Interview: Jennifer Podemski and Cara Gee talk Empire of Dirt
It was a long and often times agonizing process, one that saw script changes and a lack of funds, but in the end, Jennifer Podemski saw made the film she wanted.
Empire of Dirt, produced by and starring Podemski, was a project eight years in the works that sought to tell a story that while being both a Canadian and native, was also universal.
“It had never been done before, where you have these native people living a natural experience but connected to their cultural legacy,” said Podemski during an interview in Toronto ahead of the film’s wide release. “What we were compelled to do was have very real, vulnerable, raw characters…to deal with a basic issue, struggling to get by as a family, and facing their own failures.”
“We realized how much with didn’t want to be a native story, and we knew we didn’t want to be an issue-driven story. We stayed away from the clichéd nativeness,” added Podemski. She explained that before this film became about three generations of women, there was a story about clairvoyance and mysticism, and one that also may have had more to do with drum circles and dream catchers.
Directed by Peter Stebbings, Empire of Dirt follows Lena Mahikan, a 30-year-old woman with a strained relationship with her own mother (Podemski) as well as with her own 13-year-old daughter (Shay Eyre). When her daughter overdoses, Lena panics and leaves Toronto to head to her hometown outside of the city, reuniting but not necessarily reconciling with her mother.
“There aren’t any other movies like this, where there are three First Nations female leads, so I’m really glad to be a part of it,” said Gee during an interview at The Gladstone in Toronto. “I love that it happened to be First Nations, and it’s definitely told through that particularl perspective, but it’s so much bigger than that. It’s about family, about a family emerging from a cycle of hurt, and how do you get better, how to do you feel, how do you move forward?
Gee, a young actress with plenty of experience on stage, jumped at the chance to star in a feature film, though admits she was cringing while watching herself on the screen during the premier at the Toronto International Film Festival.
She isn’t anything like her stubborn, serious character, however. For one, she is especially close with her mother, with whom she spent time with during production, rehearsing lines and trying to understand Lena’s mindset and place in the world.
“She doesn’t have that lived experience of having a good mom; she grew up in a parking lot with so much pain” said Gee of her character, of whom there is also another curious side. “She is really good with kids,” added Gee of Lena’s work at a community centre. “That is a really interesting aspect, to look at those two ways of being a caring person, how come she is so good with those kids, but not with her daughter?”
It’s a universal story that Podemski wanted to tell and is glad, and relieved, was made.
“I’m’ really proud of the little film we were able to squeeze out of this experience,” she said. “I’m also happy we didn’t compromise the cast to get more money. ‘Native’ doesn’t even entire the Canadian conscious in any way, and when people see a native film, typically they feel very disassociated with it, they’re looking from the outside looking in. I really wanted to make a film that they were on the inside watching themselves, almost relating to a family that was nothing like them culturally, but at the same time very like them in terms of the way they relate to one another.”
It was a learning experience for Podemski, who eventually after rewrites, being denied funding time after time, and securing a very busy director in Stebbings, decided to just go for it in the summer of 2012.
“I’m kind of laughing about it now, but it felt like hell,” said Podemski with a slight smile. “If at the end of the day it’s just going to be a movie that sticks out as one little independent expression of the Canadian experience, then I’m happy.”