TORONTO - Teenage mothers, substance abuse and the little-discussed but ever-present impact of the residential school system on a family are all issues laid bare in the Canadian drama "Empire of Dirt," which follows three generations of native women battling their past while trying to create a better future.
But don't label the film just an "aboriginal movie."
Those behind the project — which has been screening at the Toronto International Film Festival — hope audiences of all ethnicities will be able to relate to the struggles explored on screen.
"We're not trying to shove any kind of issues down anyone's throat. It's a human story and hopefully that's what comes through," said Cara Gee, who plays a young single mother and former addict trying to save her teenage daughter from making the same mistakes she did.
"Like any good film, it's open to interpretation. What I hope most of all is that we're able to take the audience on a journey where they're able to empathize with these characters."
"Empire of Dirt" follows Gee's character, Lena, as she takes her troubled 13-year-old daughter back to her rural Ontario hometown to avoid scrutiny from child services. Once there, however, Lena has to deal with her own estranged mother and the ghosts of her past.
Gee hopes the movie, her first feature, goes beyond what might be expected of a film that focuses on aboriginal characters.
"Native isn't a genre. What does that even mean? We're all people and I think it's easy to forget that because we're so often in the media represented as being a problem," she said.
"To be able to tell a story where we're saying 'Hey, we're human beings,' is important ... I think at the heart of this film, it's about three generations of women, coming together as a family for the first time, figuring out how to be good moms and good daughters — who doesn't relate to that?"
Gee notes that the lead characters in the film are in no way meant to stand for all native women, or even a specific community.
"They can't be lumped together with any other women, they're just themselves," she said. "That's how you conquer stereotypes."
Jennifer Podemski, who plays Gee's mother and was also a producer on the film, hopes the movie comes across as "unpretentious, real and raw and unabashed."
"We very rarely see native people reflected in cinema as three dimensional characters. There is a history of skewing the truth and misrepresentation," she said, adding that the project has been eight years in the making.
Podemski, who is part Israeli and part aboriginal, said she'd love for the film to trigger an open dialogue.
"A lot of Canadians don't know how to relate to the native community. On both sides, there's very little tolerance and understanding, there's very little space for a conversation unless you're provided the space," she explained.
"That's one of the goals for this movie, the reason we wanted to make it kind of universal — to start a conversation and to kind of bridge the gap, to create tolerance and inspire future learning."
"Empire of Dirt" is directed by Vancouver-born actor-turned-director Peter Stebbings — previously responsible for Woody Harrleson's super hero comedy drama "Defendor" — and also features Canadian Luke Kirby as the wayward father of Lena's child.
For Stebbings, finding just the right tone for the film was very important.
"It is distinctly a native story, but we did try to go for something that felt like it was touching on universal themes," he explained.
"We wanted to move past identity politics, we wanted to move past a story whereby just white society was the enemy...Really the enemy here is themselves."
The film is set to be released in theatres later this year.
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