Canadian filmmaker Jennifer Dysart was an entrant in the Latino Cinemedia Shorts Program of the 22nd Santa Barbara International Film Festival with I'll Sing To You. The film tells the story of a city girl who visits her family’s reservation for the first time and meets a half-brother she was previously unaware of.
El Bicho: While I'm sure you were just happy to have your film included in the festival, I was puzzled why it was a part of the Latino Cinemedia program?
Jennifer Dysart: Event programmer Cedar Sherbert said that he thought it important that the Latino category include indigenous films as these large scale international festivals can be quite exclusive.
Terms like “Latino” provide a shorthand about a person’s ethnicity and background. How would you describe yourself?
I don’t have a straight answer! I call myself Cree (or from the Cree Nation), and when asked, “What's that?” by an American, I say, for simplicity, I’m Native American. First Nations works well in a formal/political setting like Canada. I use Indian on occasion, but usually in closed circles – i.e. in the company of other Aboriginal people. Out of respect for people from the country called India, I try to reserve the word Indian for people of that origin. Sometimes I say Aboriginal, the root of that word implies being an outsider so I avoid it except when in the company of government types because it’s quite common in Canadian government. language. Indigenous is my favorite as it is inclusive but specific.
That’s a lot to keep track of. While we all are different things to different people, it really comes to the forefront for you. What do you identify as?
I am a mixed race Cree/German /Scottish woman… quite often the mixed race issue is overlooked, but I think this is one of the most important things that I have to offer as a filmmaker. The mixed-race perspective is one that is continually erased. We are expected to take our place in the established polarized camps. Yet, in these places, our unique experiences belonging in two (or more) places are not allowed to take shape. And often, if you don't possess certain traits that signify being “other,” we're treated as outsiders anyway.
The uniqueness of your ethnicity hasn’t been presented much in the arts. Your point of view provides you a great opportunity in an untapped area.
I think there is a wealth of knowledge and perspective and really interesting stories that come from being mixed-race. These are the stories that I want to tell. The female perspective is important too, because often women are the glue that keeps the world happening with love and we are the ones who care for our histories.
Why do you want to make films?
I want to make films because I collect stories and if I don't let them out of my head, I'll go crazy! My mind is connected to how, if we look at what's happening at a micro-level, we'll have a better understanding of our everyday life experience. What I mean is that I love to explore very intimate personal settings and interactions. Sometimes these happenings can seem mundane or so specific to an individual’s reality that others neglect to notice them. Heartfelt or frustrated or bizarre interactions and the gestures, movements, and emotion created are the things that I am interested in showing in my work. It's in these rich moments that I find the fuel that drives me to work and to keep on seeing the beauty of the world around me.
What’s the story behind I'll Sing To You?
I'll Sing To You is what happened to my sister when she met our half-brother for the first time. Our aunt snuck my underage sister into the bar and surprised her by pointing him out. I feel for the girl in the film, not simply because I know what a difficult and exciting time it was for her, but because she really was in a situation that was outside her control. She was in a bar and her brother was across the room. They were meant to meet, and they did, and the awkwardness didn't kill them. The film is about recognizing family traits in strangers and how we deal with that situation. I am very passionate about my family. And when you encounter new family members who are essentially strangers, how do you deal with the intensity that you feel in your soul?
What turned out to be the toughest part about making your film?
Trying to get outside the story. It's so close to my heart, the story has been told and retold and imagined and re-imagined so many times between the three of us (my sister, my brother, and me) that somewhere along the way it became like a fable infused with imagination. All stories, even when true, are told after first being imagined.
One of my only regrets was that I only had 3 1/2 minutes to make this film, and that I had a very limited time to find my actors. Had things been different I would have kept the mixed-race issue in my film. Due to forces outside my control, I wasn't able to accommodate something that is very dear to my heart, which reminds me I need to work on bigger projects, ones that have parameters that can be more inclusive of a more complex story. This was made in a workshop setting without a lot of flexibility. It's a tough thing to reveal such a rich setting in a 3 1/2-minute film!
In the roundtable you revealed that your sound equipment didn't make it to your location, which is why no one is seen speaking on screen, making the visuals more important.
The night before my shoot I had a feeling that there may be an issue with getting my sound equipment, and so I decided to think about what I would do if my fears came true. The next morning there was a snowstorm and the equipment was three hours late being delivered, so I went ahead without it. I shot everything in reverse so you never see the actors’ lips moving. What I think it accomplished was creating a sense of intimacy between the brother and sister; you don't rely on the visuals to know they are speaking. It's about the reaction of the other person. I hope it shows how storytelling is important in our lives because it can have a profound effect on the person who hears it. I've been told that I've presented a very Native way of communicating: low, under the breath, without pretension.
What projects are you working on next?
I just finished a National Film Board of Canada short documentary that looks at the phenomenon of Native American online communities. It questions whether these sites offer a sense of community. I wonder if there is a parallel between these virtual gatherings and the historical (and contemporary) gathering of indigenous people who travel long distances together for social occasions like powwows and ceremonies etc. It looks at these so-called online “communities” and questions whether they offer a sense of community in the Native American sense, one that is primarily location-based. It will be premiered June 7, 2007 at the Dreamspeakers Festival in Edmonton.