Adam Garnet Jones’ “Fire Song” is a frank portrait of indigenous LGBT people and how depression and isolation intersect within a First Nation community.
This review was originally published on Sept. 9, 2015 at the Toronto International Film Festival. It has been republished for the Toronto release of the film.
Adam Garnet Jones’ Fire Song is a frank portrait of indigenous LGBT people and how depression and isolation intersect within a First Nation community. Suicide is rupturing what Shane knows as home. His sister has just killed herself, and his entire family is reeling from this tragedy. His mother has made herself a cocoon of grief around her deceased daughter’s room. Every interaction he has with her is stilted and doesn’t connect. She is depressed, and Shane cannot fix her.
But the biggest quandary he is facing is the decision to potentially leave the reservation for the big city so he may go to school and explore his sexuality. Shane is two-spirited, which is loosely defined in Fire Song as exhibiting traits of both a masculine and feminine side. Shane has a girlfriend (Tara), but he is also smitten with David, the grandson of the community’s leader. Shane is at a major crossroad in his life regarding his sexuality, his future, his family, and his community. He doesn’t want to betray his family or his community by leaving, but his future lies beyond the reservation. Only by leaving the reservation can he be open about his sexuality.
Filmed on Ontario aboriginal reservations, Jones’ camera captures both a feeling of home and the internalized homophobia that coexists on the reservation. Beautiful landscaping shots, and a murky-dusk colour palette give Fire Song a perpetual haze of grey in the image surrounding these characters, which increases our awareness of grief that cuts through every character motivation. It’s reminiscent of the cinematography in Winter’s Bone.
Characters often discuss suicide. Garnet Jones wants the realities and the impact of that action to be felt. His camera lingers on bodies as they hang, and doesn’t flinch at the unrelenting grief that comes afterward. Depression affects everyone in the community, and the greatest fear is that suicide will beget more suicide.
This makes Fire Song an important movie in Canadian cinema, because these stories aren’t often told. According to the Canadian Mental Health website, First Nations people are about five to six times more likely to commit suicide than non-aboriginal youth. These rates are among the highest in the world, and something all Canadians should be aware of when they think about the people of their country.
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Fire Song adds an extra layer onto that already scary statistic by making the protagonist queer. Shane is one of the more well rounded queer characters in cinema in recent years. He doesn’t fall prey to stereotypes, and he doesn’t exist simply to be queer. All of his actions are funneled through his own queerness, but his aspirations of finding love, chasing his dreams, and honouring his family are universal. These universal themes are unique when presented through the lens of an indigenous character though, which is why Fire Song holds a rare place in Canadian cinema and queer cinema.
Garnet Jones’ first feature comes from an intrinsically humane place, as it feels personal to his own upbringing. He’s been working on the film for over five years, and by completing it, he has proven himself as resilient as his characters. Fire Song is something to be proud of as it debuts at TIFF this year: it’s a work of Canadian cinema, which brings light to a narrative that gives visibility to a serious national problem. It’s confident, fresh cinema that rarely falters.