When you’re filming a story about indigenous peoples in the frozen tundra and want to make it authentic, you take what nature gives you. In the case of MAÏNA and its ‘conflicts with men from the land of ice’ as quoted on the film’s website, in the glacial cold of Canada’s Northwoods, it was minus 30 degrees Centigrade when the cameras rolled.
“We moved both with — and against — the elements as Mother Nature played her own role,” says Roseanne Supernault (Metis Cree) who stars as an Innu woman caught between two of America’s founding nations (Innus and Inuits) prior to European contact.
What began as a TV adaptation of novelist Dominique Demers book turned into a unique film once veteran director Michel Poulette was brought on board. “My passion is telling stories and my interest was piqued in a project that called for a multi-cultural cast and crew to work together in natural surroundings. Every project is an open door to a new world and even though everybody said this was a bad idea, once I met with tribal leaders, I knew I had to move forward.”
And for the first time in Canadian film history, the two indigenous communities involved (Innu First Nation and the Kuujjuaq Inuit people) provided project financing because they saw the movie as a way to help preserve their culture and language. This film is believed to be the first film collaboration between white, Innu, and Inuit — “The first time members of these two tribes have ever seen their people in a movie featured as the center of the story,” Poulette says.
“For the first time EVER, Innus can look at themselves on the big screen, speaking their own language. Our youth are offered strong characters they can identify with,” says Jean-Charles Pietacho, Chief, Ekuanitshit.
MAÏNA is an adventure story and a love story, a contemporary film set 700 years ago where a clash of cultures centers around a fear of differences — of “the other” — and how that fear can be conquered by getting to know one another. “It’s both a feature film and a documentary that youth can see and feel pride the story is about their people and the culture of several centuries ago. The story is respectful and based on reality,” notes Poulette.
Co-stars Graham Greene, Tantoo Cardinal, and Natar Ungalaaq bring their cinematic backgrounds from other productions such as Dances With Wolves, Smoke Signals, Black Robe, and The Green Mile.
Poulette, with 30 years experience in both TV and cinema, met many new challenges in making this movie. First off, he insisted on cultural accuracy while he shot in four language versions (Innu, Inuktitut, French, and English) with subtitles. “I insisted the characters speak in their own language and hired consultants and specialists to minimize dialogue and make it realistic. Because one tribe’s language uses a dozen words to describe one word, we often employed a look or a silence that took the place of verbage. We also enlisted the help of anthropologists and cultural experts to make our story historically and culturally accurate.”
The film proved difficult to research, finance, and distribute, but filming went well — if you exclude weather conditions. “It was spring, and cold, when we began shooting the Inuit part that involved six actual igloos,” remembers Poulette (smiling now, but not then). “Overnight, the weather switched and in minutes, the igloos began melting down one after one.” The warming did attract wilderness spectators however as a group of caribou came out of nowhere to watch the ice houses melt.
Reaction to the project has been prompt and positive. “The Native community in Canada has embraced the movie because actors they can relate to now have room on the big screen,” says Poulette. “We’ve won over a dozen awards at American Indian and First Nation film festivals in the states and Europe.”
“Everyone associated with the film, no matter their ethnic background, made every possible effort to understand the cultures involved and work together harmoniously against any prejudices about First Nations,” says Supernault.
“This is a groundbreaking film that can be a showcase and a catalyst of what happens when different kinds of First Nations peoples come together with non-native filmmakers all working toward the same goal. We’ve been knocking on Hollywood’s door for decades and if it did open it was at their will, on their own time and dime, and we were unable to tell our authentic stories. MAÏNA is a touchstone for what can happen when Native people are given more power in the film industry.”
Director Poulette agrees: “If deciding to film MAÏNA makes me a mentor to the next generation of Native filmmakers, I’m happy to be that because this movie touched me. I think what will happen is a new wave of First Nation movie makers will start filming their own projects. It’s time.”