The sense of desperation in Adam Garnet Jones’ debut film Fire Song is almost stifling. Similar to the ghost of their recently deceased peers, the threat of a potentially hopeless future haunts the Anishnaabe youth. While some have resolved to accept their fate in the Northern Ontario aboriginal community, Shane (Andrew Martin) is determined to get out at all costs. Set to go to university in Toronto in the fall, Shane’s plans take an unexpected detour when his sister commits suicide. Struggling to support the family in the aftermath, including tending to his depressed mother Jackie (Jennifer Podemeski), and raise money for school, Shane soon finds the walls of life closing in on him.
Complicating matters further is the fact that Shane is gay within a culture where the elders believe “too much male energy is not good.” Forced to meet with his boyfriend David (Harely Legrade) in secret, while stringing along an unknowing girlfriend, Tara (Mary Galloway), for appearances sake, only intensifies Shane’s desire for the freedom of the big city. Blinded by his visions of a better future, and filled with guilt over his sister’s passing, Shane’s life begins to spiral out of control. Before long he is making reckless decisions that will have reverberations throughout the entire community.
As intriguing as the film is, there are moments when Fire Song bites off more than it can chew. Tackling themes of homophobia, suicide, rape, drugs, small town life, and cultural values, Jones’ film does not always juggle the various talking points smoothly. Fortunately, the predictable nature of some of the narrative beats are minor stumbles made up for by the film’s rich and complex characters. Jones ensures that the audience is able to identify with the plight of the characters regardless of whether his lens is pointed toward the frequently neglected Tara or the spiritually conflicted David. Similar to the wonderful image of David and Shane spending a quiet moment on the grass, it quickly becomes apparent that the majority of the characters, in their own way, have a burning desire to live a life that transcends the bleak societal shackles which currently bind them.
Fire Song paints a complex portrait of the adversities facing modern aboriginal youth. Filled with heartbreaking sorrow, Jones presents a society where suicide and alcohol are often the preferred choices to numb the pain of life. As bleak as life may seem for the characters, the film never loses its sense of optimism. Jones hints that the bridge between traditional and modern values is achievable. While education, acceptance and respect are just a few of the key tools for breaking dangerous cycle that many face, Fire Song never neglects the importance of holding on to traditions that make the culture unique. The trick, of course, is in finding balance.
Sunday, September 13, 4:30 PM, Scotiabank Theatre
Tuesday, September 15, 09:30 PM, Scotiabank Theatre
Sunday, September 20, 10:15 AM, Scotiabank Theatre
Ticket information can be found at the TIFF website.