Mohawk writer-director Sonia Boileau discusses her new film Rustic Oracle about the human side of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls crisis in Canada. She discusses working with child actors, creating empathy, shooting in her home community, and decolonizing the filmmaking process. Listen to us discuss Rustic Oracle on the Seventh Row podcast here. Watch Rustic Oracle worldwide here.
How do you get people to care about systemic violence and racism when they’re used to being able to ignore it? For Mohawk writer-director Sonia Boileau, she found that making fiction films, rather than documentary films where she got her start, would let her reach a broader audience who might otherwise be hostile to learning about Indigenous issues. In particular, she had been wanting to make a film about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) for over a decade. In Canada, Indigenous women account for 16% of all female homicide victims and 11% of missing women, yet Indigenous people comprise only 4.3% of Canada’s population. Boileau began her career as a documentarian so had initially planned to address the issue through that lens, but at the time, she couldn’t find anyone interested in funding such a project.
Fortunately, in the last five years, the national consciousness about MMIWG has increased because of the national inquiry launched in 2015, meaning funders were more receptive to this idea. In the meantime, Boileau directed her first narrative feature, Le dep, and discovered that telling fictional stories might be the best way to reach a broader audience. “When you’re doing a documentary, you’re actually speaking to people who are already interested in that subject,” she told me. “I’m not going to see a documentary on boats if I’m not interested in boats. But if you’re making a fictional story, you’re actually casting a way wider net.”
The result is one of the very best films of the year, Rustic Oracle, about a Mohawk mother and daughter, Susan (Carmen Moore) and eight-year-old Ivy (Lake Delisle), coping with the aftermath of Ivy’s teenage sister, Heather (McKenzie Deer Robinson), going missing. Set largely in the 1990s, in the time before social media, Susan and Ivy go on a road trip to personally try to find Heather after the police have provided little assistance. Told through Ivy’s perspective as an adult looking back on her childhood, when she didn’t fully understand what was happening, the film weaves a complex and heartbreaking story of family bonds, grief, and the effects of systemic violence on the community.
As a single mother, Susan was already struggling to keep things together and support her family, and when she loses her daughter, she becomes so stressed that it’s difficult to still be a good mother to her remaining daughter. Meanwhile, Ivy hasn’t just lost a sister, but her main support system. The film follows Ivy and Susan as they look for Heather and find a way to regain the closeness between them that they’d lost because of all the trauma they experienced.
Although Rustic Oracle deals with dark and difficult subject matter, the film is never gratuitous in its depiction of violence — in part because Boileau didn’t want to retraumatize Indigenous viewers who might be watching the film. It’s much more about the psychological effects of this systemic problem — not on those who go missing, but on those who have lost loved ones.
To make the film, Boileau returned to her home in Kanesatake, collaborating with the community where she grew up to create her vision. On the occasion of the film’s worldwide VOD release (it’s also available on Blu-ray in Canada), I talked to Boileau via Zoom about telling stories about traumatic experiences, working with child actors, helping audiences heal, and decolonizing the filmmaking process.
Seventh Row (7R): What was the genesis of Rustic Oracle?
Sonia Boileau: I’ve actually wanted to talk about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women for such a long time now. I, at first, wanted to make a documentary; this is more than 10 years ago. I was working with broadcasters, at the time. I didn’t really know how to finance feature-length documentaries, so I was more knocking on the doors of broadcasters to see if they were willing to make a documentary. Sadly, there wasn’t much interest.
I had other projects, but it was still something I wanted to talk about. Then, slowly, socially, we started talking about it [MMIWG] a lot more. There was more awareness. There was a government that was willing to acknowledge it. When we started talking, as a country, about those numbers and statistics, I realised that we were losing touch with the fact that we were actually talking about human beings and families that are going through this. That’s when I thought, OK, if I am going to tell a story about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, it’s going to be a personal story, so people are reminded that we’re talking about human beings and not just numbers. It’s not just a political issue; it’s people’s lives.
In the meantime, I wrote my first feature film called Le Dep, and when I started showing that film at festivals and travelling with it, I realised that it’s easier to get people’s attention with fiction than it is with documentary. When you’re doing a documentary, you’re actually speaking to people who are already interested in that subject. I’m not going to see a documentary on boats if I’m not interested in boats. (laughs) But if you’re making a fictional story, you’re actually casting a way wider net, because your audience might be someone who’s not interested or aware of Indigenous issues; they just want to see a film. And then you hit them with those realities that are specific to Indigenous people, and people are like, “Holy crap I didn’t know this!”
Because you’re connecting them with the emotion of your characters, then they feel empathy, which you don’t always get in a documentary. That’s when I decided to write a fictional story. It’s fictional, but it’s based on specific cases. I wrote it around the time I wrote my first feature, then twisted it after that film started playing, and I got all this feedback about fiction. In 2008, there were two girls that went missing from my partner’s community. I didn’t know them personally, but I knew a lot of people who knew them, and I saw what it did to the community. I saw all these families — the helplessness, the despair, the frustration. It shook us to our core.
That was the emotional reason behind making the film. I felt for these families, and I just wanted to scream. Often, when I make films, there’s a bit of a cathartic part to it. It’s always because it’s something that’s bothering me, that I need to express.
7R: You mentioned that being on the festival circuit changed your thoughts on documentary and fiction, and how to make a fiction film. What was it that made you realise those things?
Sonia Boileau: With the first film that I did, because I had been mostly doing documentary, I didn’t even know if I had the tools to make a fiction film. I didn’t know if I had the skill to be able to communicate a story with actors.
My first film, which was done with the micro-budget programme at Telefilm, which is now called Talent to Watch, I had a really, really tiny budget. I figured, if I can’t do this well, it’s not that big of a risk, and I can just go back to documentaries. I still love documentaries.
But I realised that I loved creating environments, and I loved seeing actors understand what I’m trying to convey and convey it even better than I imagined. And I loved the response, because people were responding emotionally. They were responding like it’s visceral: you’re living through the story that you’re watching.
I’m glad I did that first film [Le Dep] first, because, at that time, I wouldn’t have been ready to do Rustic. There’s no way I could have jumped in with Rustic as as a first film; I would have butchered it. And if there’s one subject matter I don’t want to butcher, it’s that story.
Maybe a documentary on that subject matter would have been as powerful. There’s many documentaries that are brilliant. One of my friends, Kim O’Bomsawin, made Quiet Killing. It’s a documentary on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. It’s so well done and heart-wrenching, but again, it’s more about facts. You feel for these people, but it’s not the same rollercoaster of emotion as what fiction can bring.
7R: Some of the most mainstream coverage of MMIWG has been about the women who go missing, like CBC’s Finding Cleo podcast. But this was so powerful to see not just that one person, but the people around them that are affected. How did you decide to make Rustic Oracle from Ivy’s perspective?
Sonia Boileau: I actually really wanted to dive into the childhood perspective because first, I am a mom, and every time I read or see a story about a missing person, particularly an Indigenous person, I always think, how would my kids handle this? It’s so big. I started really observing how kids react in certain situations.
Even going back to the two kids who went missing, I participated in walks and vigils, and I saw family members. I was really in awe of how kids have this natural inner resilience that they manage to find happiness wherever. As humans, we need to find rays of light, hope, laughter, even in the hardest circumstances. I always found it fascinating about kids being able to do that. We lose that, as adults; reality takes over.
I feel like anyone can identify with a child regardless of their cultural background. That was another way to cast a wider net for my audience and get people to get on the boat and let Ivy tell the story. It’s easier for people from different cultures to connect with what a kid is feeling. There’s so much prejudice towards Indigenous people, in general, that I feel like just having an Indigenous character like Carmen’s character, Susan, part of my audience would already have sat and watched it with these filters of prejudice, preconceptions and misconceptions, and that alters how they would view the film.
You can’t really do that with kids; you can’t judge a nine year old! (laughs) I liked the idea of the audience not being fed all the information in regards to the actual investigation. I wanted to create a sense of frustration or [limited information], because you’re following a kid, and that’s what a kid feels all the time. They only get a limited bit of information.
If you want to take that even further, it can be a metaphor for what Indigenous families have been going through when they live through this: they don’t get all the information. They are passengers within this tragedy. Even in the government, decisions are made at the top, and meanwhile, they’re just dragged along and nothing gets resolved for them.
7R: How did you decide to use the framing narrative of an adult Ivy looking back on her childhood, now that she has a daughter of her own?
Sonia Boileau: Before we were shooting, we were debating whether the film should be set in the ‘90s or today. If it is set in the ‘90s, as my script intended, do we really need those bookends? For me, the reason for the bookends was I really wanted the film to end with hope, something to look forward to, something to show the strength and resilience Indigenous women have now. I didn’t want to end on something so somber and sad that we feel defeated.
We need to see strong characters that overcome hardship rather than are just destroyed by hardship. Films are a reflection of society but they can also fuel society. I think if we see these people on screen, it might change the way we view ourselves and others. I see that as a positive note. She’s now a beautiful grown woman and a mother; that’s something to look forward to.
I wanted to set the film in the ‘90s so we could see the outcome years later, that she’s standing proud and strong, but also because I wanted to set it before social media. Social media has been a huge tool for Indigenous families to get the word out when somebody goes missing. In the ‘90s, if someone went missing, you, as a parent, had to physically go and knock on doors to get the word out. I wanted to show what these families had to go through to get attention from anyone.
7R: I agree that Rustic Oracle has a hopeful ending, but the flip side is that the story isn’t over. It’s not something in the past; she has to live with this grief. And I also wonder how that might affect her own relationships, because we see how tough intimacy with her children is for Susan, because she’s had so many hardships.
Sonia Boileau: I think the fact that she [older Ivy] ends on a hug [with her daughter is a sign of hope]. It’s already a proximity that, in the first half of the film, you barely see between Susan and Ivy. There’s a bit of it, but you can tell that it’s Ivy going in for the hug, who needs it, and Susan is struggling with how to deal with that.
But at the end, it’s older Ivy that brings her daughter in. She [as a mother] is the one that’s going to create that proximity. I see that as a way of slowly getting rid of intergenerational trauma, very slowly. For sure, she has baggage; her sister is gone, and her father is a bad person. But I see her as being more equipped to heal than her mother was.
7R: I’m wondering a bit about how you thought about physical closeness and touch in Rustic Oracle. The sisters are so close to each other, and it takes Ivy and Susan a while to find that physical closeness, which then leads to more emotional closeness.
Sonia Boileau: That was the whole basis of the film I would say, when we were discussing our characters in rehearsal. Ivy’s main curve is exactly that. Heather is her emotional pillar. She [Heather] is the main source of physical comfort [for Ivy] but just comfort, in general, and her mom is the provider.
Because Ivy’s missing that huge, important part of her life [when Heather is gone], she tries to get her mom to become both, to become the emotional provider and the life provider. It takes Susan a while to realise that’s what Ivy needs. That was what we discussed in terms of what Heather represented for Ivy, and what fuels her.
The reason to go on the road trip isn’t only to find Heather, but it’s also visceral: she’s in need of that comfort that Heather brought, and she needs her mother to fill it. The grandmother could have! It could have been a whole other movie if she had stayed with grandma. (laughs)
7R: What is the process for working with actors to figure that out? You’ve got a wonderful performance from Lake playing Ivy, and then this really strong mother-daughter relationship in Rustic Oracle.
Sonia Boileau: The reason it clicks so well on screen is we did a lot of work before the shoot. I brought Carmen here a few months before shooting, because she lives out west. We shot in July, and I brought her here in April for a week, just to get to know Lake and Mackenzie, who plays Heather, and to build on that relationship.
Even after she went home after that week, they would phone each other. They would FaceTime, and send cute messages and videos on social media. They were already creating this nice bond. When we got to real rehearsals and on set, they were already close, To the point where it became tricky. On set, Lake and Carmen were so close but I wanted them to feel distant; sometimes, I had to remind them of the distance and cold that has to exist.
Carmen’s a pro and such a good actor. In the scenes where she’s kind of rough and cold, as soon as I would yell cut, she would go, “I’m so sorry baby, I’m so sorry! It’s not me yelling; it’s the character!” At first, Lake would find it funny. Eventually, she was like, “Oh I know! It’s fine!” They were already so, so close that Carmen didn’t want her to feel like it was Carmen yelling at her. I think that work, building that connection before shooting, definitely helped create the whole arc of their relationship.
7R: What kind of rehearsals did you do for Rustic Oracle?
Sonia Boileau: We didn’t do full on rehearsals as in, You stand there, you go there. It was all sitting down, table reads. It was more about diving deep on the meaning behind the moments, getting the emotions right in some scenes. For Lake, it was also about understanding, which was really key, as well. Even before we made our final decision in casting her, I had a conversation with her mom, just to make sure it was OK for her to be in this film, because it’s such a hard subject. It’s just a movie. I’m not going to traumatise a kid for a movie. So I wanted to make sure she felt safe, that her mom felt comfortable.
Her mom was amazing. She became everyone’s mom on set. Her name’s Cookie. Cookie was like, “You know what, not only does Lake know about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, we lost someone in our community who was murdered, and Lake knows about her. So Lake doesn’t come in fully green about the subject. She comes with her own baggage and knowledge even though she’s only nine. And she wants to be part of this process. Don’t hold anything back from her. She’s mature enough to understand what’s going on. And if you’re not sure if something should be said in front of her, then just look at me. I’ll be here.”
And sure enough, when I wasn’t sure, I’d look at her mom, or she’d give me a little nod or not. It was good to have her mom there because it helped with the whole process. A lot of the rehearsal was just making sure everyone understood the subtext.
Even though we did auditions for Susan, I almost feel like I knew it would be her when I was writing it. As soon as she sent in her audition tape, I was like (gasps), “Oh my god, it’s her! Oh my God, it’s alway been her.” I knew who Carmen Moore was, so I was like, OK, maybe subconsciously, I kind of knew I wanted it to be Carmen Moore.
7R: Aside from having her mother there, did you use other different techniques to direct Lake?
Sonia Boileau: Oh yeah, and I learned that the hard way. The first few days, and in rehearsal, but particularly, on set, I was almost talking to Lake the same way I was to Carmen, and that was so off. Even though she is very mature for her age, she’s still a kid! Sometimes, when you want to get a specific reaction out of a kid, you have to bring it back down to her knowledge of emotions.
In some moments, when I realised it was too complex, I was diving into the character and story too much, I was like, you know, I have to go for something she can relate to. There were scenes where I would just say, “OK, picture your mom saying you can have your favourite dessert, and then, at the last minute, when she says you’re supposed to have that dessert, she decides you’re not getting it!” And she goes, “What?!” She got super insulted. And I’m like, “That’s it! That’s the face I need it!” And she’s like, “Oh!” And she looks at her mom and goes, “You wouldn’t do that?!” She was so in the moment.
But in some of the key moments, like the scene where she runs out of the motel screaming for Heather, and she’s crying, she bawled her eyes out for that scene. Those were real tears, and she did seven takes in a row, and I was like, holy cow. First of all, I felt terrible for making a kid cry. I was crying because I was like, oh my God, I’m making a child cry. This is so wrong. But her mom was like, “No don’t stop, it’s fine, it’s fine!” When I asked her afterwards what fuelled that, she [Lake] said, “I just imagined what I’d feel if my brother went missing.” For those moments, she dove into the real feeling that came with the setting of the film. But in other moments, we went completely off track and talked about candy.
7R: What do you think Ivy understands in Rustic Oracle? How much do you think she understands about what’s going on with her mother?
Sonia Boileau: We discussed that at different moments in the scenes. In the moment, there’s not much she actually does understand, but because the movie is a collection of memories of that summer, the way it’s told, it’s almost as if adult Ivy is connecting a lot of the dots. In the moment, she’s kind of a passenger. She doesn’t grasp those hints.
7R: Does that mean you’re directing her as if she doesn’t know, but you’re composing the scene to give us the information that older Ivy has?
Sonia Boileau: Exactly that. Like when she draws the tattoo [that she saw on the boy that Heather was last seen with, and that Ivy later spots on a bouncer in a bar.]. Once it’s revealed, she’s like, “Oh I sort of get it [the connection between the two men because of their shared tattoo] but not really.” But in the moment, she’s not got the light bulb thinking of, “Oh my god, this tattoo must mean something!” It’s just that she saw a tattoo. But older Ivy is processing it. We, as an audience, are witnessing Ivy’s memories.
7R: Is that part of why you wanted to have the story of Rustic Oracle be an older person looking back?
Sonia Boileau: I think it came after. That notion was more in the treatment of it. Now that I know I want this to be a memory, how do I present those memories? That’s also why I wanted some moments to not really matter to the main storyline, but for some reason, as adults, some memories are more vivid even though they don’t really serve the main moment. That’s where all the smaller things come into play, like playing tic tac toe with her mom, and even the water scene. There’s another comment there, of course, of her drinking water from the tap [because so many Indigenous people in Canada are without clean drinking water], but why is that memory more vivid than any other one?
7R: How did you work with your cinematographer, Patrick Kaplin, to create the aesthetic of Rustic Oracle?
Sonia Boileau: I’ve been working with Pat for many years now. It was easy to communicate the world that I wanted to see. I make a lot of weird sounds when I direct. Sometimes, I’m looking for my words, but what comes out is just sounds or reactions. But he knows them now. So sometimes, when I go (sharp intake of breathe) he’s like, “Oh it’s too blue, right?” I’ll be like, “Yeah, it’s too blue, how did you…?”
That was one of the reasons why I wanted to shoot this film with him. There was such a huge step between my first film and this one in terms of size, budget, message, everything. I wanted to keep at least a couple of elements I was already comfortable with. That being said, we are so close that sometimes, it didn’t always serve the scene. We were a bit too comfortable with each other that, I think, for the crew, it got weird. I think for my next film I would like to work with someone else just to figure out what it’s like to work with someone else.
With Pat, we really wanted to create a sense of nostalgia in the colours and textures. We wanted it to be very creamy, very warm. But we also wanted the colours to pop: the green of the trees, the textures, basically, to create that feeling of ‘80s film.
We knew that Lake, as a kid, couldn’t always be on, and, sometimes, [kids will] do something spontaneous that is magical, and you wan’t to capture that. So we made sure that the camera was almost always ready to shoot if needed, even if the setting or camera wasn’t perfect. The camera was fairly small and light, and Pat was able to quickly handheld grab it and follow whatever Ivy was giving us. In some instances, I think that worked beautifully. There’s a lot of little moments that were quite spontaneous.
I also like steadicam a lot. I feel like it fuels that notion of oracle: it’s dreamy and nostalgic, and feels like a floaty memory. There’s steadicam mostly for the stuff that Ivy controls. We established from the get go that we have two types of shots: everything where Ivy was in control, the environment she controls, her home and room, these bubbles where she feels she’s comfortable, those were all handheld or steadicam because we can move around like Ivy moves around. When she’s stuck in more of a passenger situation, in an environment that’s not her environment, that she can’t control, those were all on sticks. Those were more like your typical studio framing, when she’s at a police station or the missing children’s network. Because she’s not master of her environment in those moments, we wanted to box her in.
7R: When you’re thinking about how to parse out information of what Ivy knows and what only we know, is that something that’s happening more on the set, or is it more of an editing concern?
Sonia Boileau: It’s a bit of both. Depending on a scene, sometimes, it was more in an edit, and oftentimes, I would communicate it to them, but in the edit, you use that. For example, when she’s in the room at the friendship centre and her mom is talking to Karen for the first time, and [Ivy is] playing on the etch-a-sketch, once in a while, she looks up. But in the edit, we placed the looking up at very particular moments in the conversation. So, as an audience, we’re like, “Oh she heard that.” I guess, in those instances, it’s more of an edit thing, but to be able to edit that I still need those shots.
7R: I’m wondering a bit about the nightmare scenes that occur throughout Rustic Oracle. How did you think about how those would look and how they would evolve throughout Rustic Oracle?
Sonia Boileau: Now, when I watch the film, I don’t like those scenes anymore. It’s weird! I still think they’re important, because they reveal the family’s backstory and why the dad’s not there anymore, and also Heather’s own insecurities and trauma that probably led to her being more vulnerable to the people that took her. All that was needed. But now when I look at it, I feel like the treatment is so different from the rest of the film that it’s a little jarring. I guess all filmmakers feel that.
7R: I didn’t find that!
Sonia Boileau: Oh thank you! I think, as filmmakers, we always tend to be hard on our projects.
Those scenes actually also refer to the title, because is it a memory, a dream? Is it an oracle, as in she’s first seeing the future or something that’s happening that she didn’t see? They turn out to be a memory that’s intertwined with what she’s living.
7R: How did you come up with the film’s title, Rustic Oracle?
Sonia Boileau: Well, there’s that. And actually “rustic oracle” was a literary, poetic term for a dandelion. There’s a metaphor with the dandelion or blowing your childhood memories to the wind and making a wish.
There’s also a wider metaphor of the dandelion, which is a super powerful flower. It holds so much medicine. You can cure diseases with it. It’s edible. It tells time; farmers used to use it to tell time because it has different cycles during the day. It has the strongest roots; it can grow anywhere. And yet we, as a society, decided to refer to it as a bad weed that we need to get rid of.
There’s something there in the difference between what something truly is and the value of it, versus how society perceives it. I’m not saying I’m directly comparing Indigenous women to dandelions. But there’s something in there where, when society decides to view something a certain way, no matter how powerful it is, it becomes obsolete when nobody else can see its value.
7R: Where did you shoot Rustic Oracle, and how did you choose those locations?
Sonia Boileau: I shot it in my community, and I was very happy to! Kanesatake is a small Mohawk community about 45 minutes north of Montreal, right beside Oka. Ever since my very first project, I’ve shot a lot in my community. My first few documentaries were focused on my community, and my process is a lot about me exploring my own identity and lack of confidence. So I shot a lot in my community with elders and people.
I’m always calling for favours about shooting in certain locations. For once, I was able to bring a production home, a real production, and hire people and pay for spaces, rent spaces. It was really cool to be able to pay it forward. They’ve been supporting me for years, so here’s a shitload of money, and I’m going to hire 100 people! The craft is going to be local, and as much as possible, the set dec and the props will be local. The extras will all be local people. That was amazing. It was very cool to have so many community members be a part of it. It felt like they were with me telling this story. It was a really comforting blanket.
Funny story, when I first sat with council and told them I was going to do a film, I brought my line producer and my producer, and they were like, “Yeah, Sonia, of course. You know we’ll do whatever you need. We’re so happy you’re living out your dream!” And I was like, “Yeah, but this one’s bigger!” And they’re like, “Yeah, whatever you need.” So my line producer started meeting with people from council more specifically, and I wasn’t there, and she was like, “OK we’ll need this. We’ll need this much space. We’ll need to park our trailers…” And they were like, “Oh it’s like a real movie?!”
And they were like, “OK, for this, you’ll need to speak with Leona, and for that, you’ll need to speak with Leona, and that, you’ll need to speak with Leona.” And she was like, “OK… can someone introduce me to this Leona?” And they were like, “You haven’t met her yet?” And my line producer was like, “No…” And they were like, “Well that’s Sonia’s mom!” My mom is director of finance on council, so she manages all the money. That night, my mom called me up like, “Oh my God, I feel like I’m a producer on one of your films!” It was very cool to have my mom be a part of it, and for her name to be in the credits.
7R: That must have made such a big difference, that you know everyone, and they were happy to have you shoot there, too.
Sonia Boileau: It has its pros and cons though. On the con side, sometimes, that whole aspect of knowing everyone takes some of my time away that was meant to be spent elsewhere. But I can’t say no. You can’t just abruptly cut off a conversation with someone in your community because you’re supposed to be shooting. I shouldn’t have to micro-manage, but because everyone knew me, they came directly to me to ask questions, and I felt a sense of responsibility to deal with it. A couple of times, my first AD was like, “Step away. Someone else will handle it.” But I didn’t want to seem like I didn’t care.
7R: I was going to ask you about how you approached involving Indigenous people in the project. How did that affect the core team you picked beyond the people from the community you employed?
Sonia Boileau: I definitely wanted as many Indigenous women in the crew as possible. And I wanted Indigenous women in positions of decisions, being part of the creative. In some departments, that was quite hard to find, because in all honesty, there’s not that many Indigenous women in grip, electric, camera department, all that. There’s still not enough women period. That kind of sucked, and I’m hoping it will change before my next project.
I had Indigenous women as my production designer, at the head of my hair and makeup team, an Indigenous woman costume designer. I had really amazing, powerful women at the head of several departments, and a lot of Indigenous women as community liaisons and on the production side to help my line producer, who wasn’t Indigenous. Even for her, she wanted to make sure she was respectful of everything.
We actually had someone from a family of a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Woman on the production team. It was sometimes hard because I know that some scenes were hard for her. There’s one scene, in particular, which I always have a little gasp when I see it. In the search party scene, the first two ladies you see, holding the missing fliers, are two family members of a woman who died in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. Her family has always struggled with that, and they’re still healing from that trauma. For them to be part of that scene, just talking about it, gets to me. I felt very privileged having them tell this story with me, but I also felt such a sense of responsibility, and great admiration for them. That was really powerful.
7R: Indigenous filmmakers often talk about how film is an inherently colonialist medium, and one of the challenges when making your work is how do you decolonise film?. I feel like you’ve answered some of that for sure, but I wanted to see if there was anything else on your mind.
Sonia Boileau: It’s basically what we just talked about. I think that giving power to those people to tell the story automatically changes what’s on screen and helps decolonise. For so long now, we’ve seen Indigenous characters on screen serving another voice, and you can feel that. For me, building strong characters is key to Indigenous cinema. It’s not just the theme and message. If you’re building strong characters, people might see other things than the one-dimensional, stereotypical Indigenous person.
7R: I imagine one of the challenges in depicting the Susan character is she’s struggling with a lot of things, so how do you balance the line of portraying that while not going so far that the audience just dismisses her as a bad mother.
Sonia Boileau: That’s such a good question because one of my first drafts, everyone who read it was like, “Yeah, but we hate Susan. We hate her.” I was like, “Crap, OK.” So I was trying to tone it down but still stay true to how I saw the character. I hope we gave just enough for her to not feel like the villain, to have her still be somewhat relatable and feel for her.
There’s some moments that, for me, when we were editing I was like, “You could take that out, but no, no, no.” Like when she’s playing tic tac toe, and she actually does play and offers a little smile. Those little moments are so important because right after, she snaps, and she’s in her head. If we only had all those [harsh] moments and didn’t splash in a little love here and there, we wouldn’t like her so much.
7R: By filtering the story through Ivy’s perspective, did that give you licence to make Susan less likeable because Ivy doesn’t understand her, or was it the other way around?
Sonia Boileau: I think it’s almost the other way around, because as a kid, yes, she’d remember the hard times, but at the same time, you would hang on to the beautiful moments, even if they’re small. Like, why does she remember playing tic tac toe in the restaurant? It’s probably because she remembers her mom winning and smiling and finding it cute before she snapped.
7R: How did you think about the target audience for Rustic Oracle?
Sonia Boileau: I think first and foremost, I thought of a non-Indigenous audience, because they’re the ones I needed to create a bridge with to reach them with this subject. But I also knew, for sure, that because this is an Indigenous film, and we’re talking about Missing and Murdered Indigneous Women, that automatically would capture the interest of an Indigenous audience.
I was really careful about how I portrayed any form of violence, because I didn’t want to retraumatise anyone in the Indigenous audience. I thought of that in a lot of moments when we could have taken it in another direction. There’s a way to convey pain and trauma without showing it, and it still passes. I had the Indigenous audience in mind for that aspect, but for the rest, I was opening it up to a non-Indigenous audience. I could foresee the non-Indigenous reaction.
What I didn’t think of, and is so naive of me for not thinking of it, was the wound it would open for some families. The first few screenings we did were in Vancouver, at the Vancouver International Film Festival. Everyone was crazy crying, and me, stupid me, I didn’t sit through the film; I was too nervous. I was so nervous and giddy and happy that I walked to the front with this huge smile, and I turned, and everyone was in tears. I was not prepared for that wave of emotion. I was not prepared for people opening up and sharing their trauma and their lost loved ones.
I went to bed that night, and the three or four screenings after, so emotionally tired. Obviously, I let those people share, and I tried to answer as best I could and give the love back. But at the same time, I’m not a social worker, and I’m not equipped to do that. So I felt like I was just opening up these wounds without providing anything afterwards, like support. I kept thinking, “We can’t do this. We can’t keep showing the film for an Indigenous audience and not provide some sort of help.”
So my distributor and producer sat down. In our distribution plan, one of the phases after the festivals and theatres was to actually go to communities and show it to communities. A lot of communities not close to urban centres don’t have theatres. They can’t access films, which sucks. So instead of just throwing it on VOD and saying, “Just watch it yourselves,” we still wanted to say, “Let’s come together and make an event out of it.”
7R: Especially if it’s going to lead to a lot of people with open wounds who are then stuck on their own.
Sonia Boileau: Exactly! So we were already planning a community tour, but then we added social workers to our team. If we’re going to do community screenings, we’d have people there to help them heal as opposed to just hurt.
7R: That’s amazing. What was your experience with that?
Sonia Boileau: We haven’t done that yet because of the stupid pandemic! Phase three has not yet happened! That’s on hold. The film [is now] available On Demand, because we have contractual obligations, but even then, as soon as the world goes back to normal, we still want to have events in communities and provide support.
7R: What are you working on now?
Sonia Boileau: My partner slash husband slash producer is shooting a feature right now, so right now, in the next two weeks, I’m holding up all the balls he usually juggles. We own a production company together, but I’m not a producer; I’m on the content creation side of things, and he’s a producer producer. He manages everything, but he’s also a filmmaker, and he’s focusing on making his first feature. In the meantime, I’m focusing on juggling the rest, and we have three kids, so doing a lot of that. But I just finished writing my first drama series. We got confirmation that funding was accepted, and we’re going into production, knock on wood, in the spring.
7R: Is it in English? Or French?
Sonia Boileau: It’s in French. I’m not allowed to talk about it because the broadcasters want to make a big thing when we start shooting, but I am allowed to say that it’s based on residential schools in Quebec. So it’s another hard subject, and it was very hard to write. I cried a lot, and honestly, after this project, which will probably take the next two years of my life, if I do keep going in film, and I’m not even sure if I want to, I think I’m going to write a rom-com. I need something light and fluffy. You can still do a smart rom-com. But something a little lighter that we can laugh at. I’m not going to feel like it’s ripping out my guts when I’m writing and directing it.
Rustic Oracle is now available on Vimeo On Demand worldwide.