On Saturday, October 19, Empire of Dirt will screen at the ImagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival in Toronto. For accomplished Ojibwe actress Jennifer Podemski, who appears in the film as the matriarch of a dysfunctional Native family, Empire of Dirt is not only a new movie but also a new frontier: It's the first feature-length film she's produced. It's been a good year for Podemski, who was one of several Native actors with prominent roles in Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian with Benicio Del Toro. Here, Podemski speaks with ICTMN about her latest venture.
What is Empire of Dirt about and why did you produce it?
I wanted to make a film that was a regular everyday film about a broken family dealing with the facts of residential school that wasn't issue-driven. It was very difficult because people want to see the drums or they would say "can't she have a vision?" We really steered away from all that because some of the bigger issues.
For example, the legacy of teen motherhood is ignored by the media. If you are 14 or 15 and having a child it is very likely that you come from a mother who had you very young. That was my family legacy. In my family it was normal to have a 45-year-old grandmother and a daughter that is 30.
Can you explain this non-typical in your approach to cultural content?
I think we have witnessed a lot of revolutionary movements in the performing arts, film and television when it comes to Native stories. But at the same time, there is always huge struggle.
People have told me for seven years that this movie will never be made because it is three native women in the lead roles. That is one big problem because nobody knows for sure if there is an audience outside of the native community for native women in film.
My argument to that is that if you have a well-executed story or an executed project that is well presented and well performed, and it is something people can relate to with universal appeal, you are going to be fine. People are afraid of supporting that.
I would love to see Canada and the United States be more receptive and open-minded when it comes to Native people in general.
Why do you think there is a lack of support?
There is a reason why what I do is called the film business. It is all based on numbers and audience and bottom line. Native America represents such a small portion of that audience, and we're not even factoring in our communities reflected on the big screen because our communities are not reflected in demographic studies. Meanwhile we are a huge part of the economy. Bigger studios make movies or television to sell commercial spots, and that is the reality.
If you don't have proof of your demographic, it's going to be tough to get support.
Fans of Native filmmaking might notice a familiar name in one of your co-stars, Shay Eyre — daughter of Chris Eyre, who directed Smoke Signals and Skins. What can you tell us about her?
Shay is amazingly talented, gorgeous and has such a beautiful spirit. She is 13; we looked for two years. When we found her we knew for sure that she was the one. I was looking at her and thought, "Oh my gosh, I started my career at her age and I just turned 40." Now the torch has passed to her.
This interview is excerpted from a recent episode of Native Trailblazers, hosted by ICTMN correspondent Vincent Schilling.