In Fire Song and Songs My Brothers Taught Me, filmmakers apply conventional conflict to Aboriginal communities

Fire Song

Bookended by funerals, moving with a small-town sense of time, and scipted as an attempt at flat realism, Fire Song arrives as a drama the program notes list as a series of new breakthroughs: a two-spirited protagonist; a movie written, directed, crewed, and casted by First Nations people; a story that confronts Issues, like teen suicide and alcoholism. But what it most resembles is the type of story that would have come up if a television show like North of 60 had continued running to the present day. And while there is much to be said for the behind-the-scenes benefit of productions that employ and mentor First Nations actors and artists, the approach of this particular production has its drawbacks — none of this is new.

In the mid-90s, playwright Drew Hayden Taylor took a look at the success of North of 60, the way it brought together audiences, the way it was talked about, and saw, despite its qualities, a failure of imagination. “Issues that were only statistics now have faces, voices, and reasons, [but] perhaps this is also the show’s biggest weakness — its preoccupation with and dedication to showing the negative aspects of Aboriginal life … Each episode became a tour-de-force for dysfunctionalism.”

Taylor’s point was not that drama should shy away from these topics (“alcoholism, infidelity, residential school abuse, teenage pregnancy”), but that to render them in somber realism is an approach that looks in on a problem from a remove, rather than one that looks out from how people actually live with these stories, which, though they exist, are disproportionately the first topic people associate with First Nations communities. “Throughout the horrific times, one of the things that has allowed us to face and overcome tragedies is our sense of humour,” Taylor wrote, pointing out that drama is not a single, serious tone but a canopy under which the strange, sometimes tragic, but changeable tone of life should be given room to breathe.

Unfortunately, Fire Song doesn’t have that breadth of perspective. There doesn’t seem to be more than a dozen people in the (unnamed, intentionally generalized) Northern Ontario town, and all of them are bitter. Writer and director Adam Garnet Jones is not interested in depicting the broader, systemic reasons alcohol and drug distributors, sexual abuse, and identity confusion have a presence in any community; instead they follow one after another, dragging characters into violent crises, making them hate everything that surrounds them, from the poor foundations their houses rest on, to their absent or catatonic parents.

Shane, played by Andrew Martin, is the narrative centre of a main group of four teens on the cusp of adulthood. He wants to escape to Toronto, where he thinks he’ll have more options than the job paths of band council member or mine labourer, but he has no idea where to begin extricating himself from his community (in one poorly directed scene, he searches, on a fake web site, “make money fast”).

There are moments when Martin and the rest of the cast capture the feeling of desperation that causes people to lash out at each other, or the brief moments of clarity that can come from talking to someone with more experience (Evie, played by Ma-Nee Chacaby), to whom life-changing questions look a little less torturous, but Fire Song’s main focus is on its tragedies, which Jones depicts as something that have completely infested Aboriginal life. In a Q&A after the movie, Jones said he based the script on stories he had heard from within a social work setting, and that one of the goals of this movie is that it gets shown in high school classrooms. The questions he asked during production, he said, were “Is this right? Does this feel right? Could this happen?”

Contrast this with the approach of Jeff Barnaby’s Rhymes for Young Ghouls (2013), which imaginatively depicted (and undermined) the power and abuse of residential schools and law enforcement, slipping into alternate stories, denying both the shock value of tragedy that Fire Song uses and the avoidance of trauma that Jones is trying to respond to — one of these movies might be easier to use in a lesson plan, but that’s also because it’s the one that fits a lot of preconceived notions audiences will have.