Kuessipan is one of the best acquisition titles at TIFF19. Director Myriam Verreault and co-writer Naomi Fontaine talk telling the story of two Indigenous teens coming of age.
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“Kuessipan” is an Innu word meaning, “It’s your turn.” That sentiment inspired Naomi Fontaine’s novel of the same name: living in Quebec, away from the Innu community she was born in, she was confused by white people’s notions that Indigenous Canadians were this strange ‘other’. Fontaine decided it was the Innu people’s turn to tell their own story, and so she wrote Kuessipan.
While Kuessipan the book is a meditative, largely plotless snapshot of Indigenous lives, director Myriam Verreault’s film version (which was co-written by Fontaine) tells a new, focused story. It’s not so much a direct adaptation as a film attempting to capture the book’s essence. Verreault’s film follows teenagers Mikuan (Sharon Ishpatao Fontaine) and Shaniss (Yamie Grégoire), who grew up on a reserve together. We open on them as young girls, mischievously sneaking out at night. Mikuan comes from a loving family, Shaniss a broken one; we see the girls’ unbreakable bond in action when social services briefly send Shaniss away and Mikuan walks miles and miles to see her. They promise to be friends forever.
Verreault’s film then explores the extent to which a bond of friendship can be pushed, and how the process of ‘finding yourself’ can leave such friendships neglected. The bulk of the film takes place when the girls are older teens, Mikuan is an academically promising student, and Shaniss a young mother with an abusive boyfriend. Mikuan — a self-assured, witty, sharp young woman — dreams of moving away from the reserve to study in Quebec, and she starts dating Francis (Étienne Galloy), a white boy in her French class. Shaniss, who doesn’t have the luxury of freedom that Mikuan has, grows resentful of her friend.
Verreault was taken by Fontaine’s novel and wanted to adapt it, but as a white woman, she was cautious about taking control of the story. She asked Fontaine to introduce her to members of the Innu community and then enlisted her as a co-writer. The two worked closely in constructing a story that was true to what Fontaine wanted to say about her people in her novel Kuessipan.
At TIFF 2019, I sat down with Verreault and Fontaine to talk about their collaboration on this compelling coming-of-age story.
Seventh Row (7R): Naomi, what was the genesis of the idea for the book?
Naomi Fontaine: I was born in Uashat, in the community, and when I was seven years old, I moved to Quebec city with my family. When I was growing up in Quebec, I lived with white people and heard all the racism and prejudice about my people. I didn’t understand the prejudice and false facts because, when I went back to my community during the year, I felt free. I felt good, I felt happy. I was at home. Why were there false facts about this place that I loved and felt good about? I felt there was a gap between what people think and the reality.
I wrote Kuessipan, which means ‘it’s your turn’ in Innu. I said it’s my turn to talk, my turn for my people and I to talk about our community. I wanted to portray the people of our community with the love I have for them: my grandmother, my cousins, my friends, and all the people who live there.
7R: Myriam, when you came across the book, what was it that struck you about it?
Myriam Verreault: The beauty of the words, the poetry of this book. This book is not a narrative story; it is a little fragment of story, but the ambience of the book was very similar to the first idea I had for this movie. I think it was a pretty good basis from which to construct a narrative story. It was like a puzzle: you take the pieces that you want, and you make another story.
I needed Naomi to [co-]write this because a book is just a book. Even if it’s a really incredible book, it’s not the people. I have to feel I have met those people. I can not just enter and say, “Hello I want to meet you.” So [Naomi] brought me first to her family, and very slowly, I entered into this community, and I felt very comfortable. I don’t know why, but I felt at home because people were really warm with me. I asked Naomi if she wanted to write a movie with me inspired by her book, which would be another story that we would construct together.
7R: The two of you collaborated on the screenplay. How did that work logistically?
Myriam Verreault: We talked a lot. She was the guide, and I was the person who knew how to construct storytelling because I learned that at school, and that is my work in life. But I don’t have this inside vision.
We talked a lot about what we wanted to do with this movie and what we didn’t want to do with this movie because there’s a lot of places we didn’t want to go. We didn’t want to go into the cliche and miserablism. We constructed this screenplay together through long discussions. Sometimes, we talked a lot, and sometimes, I’d be home alone writing, and I’d call Naomi. Each time we talked, it was really grounding about what the movie was about. Every time I felt a little bit lost, I would talk to her to say where I was with the story and ask if it was OK with her, if it feels like a good way, or if I’m wrong. We constructed the script like that.
Naomi Fontaine: Myriam is the type of person we like, as Innu people, because she’s humble, and she’s an open person. She likes to create real relations with us. I never thought that she just took our story or drama or tragedy. She is a true person, which is really important for us Innu people.
7R: There are a lot of coming-of-age films at the festival, but this one stands out to me for how complex the characters of the two young girls are. There’s a lot to them. What did you think was important to bring out in them as representations of young girls?
Myriam Verreault: I like to make stories about teenagers. When you construct stories with teenagers, you have very singular characters because they do things for the first time in their lives. When a man is kissing a woman, it’s just a man kissing a woman. But when a teenage boy is kissing a girl, it’s the first time. It’s exceptional. It’s not just a common thing. I’ve worked with teenagers before ,and with teenagers, you can construct stories with a quest for identity, what they want to become in life.
With the teenagers in Uashat, there’s another level because they are the descendants of a millenia old culture that is very fragile. They don’t choose to be the descendent of this rich culture. Sometimes, it must be a very good thing, but sometimes, it can be very hard to have this culture on you. So in this quest for identity, they try to search for who they are, but they also try to search for who they are collectively. This is really singular and complex and fascinating.
Naomi Fontaine: The people of the Innu nation are young. People don’t know that. I’m a French teacher with Innu teenagers, and I see that the teenagers are really open to the future in front of them. I think it’s important to talk about this because white people sometimes think that the Innu nation or First Nations are turned toward the past, but it’s false. We have many children because we want to build a beautiful future. And that’s what we want to show in the movie.
7R: How did you find your two young actresses? Did the characters change from the script when they were cast?
Myriam Verreault: At first, we wanted to cast actresses that were very similar to the characters, and we found that. Sharon [Fontaine-Ishpatao] is very near Mikuan, and Yamie [Grégoire] is near Shaniss. But at the same time, they are not the same. They had different characteristics from the characters [as they were written in the script].
Because we took real actors and people from the place, I had to admit that I would not have total control of the result; otherwise, it was going to be chaos. I tried to control it, but it’s life, and sometimes fiction and reality mixed. I think it is beautiful to let them show themselves on the screen. If you try to change them and say they have to be more like this, that she has to laugh like this, she has to look like that, you cut yourself off from something very beautiful and truthful.
I think that, when you see the movie, you feel the truth of the characters because the girls can be themselves on the screen.
7R: There are many scenes of classroom debates and readings. How did you think about shooting those big ensemble scenes?
Myriam Verreault: We wanted to include those scenes in the movie because sometimes, when we think about native people, we think they’re the same. We think of a political question and think that the native people think this and the white people think that. But they have different opinions inside the community. Some people are more on the left or on the right. Politically, they have a lot of hard decisions, and I wanted to show that those teenagers are connected to the world. They go on the internet, they know what is going on in the world, and they can have really strong opinions about things.
We took these teenagers who knew us and went to the casting and told them, “OK, let’s talk about a mine that is going to give money to the community in exchange for the land.” I asked them what they really thought about that, and they had opinions. Some people would say that it’s good for education; some people would say that, for them, [they would accept] no money for the lands. I told them to tell their real opinion on screen. This is a fictional scene, but with a lot of documentary inside.
7R: Kuessipan has many different plot strands: you have the two girls and their separate stories, plus all their different individual relationships. It must have been quite a challenge to balance all of these.
Myriam Verreault: It was a really good challenge. When we were in the process of writing, there was a question for me of how to tell the story of two girls, but within the [point of] view of someone. It’s a story of friendship, but in the eyes of Mikuan, not in the eyes of Shaniss. Mikuan is the main character, but Shaniss should have almost the same screen time. In the process of writing, that was a challenge.
In the editing room that was a challenge, as well, because when we get ten minutes on Mikuan, you forget Shaniss. When Mikuan met another character, Francis [(Étienne Galloy)], then it was very difficult not to forget Shaniss.
7R: What are you both working on next?
Naomi Fontaine: I’m working on an adaptation of my second book, Manikanetish. It’s about my work as a teacher in my community. We are making it into a television series on Radio-Canada Télé. I love this. I’m sure the people who liked participating in Kuessipan will like to participate in the Manikanetish series, too. I trust this.
Myriam Verreault: She also wrote her third book that just came out last week! The name is Shuni. I’m directing a TV series now, 5e rang on Radio-Canada Télé. I have two or three ideas for a movie, but they are just at their beginnings; it’s not something concrete.
Kuessipan was really hard work for me, psychologically, sometimes, so I just need to live this project out to figure out what I want to do after. For me, Kuessipan is not done. When it is in theatres, my work will be done. What I’m doing right now, [promoting the film, doing interviews], it’s still the work.
This movie doesn’t stop with the end of the editing. It stops when we know the movie touched the people, and the people who made the movie with me are with me to sell it. I don’t want to go alone. It’s really important to me that the actors are there, Naomi is there, and everybody that is proud to be part of the project can be there and be part of sharing it with the people. It’s not about me, it’s about them; it’s about us.