Through Black Spruce, a project produced by Tina Keeper is a movie that touches on issues that relate to Canada’s Murdered and Indigenous Women. The film has received rave reviews in screenings across Canada and at the recent Toronto International Film Festival.
Keeper, a Cree actress, producer, activist, and former member of parliament and is best known for her role as, Michelle Kenidi, the RCMP officer in the CBC 1990’s television series, North of 60. Keeper optioned the book in 2012 and began looking for funding and someone to direct the book into a movie. Keeper was looking for a director that could interpret and bring to the screen Indigenous issues that tell the story of a First Nations family coping with their missing daughter. After looking at many potential directors, Keeper hand-picked Don McKeller, a Canadian director, writer and filmmaker with such credits as The Red Violin, and the critically acclaimed, Last Night.
The story is about Annie (Tanaya Betty) who searches for her sister Suzanne who disappeared while modelling in Toronto. The film also centres around Will (Brandon Oaks) the uncle also dealing with the disappearance.
Keeper says the novel was very personal to her and wanted to work closely with the writer, Joseph Boyden in the creation of the movie.
“The book really spoke to me because it was set in the Treaty 9 territory where my late mother was originally from,” Keeper said. “Plus in the book, the Bird family, who are a intergenerational family of the residential schools.”
I asked Keeper about the experience working with the two main characters, Tanaya Betty, who plays Annie and Will played by Brandon Oaks.
“They are genuinely nice kind people, very considerate, measured artists and very thoughtful on how they’re performing,” says Keeper. “Both of them came to the project and made filming a beautiful experience. They each brought their own visions to the characters and they were always prepared. I was really impressed with both of their performances which were just Steller!”
The film also features veteran and respected actors Tantoo Cardinal and Graham Greene. Both actors are best remembered in the 1990 blockbuster, Dances With Wolves, where they played man and wife.
“We were so thrilled to have both of them (Cardinal and Greene), they were a dream to work with, and I’ve worked with them in the past as an actor. They brought incredible life to the characters. Their roles are a reference point of the film and they’re both such master crafters.”
The movie explores how a young Cree woman’s disappearance traumatizes her family in two communities, the remote Northern Ontario community of Moosonee, where she fled from years ago to the city of Toronto where she vanishes.
“One of the elements of the story in the film is about the setting in the town of Moosonee. We were honoured to work with local language dialect coaches, for the northern Cree language and cultural advisors,” Keeper said. “Through the experience of working with the people of Moosonee, we saw the resilience of the people in that community, and that is what this film is about, the resilience of the Bird family.”
Don McKeller, told Breakfast Television in Toronto, that in the book, the character Suzanne, works as a model in New York, Toronto and Montreal, but in the film we scaled it down to Toronto.
“As an outsider I heard stories of the troubles in communities like Attawapiskat, but I never been up there, so when I read the script, I immediately got into theses characters,” McKeller said. “I could feel the family, and the repercussions of what they were going through.”
Keeper says the reaction to the film, in terms of the film festivals, they’ve had near sell-out on all the screenings, and have been getting good feedback.
“What I hope audiences will take away from this film is that they remember the family portrayed in the movie and remember this region which most Canadians don’t ever get to see. I just really hope people take away some knowledge of the culture of the Northern Cree. Also how the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women affects people and families, because they say this is a national tragedy and we try to honour their stories as best we can in this project.”
The film opens on March 22, 2019.