigenous woman, the films in which I can see myself and my own experiences being reflected are few and far between.
Looking back at Canada’s history of Indigenous filmmaking, I’ve noticed that a lot of it has been focused on documentaries. While these have been crucial to the ongoing work of decolonization and reconciliation, the lack of mainstream or commercially oriented projects, particularly those depicting queer stories, can feel disheartening and delegitimizing. However, there are a rising group of Indigenous filmmakers determined to change that. The aim for many of these creators is to tell stories that highlight the experiences of queer Indigenous peoples so that we may feel more connected to our identity and to one another. After all, we can see through our ancestral languages that sexual diversity has long been the norm within Indigenous communities with many groups traditionally holding their LGBTQ+ members in positions of high respect. This is where we get the term Two-Spirit, which refers to a person who identifies as having both a masculine and a feminine spirit and is used by some Indigenous people as an umbrella term to encompass same-sex attraction and a wide variety of gender variance. Despite this more fluid understanding of gender and sexuality, one which has existed before the LGBTQ+ frameworks that we are familiar with today, Indigenous experiences have been largely invisible in contemporary sexual rights debates at the mainstream level. Some believe that this is because Indigenous peoples are still seen as remnants of the past, while sexual diversity is associated with modernity. This makes the telling of our queer Indigenous stories all the more important.
The thing about watching queer cinema, when it does exist, is you run the risk of seeing a very depressing or just downright tragic depiction of what queer love can look like. And while there is definitely a place for stories like these to be told, it also makes these stories difficult to relate to or feel encouraged by in any way. Straight people have a plethora of options, from tragic unrequited love to sappy romcoms and I think queer people deserve the same options. One film that holds a complicated place in my heart, as it is the first feature film of its kind to focus on an Indigenous lesbian couple, is Johnny Greyeyes. Up until this year, in fact, this was the only mainstream narrative film about an Indigenous lesbian couple ever created, and it was made was over 20 years ago. While Johnny Greyeyes, is a powerful lesbian drama depicting a gritty and honest account of what life behind bars can be like for Indigenous women, this story, major spoiler alert, does not have a happy ending. Good intentions aside, there is a fine line between making art that brings attention to important issues and profiting off of the pain of marginalized people. And while I am in no way criticizing those who loved or related to this film, I think it is worth mentioning that the writer/director, Jorge Manzano, is neither Indigenous to North America, female, or obviously a lesbian.
This finally brings me to the film that I really wanted to talk about in this piece. In fact, it is one of my favourite Indigenous films of all time. Fire Song debuted at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival and is both written and directed by Adam Garnet Jones, who identifies via his website as a Cree/Metis Indigiqueer screenwriter, director, bead-worker and novelist from Edmonton Alberta. Fire Song gives audiences a realistic and deeply moving story about a queer Anishnaabe teenager living in Northern Ontario. The film’s murky grey colour palette perfectly captures the character’s feelings of grief and hopelessness and juxtaposes it with beautiful landscape shots that highlight the unexpected beauty found on a remote reservation. We are first introduced to the protagonist, Shane, as he struggles to support his grieving family after his sister’s unexpected suicide. Shane wants to move to Toronto for university in the fall, but he is having trouble coming up with the tuition money. Shane’s girlfriend Tara is planning to come with him. The problem with that is Shane is gay and has actually been trying to convince his secret boyfriend David, the grandson of the community’s leader, to come with him. Shane doesn’t want to betray his family or community by leaving but feels that a future where he can be open about his sexuality must lie beyond the reservation he grew up on. Shane pushes through many barriers throughout the film, stuck between his responsibilities at home and his hopes for freedom in the city.
The cast of Fire Song is 100% Aboriginal and all of the shootings took place in First Nations communities. What really resonates with me about this film is the way Garnet Jone’s realistically portrays what it can be like growing up on the reservation. He captures the feeling of home that comes from being surrounded by your family and having close access to your cultural traditions along with the underlying currents of substance abuse, misogyny, homophobia and suicide. Nothing is sugar-coated, but it isn’t exaggerated or tokenizing either. It feels like I am seeing my own experiences reflected in front of me and this is the power that comes from authentic representation. Shane is a well-rounded queer character who doesn’t exist simply to embody gay stereotypes. His queerness is an important factor in the challenges he faces and the decisions he makes, but it is not the only factor. Shane’s goals of finding love and chasing after his dreams, while balancing a commitment to his family and culture, are experiences that many can find relatable. Fire Song is a film that gets people talking about important issues around sexuality and youth suicide on reserve. But the film also highlights the resiliency of Indigenous communities and has a realistic but hopeful ending for the main couple.
More recently an eight-episode coming-of-age web series called Querencia by writer/ director Mary Galloway debuted on APTN Lumi. This series showcases the romance between two young Indigenous women living in Vancouver as they try to achieve their dreams while navigating differences in their cultural upbringings. Seeing a show like this gives me hope that the future of queer Indigenous cinema is only moving up from here. The effects of compulsory heteronormativity perpetuated by the mainstream media can be incredibly damaging and it’s something that I continue to struggle with personally. But with the creation of shows like Fire Song and now Querencia, I hope that younger generations of queer, Two-Spirit Indigenous folk can feel that they are not alone, that their experiences are valid, and that their love stories are deserving of a happy ending.
Nikita has a major in Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Social Justice and minoring in First Nations and Indigenous Studies from UBC. Now, works in the art department on various film/television projects and as a freelance writer.
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