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Adam Garnet Jones on His Feature Film Debut ‘Fire Song,’ Premiering In Toronto This Weekend

Adam Garnet Jones on His Feature Film Debut 'Fire Song,' Premiering In Toronto This Weekend

This Sunday, Adam Garnet Jones’ feature film debut “Fire Song” makes its world premiere in Toronto. After having numerous shorts come to TIFF, the Canadian filmmaker is offering up a subtly powerful first feature in song, which depicts a young, queer First Nations man forced to choose between his community and the world outside of it. It’s a thoughtful and all-too-rare glimpse into an intersection of identities, marking a welcome new voice in Canadian cinema. 

/bent talked to Jones about the film earlier this week.

This is your first feature film, but certainly not your first foray into filmmaking. Can you explain your work leading up to “Fire Song,” and how it led to it?

I have had a singular focus and interest in making films since I was about fourteen or fifteen, and so I didn’t often question whether or not I would eventually make a feature. But for a young person who grew up without any connection to the broader world of art or culture, it has been a long road to get here. Like a lot of filmmakers, I began by directing short films, telling stories about characters that interested me, trying to share aspects of my experience that felt unusual or unseen. 

My feelings about the world have always been murky, and my tendency has (for better or worse) play with characters who have very uncertain feelings about the world and their place in it. Fire Song is certainly an outgrowth from that. A number of characters in the film have had the foundations of their world shattered, and the film is all about seeing them try to understand how to come together and move forward in the face of something inexplicable. Fire Song feels like nothing I’ve ever made before, but a perfect culmination of all of my past work. 

What was the genesis of “Fire Song,” and why did you want to tell this story for your first feature?

When I first started thinking about Fire Song, I wanted to make a deeply personal film that could touch on my own experience as an adolescent, but could also serve to get people talking about sexuality and youth suicide in Aboriginal communities. I remember what it was like being a teenager with massive hopes and dreams for my own future, and at the same time I remember being terrified that I would kill myself before I could reach my potential. When I wrote Fire Song, I was writing about myself and lots of other young people that I’ve known over the years who were full of promise but also broken in some way.

At the time, I had other scripts that I had been working on, but the struggles of the young people in Fire Song made it feel more urgent and relevant than anything else I could make. I remember telling one of my producers before we knew we had funding to make the film: “I want to Make Fire Song so bad that I actually get physically sick when I think that we might not get to do it.”

What were some of the biggest challenges in getting this film made?

Nothing was easy. It’s hard to get any movie made, but it’s really hard to convince people to give you money to make a movie about suicidal gay Aboriginal teenagers in northern Ontario. The cast is 100% Aboriginal and all of the shooting took place in First Nations communities, far away from any major production centre. My Producers at Big Soul Productions and Thunderstone Pictures deserve an enormous amount of credit for making the impossible possible. 

Aside from logistics, the subject matter was pretty harrrowing for us all. Almost every single person in the cast and crew had been touched deeply by suicide in one way or another. Many of us had to face our own demons in order to just get through shooting some of the scenes. Nobody kew it at the time, but I was an emotional wreck. Making the film was a beautiful act of bravery on the part of everyone involved, and a show of strength and resilience for all of us.

This is one — if not the — first film where a First Nations filmmaker has tacked the idea of being queer in a First Nations community in a film. Did you feel a sense of responsibility taking this on?

I know that this story is going to resonate deeply with some Two-Spirited people, but I also know that for others it won’t feel true to their experience. But like anyone who is telling a story about an underrepresented community, all I could do was try to be true to who these characters are. No story is going to be able to tell the experience of an entire community. That’s not a problem with the story – it just means that there are more stories from that community waiting to be told. 

For the ignorant among us, can you talk about the Two-Spirited identity and the issues that face Two-Spirited people in Canada today? 

I have never been comfortable with the term Two-Spirited for myself, so in some ways I am reluctant to talk about what it means to be Two-Spirited. Two-Spirited is a category that is intended to capture a spectrum of Queer Indigenous people, and one that acknowledges the male and female spirits that Queer Indigenous people carry with them. I think it’s a useful way to begin to talk about Indigenous gender and sexuality, but the term has always felt to binary for me to use in reference to myself.

As far as the issues go, like being Queer anywhere, it depends on who you have in your corner. If you have people supporting you, and you live in a welcoming community, it’s going to be easier. For lots of Two-Spirited people, particularly those who grew up in very Christian communities, coming out can be very unsafe.

What do you hope people take from “Fire Song”?

I hope people come away from Fire Song with respect for the resilience of Aboriginal people and Aboriginal communities, and an interest in exploring more Indigenous cinema. There is a whole cinematic universe of stories, culture, and history waiting for a wide audience to discover. In a world where people feel like they have seen it all, this is a chance to be exposed to what will be a new world for a lot of people. 

Any advice for budding filmmakers trying to make their first feature?

Advice is tough. I like getting it better than giving it, but here is something that I know for sure. When someone gives you an opportunity, say yes. You might not know where it will lead, and it may scare the shit out of you, and you may even thing you can’t do it, but say yes. Saying yes is always more interesting than saying no. But the second part of that advice is: once you say yes, give it everything you have. Don’t hold back. Because there’s no point in saying yes to something if you’re not going to follow through. 

What’s next for you?

I actually self-funded another feature that I shot this winter in Toronto, and I’m working with my producer Sarah Kolasky to secure finishing funds for it now. The film is called Great Great Great, and it’s about a young couple whose decision to get engaged ends up tearing their relationship apart. I also have a number of other scripts for features on the go that I will be shopping around to producers while I’m at TIFF.

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