A groundbreaking indigenous Canadian film, Fire Song follows a closeted two-spirit teenager, Shane (Andrew Martin), who wishes to leave his Anishinaabe reserve in Northern Ontario to move to Toronto with his secret boyfriend, David (Harley Legarde). His plans are complicated by his sister’s recent suicide and his continuing struggle with obligations to his girlfriend Tara (Mary Galloway), mother Jackie (Jennifer Podemski), and larger reserve community. David and his grandmother Evie (Ma-Nee Chacaby) represent a commitment to traditional culture and spirituality while Shane and his friends are resistant, and all characters are shown to be affected by suicide, violence, homophobia and substance abuse.
During the recent 2016 Mardi Gras Film Festival in Sydney, we spoke with lead actor Andrew Martin about his experience making the film, and the effect of stories like Fire Song being seen both inside and outside indigenous Canadian communities.
In Fire Song there are a lot of First Nations stories, of various ages and genders and sexualities, many perspectives for just one film. How important was it for you to be in an entirely indigenous cast?
It was actually a very important thing to me but I think the most important thing to start off with was the script. When I first considered becoming a part of the project I read a small synopsis and I had gone through it and thought about it and in the end after I auditioned, I had read the entire script, and I felt that it delves into a lot of issues and a lot of problems in indigenous communities in North America. People see these things portrayed in the news and in the newspapers, whatever, and they don’t necessarily… you know, they just kind of turn their eyes away from it and they’re not very open to it, especially, so when this came about it became something I saw could be used as a very powerful tool to spread a message encompassing all these difficult areas of the indigenous community.
So when you say “especially”, do you mean people don’t want to know about it because it involves First Nations people?
Generally, yes. There is a bit of prejudice especially surrounding First Nations people in Canada and that does cause some friction at points, but it just became very important that this story was being told not only for the indigenous community, but for the indigenous two-spirit community as well.
The film’s themes are very confronting, and it does sound like that was a very important motivation behind your involvement. How was being on set, dealing with really heavy topics day in and day out?
There were a lot of points where it got very heavy on set, very hard. But luckily early on before the project even got in full swing, myself and all of the other cast members had undergone a week long intensive auditioning process and in doing that all of us really formed a really close-knit bond with one another, and then when it came down to the casting being made, the main three of us, Mary [Galloway] and Harley [Legarde] and myself, we had already formed this really close bond with one another and it just became one of those [things where] we’d help each other out on set, if we were having a difficult time you’d go and help them out and make sure they were alright. Not only that, but a lot of what the film does cover… it covers a lot of experiences that we as people on the reserves and as indigenous people in general have lived through, so things such as addiction and suicide, you know, all of these things each of us could relate to and possibly we’d had an experience with it in our past. So it did get very difficult at points, but at the same time we made sure we were all able to get through it together.
Did you find you looked to the director, Adam Garnet Jones, and your older co-stars as mentors in portraying and discussing these issues, or did you find yourself working more closely with your two main co-stars to get them across?
Because we had experienced a lot of these things ourselves we really didn’t need to look to other people to portray these things, all we really had to do was go into it and what happened just happened naturally in a lot of cases. So there was no real need for mentorship or anything like that, but when things did get really difficult we did look to some of the older cast members as well as some of the older crew members for a little bit of help on set. Ma-Nee Chacaby who plays Evie is an elder in the indigenous community and she helped out quite a bit, and she was there to do smudging and everything like that throughout the entire process.
The film is very beautifully shot, I noticed that there are very deliberate visuals and carefully arranged scenes. Did you do many different takes or did the director know from the beginning what he wanted?
Adam generally knew what he wanted throughout the entire process, and he knew how he wanted things to play out which was good. There were some scenes that were added in very last minute maybe because something didn’t work or because it could add to it. One scene in particular that was one of those cases was the scene between Shane and David where they’re out on the point and Shane yells at David and is basically blaming him for everything that’s happened and he just tells him to stay away from him. That was actually a scene that was not really planned at all. It wasn’t in the original script actually. He was very deliberate in everything that he did and if something needed to be there we just trusted him and just went along with it because he had his reasons for doing it and really it was just our job to make it happen.
So there wasn’t much improvisation with the dialogue either? It was very close to the original script?
It was very close to the original script. Luckily we all did a very good job of memorising and knowing the script so we didn’t deviate too much from it, but there were a few scenes that didn’t quite make it, where we were asked to improvise a few lines here and there, improvise something entirely, but overall Adam was very deliberate in what he wanted and if he wanted something specific he would just ask us to do it outright so it was like, OK, we’ll go and do it.
This is a very sensitive question, and you definitely do not have to answer; you do show some physical [self harm] scars in the film, was it a difficult decision as an actor to show that part of your body?
Very much so. It was a very difficult hurdle to overcome for myself because that was the first time that I’d ever publicly shown them anywhere, so it was a huge decision to even consider doing it for myself and then actually forcing myself to do it… When I got on set I was just there and I had to take a bit of time for myself because I was having a bit of a moment where I was getting really scared, and I was [thinking] people are gonna be seeing these and they’re gonna know what I’ve done and they’re gonna know what happened to me and moving through it I proved to be really freaked out for no reason whatsoever, but it was a very difficult decision and a very difficult process. I only wanted to show my arms because I didn’t want any other marks that I have showing on camera.
How do you feel about the two main characters, Shane and David, being referred to as two-spirit in the film? Adam Garnet Jones has talked about some people from First Nations communities not identifying with the label while others do, do you think the term ‘two-spirit’ has a place in the film?
I do really think it does have a place in the film. It is giving something to First Nations people who identify as two-spirit, who were previously called a very derogatory term that was ‘berdache’. It was a French word that meant “kept boy”, it was a very derogatory term. In my opinion it is important that that term [two-spirit] is put out there. If there’s a young teen watching it’s going to give them something to hold onto.
Throughout the film Shane dreams quite passionately about moving to Toronto. Do you think he would be happy there?
I don’t think he would necessarily be entirely happy with his decision to get there. From practically living with him this entire film process, [I think] he is just so focused on it and so focused on getting off the reserve and getting to Toronto when he hasn’t ever really experienced life in the city and he hasn’t experienced life off the reserve so in my head and thinking forward through it I honestly don’t think he would be that happy going to Toronto because it would just throw more hardship at him and things he had never expected and just never imagined could happen.
Have you traditionally lived in the city yourself?
No, I lived on my Six Nations reserve. It’s relatively close to Toronto, about two hours away, but I’ve never really lived in the city, I’ve lived in small towns but beyond that the big city is a completely different can of worms for me.
This film definitely departs from many First Nations stereotypes often seen in Hollywood and mainstream films. People in Shane’s community are sometimes resistant to traditional culture, and sometimes very committed to it and proud. Does that ring true to your experience?
Very much so. Growing up on the reserve there are the ones who are very committed to the traditional way of life and trying to carry out the teachings and everything like that. It should also be noted that I do not come from the northern community and I’m not Anishinaabe, I am Mohawk actually, so my experience is completely different, their teachings are very different from the ones that I’ve been taught. But you do get a very clear divide in any community where some want to follow the traditional teachings whereas others strongly oppose them and they follow the Bible. So it is very much true when it does come down to it.
Considering the parallels between colonialism in many countries, including Canada and Australia, do you think indigenous peoples in other parts of the world can relate to the stories in Fire Song?
I very much do, because looking at the ways indigenous people have been treated the world over and from different things that I’ve read, there are a lot of parallels and a lot of freakishly similar things going on within these communities that do reflect one another, so I do think that communities, whether they’re in North America, South America, Australia, New Zealand, I do think that indigenous peoples can relate to this story no matter where they’re from.
How do you feel about the dominant representation of First Nations people in media, particularly in films and television at the moment? Do you see Fire Song as revolutionising it in many ways?
I feel great about it. For one thing it means more work for First Nations artists who maybe twenty years ago might not have had any work really, but my opinion on it is that it’s just a great thing because now we can start telling our stories from our points of view and creating our work and putting it forward and making it ourselves rather than having to go through a separate channel in order to do it or someone who’s not even a First Nations person trying to tell these stories for us so to me it is very important and it’s great how First Nations people are being portrayed in the media and how we are a part of the art community at large now.
Do you have plans for more acting roles in the future, or for that matter any other involvement in films like writing or directing?
Acting is something I have been training for for a while now so I would like to keep acting. As for writing and directing: I’m not too sure about directing, but I would eventually like to start writing stories for film or even for stage, so hopefully I get to do more in future.