Writer-director Darlene Naponse on her unconventional protagonist, capturing the beauty of a landscape through both visuals and sound, and the respect and care required to film on reservation land. Read all our TIFF coverage here.
Anishinaabe Kwe filmmaker Darlene Naponse sees a strong parallel between a toxic personal relationship and the colonialist approach to land use in Canada: both take and take, and there’s no end in sight. That parallel undergirds her beautiful new film, Falls Around Her, which follows Mary (Tantoo Cardinal), a famous but middle-aged musician who decides to stop touring and return to her grandmother’s home on a First Nations reserve.
Mary returns to the land to retreat from the vultures of the music business, sometimes including her fans, and to rediscover internal balance. Reintegrating into her community leads Mary to become involved with its inherent political activism : protecting its land from the local mining industry after the water was poisoned by a mine constructed without proper consultation.
Naponse’s film revels in the quiet beauty of the land and its subtle soundscape — the crunch of snow under Mary’s boot, the trickle of a stream or melting ice, and the wind in the trees. The land feels alive, and its tranquility brings Mary — and us — a sense of calm, without the noise and demands of the city. Much of the film is about watching Mary alone, rediscovering herself and her place in the world, reconnecting with old friends and family, and slowly forging new bonds.
With minimal dialogue, Naponse and Cardinal give us a portrait of a complex and sexual woman with desires and interests, a sad rarity in cinema. Above all, Mary possesses, immense capability: to captivate on stage, to run and fix her home off-the-grid, and to defend herself. By letting us experience the beautiful land, and its healing effects with Mary, Naponse’s film is a quiet rallying cry to stop environmental destruction. Losing or polluting this land becomes obviously criminal.
Before the film’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, I talked to Naponse about developing the story, creating a lived in world for Mary, shooting the land, and making sure her film crew was respectful of both the land and its inhabitants.
Seventh Row (7R): How did the project get started?
Darlene Naponse (DN): I was thinking about when people try to take more from you than what they’re given, either in a relationship or at any other time — people thinking that they own you. This idea of ownership parallels with what happens in our First Nations communities around Indigenous rights, with land, mining, and resource extraction.
7R: We don’t see a lot of middle-aged women protagonists, especially not at the centre of a film.
DN: The film was always about a woman of that age and the idea of coming home and a new chapter. I really enjoy films that talk about transition and change. We should definitely be seeing more film with Indigenous women in the leads, but also of a different age than we’re always seeing on screen. Tantoo is so wonderful and so beautiful and it translates in every scene. We have this idea of what we think we should be seeing or what an Indigenous woman should be. Let’s just drop all of those ideas and let the talent come through.'We have this idea of what we think we should be seeing or what an Indigenous woman should be. Let’s just drop all of those ideas and let the talent come through.'Click To Tweet
7R: She also looks fabulous in the film. I’m obsessed with her hat.
DN: That’s thanks to our costume designer, Sage Paul. She did an amazing job on everything, every little detail that Tantoo is wearing. I knew I wanted to work with Sage. She’s an amazing advocate and an amazing woman. I really liked her aesthetic around Indigenous rights, too, but also around the use of place. We had a lot of long conversations about community and the land, and so we started building from those foundations.
We talked about the res life, and how that would inform each character. We talked about the use of colour, and for Tantoo, we wanted to show the character’s success and her style. Yet we wanted a simplicity. We understand that this is where she’s from, but there’s so much more that’s layered within her.
7R: One of the interesting things about the film was the way that being back home pulls Mary into the activism around the land, and that’s a natural part of being in the community. How did you think about how to weave that subplot into the story?
DN: That comes from my background as a counselor and working with our community, negotiating and working with proponents. Our area has been mined for over 100 years, and proper consultation has never happened. There’s a lot of destruction. We’ve always been fighting these issues, and they never get solved. We’re moving forward, but then there’s always something else. In the past, what we’ve seen in our communities is that mines have come in, taken what they wanted, and then left, and they didn’t clean up any of their garbage properly, so their tailings are leaching into our lakes and affecting our traditional ways of life. I wanted that always to be part of her community’s existence. That is what she’s coming into.
There is never a conclusion to that story with the mine, because we’re still waiting for answers. We’re still waiting for cleanups. Funders, at the beginning, were like, “Why can’t we just clean up the storyline?” But no, that story will always be part of our struggle.'There is never a conclusion to that story with the mine, because we're still waiting for answers... that story will always be part of our struggle.'Click To Tweet
7R: The landscape is so gorgeous in the film. How did you think about how you wanted to shoot that and what you wanted to show?
DN: I always knew I wanted to shoot here, in my community. These are places that myself and my Associate Producer, who’s always worked with me, Tammy Naponse — we always go out and we walk the land. It’s the beauty of the land that we get to experience and walk on, and I wanted to share that with an audience. This is what Mary’s coming home to. She wanted to walk the land. She wanted to come home, and she wanted that simplicity, but there’s still so much pulling at you. So it’s her letting go of some of her past and also having to really struggle for that independence away from stardom.'It’s the beauty of the land that we get to experience and walk on, and I wanted to share that with an audience.'Click To Tweet
7R: What was your process for collaborating with your cinematographer? What conversations did you have about what you wanted the aesthetic to be?
DN: We talked about a colour scheme, and we talked about the land and the naturalism and how we started to change colour once the story… we warmed up after the story started to change. You see a little bit more warmth.
When she comes home, she still has to figure out her own walk, her own pacing, and how to be back on that land. They were still beautiful shots, but we knew there had to be a balance that sort of gave us a sense of the imbalance. Because it’s her getting back into that. We had a lot of long conversations about those colours and how much light to bring into each shot. But everything was as natural light and natural beauty as we could. We tried not to mess with that.
7R: So much of the film is spending time alone with her, and I’m wondering how that works at a script stage — how do you conceive of what that’s going to look like, even if it’s just her walking the land. And how does that translate into your collaboration with your actor to figure out what that performance should look like?
DN: It was a bit difficult, because on a script you can describe the land: she’s walking the land. What might be a paragraph, you’re really shooting at least four minutes on screen of this beautiful poetic pacing. Most of my work is like that: I like long shots. I like the poetics of cinema.
I always say that I kind of directed to emotion in this film. I would really set up the idea of the backstory, the understanding around the land and where we were, and trying to bring the crew and cast into that idea, so that every scene that we walk through we understand that emotion. That hopefully translates to her pacing.'I like long shots. I like the poetics of cinema.'Click To Tweet
7R: How did you think about the sound in the film and what was the process for capturing it? I really loved the way you could hear the sound of boots in snow, which you don’t get to hear in cinema very much. The sound of the stream and the wind… it just felt so rich.
DN: The sound was super important. In the script, it was always about silence. And then, what’s in that silence. Originally, we had written it for fall, and then we started shooting in spring, so we were kind of hoping that there would be less snow. But we had a really weird spring so we had snow, which is beautiful. So it’s to note what happens in that springtime, when you’re walking through that snow and those sounds, and how everything echoes because there’s no leaves. There’s a volume to everything, and there’s a silence to it. Everything dampened, too.
Silence was always a major part of the script; the character had to really be able to understand and be OK with silence. Sometimes we’re not OK with silence, right? Or the natural sounds of mother earth. So that was designed.
I worked with the sound designer Steve Munro. We recorded those sounds live, and then there’s a little bit of foley that’s added. But yeah, what’s so beautiful about working with people who are so talented in their fields is that they can translate what you write on scripts and create that natural world, and let it live on screen.
When the composer, Julian Cote, started working on the music… it’s very easy to use a very amazing song to carry you into the next scene — we did use full songs sometimes — but we wanted to be able to match the composing and the sounds and the vocalisations with that silence. So you’ll often hear a guitar that’s playing light within the crunch of the snow. Even that is simplified and quite balanced in the silence.
7R: Because so much of the film is in the silences and how Tantoo’s character is living with herself and the land, that must have made the edit especially challenging. How did you collaborate with your editor to find the right footage and the right pace?
DN: I really wanted to work with a woman editor on this. I wanted to have that perspective that she could understand the storyline better than a male perspective.
When we got in, there were a lot of scenes that were left out — great scenes that I didn’t want to go, or beautiful imagery. But sometimes, you have to know exactly what to leave out. There’s those moments when she’s just walking, and then all of a sudden, we have to push that story forward.
Those long scenes where you’re just on Tantoo, we broke a lot of cinematic rules. We have a lot of jump cuts: she’s looking into the camera; we break off into underwater scenery. It was about working with another great talent, being open to cutting things, but also taking the chance of holding a scene longer than most people would, and also letting the editor find that pacing, too.
7R: The film’s pacing really gives you a sense of the rhythm of her life on the reserve and walking the land. I felt this real sense of calm.
DN: When we were shooting, we knew when we’re in the city, we need a little more in-your-face, loud sounds. She’s moving quicker, things are happening. Then boom, we’re 100% in the bush, and she’s been there for a while. It is quiet, and we go straight bang into the stillness of her reality.
It has to do with spring, too. You’ve had a long winter, and then all of a sudden, you start building up and things start to change. So she’s still, and she’s had a winter, and then she is starting to find an imbalance within, if she thinks about the haunting or somebody’s after her.
So she then changes her behaviour, which becomes a different pacing in the editing or how we shot it. We tried to track and to change pacing and to change colour and wardrobe so the audience experiences these moments of serenity to these moments of utter ugliness and violence. And yet her character is still strong. She has moments where she may be vulnerable but she knows that she can find her way out of the situation.
7R: I also wondered about the production design, especially of her house. It felt so lived in.
DN: There were two production designers and we talked about simplicity. She’s in her grandmother’s cabin so it’s already been lived in for many years. We have things from that time, but also little things that she would have brought in to make herself comfortable. She has a certain lifestyle that she’s been living and a little affluence.
This character has also lost everything, so she doesn’t have much. But she’s going to keep the little things that give her her sense, like her guitar, the way she places lights in the room…
They did an amazing job, especially with the store that they created from scratch. It was very written in the script how the store looked and feeled. We spent time going into other people’s cabins, and then, we kind of filed it down and took some pieces down and said, “This is it.”'We tried to track and to change pacing and to change colour and wardrobe so the audience experiences these moments of serenity to these moments of utter ugliness and violence.'Click To Tweet
7R: We spend a lot of time in this very female world where we get to see these female friendships. What was the process of writing that and also working with all of these wonderful actresses to create those bonds?
DN: It was such an honour to work with them. Tantoo and Tina are such legends with such power and talent, and I’m big fans of theirs. So when they said yes… And to get Gail on… These are three really powerful women who felt so comfortable with each other, and so we just spent a lot of time laughing. We’d just laugh and laugh and laugh.
I think that was the comfort that we had working in the community, having an Indigenous lead crew and the full support of our producers and the community. It was a hard shoot, but it was also filled with a lot of laughter. When those three women came in, it was so much fun. They’re so natural in the way that they performed. They had built so much trust with each other and with their crew.'That was the comfort that we had working in the community, having an Indigenous lead crew and the full support of our producers and the community. It was a hard shoot, but it was also filled with a lot of laughter.'Click To Tweet
7R: You mentioned in the press notes that you had a crew that was both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. What does that mean?
DN: We shot here in the community, so a large percentage of our crew was Indigenous. And we worked with Northern crew and some Toronto crew. Every day, within our pre-production and within our acknowledgements, we had protocols and there was an understanding of the community that we were in. There was an understanding of where they could go and where they couldn’t go.
We brought in a knowledge keeper with ceremony that was available, and we brought them into set. We also had a fire keeper with us. And we had a community liaison, somebody who was always working to make sure we tried not to disrupt daily lives. We tried not to disrupt anything and made sure there was proper cleanup. So we were just working with the community all the time. That was important obviously because it’s my community, but also, that’s the way we should be working.
We tried to hire as many Indigenous people as we could, from drivers to costume designers to traditional knowledge keepers to people who knew how to get us in and out of the areas. People who had all kinds of skills that don’t necessarily translate to your typical film sets but really were assets at the end of the day.
7R: It seems like it’s a really exciting time for Indigenous filmmaking in Canada. There seems to be so many talented filmmakers making so many exciting films. Do you feel like it’s getting better as far as finding funding?
DN: We need more funds and to support more Indigenous filmmakers, and producers, and crew, people who are interesting in key positions. It’s a great time; there’s some amazing films that are coming out this year and I know are shooting right now. A lot of these filmmakers have been making amazing works for a very long time. But what I would like to see is, now, let’s fund larger films. Let’s get the proper budgets. When we talk about building skills and building crew and working in our communities, we can’t always be talking about low budget films. In order for us to move forward and create larger projects, we need larger budgets. So that’s part of what I would like to see. Two is the audiences are interested in hearing Indigenous stories from Indigenous filmmakers. Our worldview is being portrayed in the way we want to create it and that’s what the audience is experiencing.'You have to keep asking yourself, what I’m sharing and what I’m putting out, is this right? Is this the time?'Click To Tweet
7R: I know that some Indigenous filmmakers have talked about film as this colonialist medium, and how do you then tell a story of an Indigenous community within that?
DN: I think if you’re really looking and working in your community you’re going to go past all those ideas. It’s important to understand where technology can lead us but also listen to the people and understand what you can share and how you’re going to share it. Because we don’t have to… we’re contemporary people, we can create anything whichever way we want, technology is not owned by these colonial idealists, but the ideas that we share and the process by which we do it is definitely in the conversation. Going through protocols, understanding how to get proper consent for stories, understanding how to work with communities and what we’re sharing… As a filmmaker I’m responsible for what I put out, and always we have to be responsible for what we create. You have to keep asking yourself, what I’m sharing and what I’m putting out, is this right? Is this the time?
We’ve been keeping up with the exciting Indigenous cinema that’s been emerging in Canada (and around the world) in the last few years. Last year, we talked to Inuk filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril (also at TIFF this year as one of the producers of The Grizzlies) about Angry Inuk and its depictions of the importance of seal meat to Inuit culture. We also talked to Anishinaabe director Michelle Latimer about her VICE series RISE which tells stories of Indigenous activism around the world. One of the best films of last year, Sami Blood (which premiered at TIFF16), was a coming-of-age story about a South Sami girl in the 1940s who must choose between life with her family and a chance at academic challenges amidst brutal racism. Finally, we talked to Warwick Thornton about Sweet Country, his post-WWI-set Australian western which retells this chapter of history from an Indigenous perspective.