Kuessipan deals with the universal

We spoke to Myriam Verreault on her new film, set in a First Nations community on Côte-Nord.

Myriam Verreault’s Kuessipan is based on a book by Naomi Fontaine, an Innu writer from Uashat, a First Nations community next to Sept-Îles in Northern Quebec. Kuessipan the book is a mostly non-narrative affair, a collection of prose centering around the community in which Fontaine grew up. From that book, Myriam Verreault excavated the characters of Mikuan and Shaniss, two childhood best friends who have grown as close as sisters in their adolescence. Mikuan (Sharon Fontaine-Ishpatao) loves writing and dreams of moving down south for university; Shaniss (Yamie Grégoire) is a teenage mother whose relationship with the baby’s father remains contentious. As they grow and their priorities shift, Mikuan and Shaniss’s relationship becomes strained — Mikuan focusing on a new relationship to a white boy (Étienne Galloy) from her writing classes and Shaniss becoming embroiled in her boyfriend’s legal troubles.

Some of Fontaine’s writing is integrated in the film as Mikuan’s writing, and it’s pretty obvious from what we hear of it that the adaptation process was not exactly similar to your typical one.

“Not at all,” says Verreault. “In fact, it’s not at all adaptable. Sometimes, I just say I made fan art (laughs). I took a work — a magnificent one, in fact — and I extrapolated another work out of it. I’ve never adapted a narrative work, but I don’t think that I would really like to, either. I think writing a screenplay is already such a precise art. It’s a unique medium, and literature is much more free. It must be difficult to take, say, Harry Potter, and file it down to two hours. But the second that the author says, “Sure, you can take my book and make a movie out of it,” she knows full well that there’s no story there. What she’s saying is “Let’s sit down and figure this out together!

“Mikuan and Shaniss, the two characters, aren’t in the book, but there are pieces about young women in the book. That’s what we started from,” she continues. “There are tons of moments in the book where she describes the baseball stadium, her grandma and other elements that make it into the movie. There’s a love for the people and the place that I think you can feel in the movie. That’s really an ambiance that comes from the book. The book was a revolution in First Nations literature when it came out, because it was the first time that an Innu writer was telling a contemporary story. That’s the spirit we wanted to draw from the book.”

I grew up in close proximity to a handful of First Nations communities, but I had almost no knowledge of them growing up. I knew more about the communities that Sherman Alexie wrote about in the books my dad left lying around than the ones a half-hour drive away. Consequently, I parroted racist nonsense that I heard around me with little thought to what I was actually saying. For all I knew, the First Nations people around me (mainly Montagnais, in my case) may as well have been from Mars. This has left me — and, I imagine, many other white people — with guilt and a desire to do better that I’m not sure what to do with. I bring up this fact to Verreault, who agrees that while that desire is there, Kuessipan is not a film she made to make amends.

“I had the same reflection,” says Verreault. “I grew up with prejudice and stereotypes about First Nations people, somewhat based on historical elements that I learned from other white people like the Oka Crisis, for example. When I started meeting with people from Maliotenam, I was a little mad that this was something that had been hidden from me all this time. I didn’t feel like I had to make up for it, however. I knew I was prejudiced and my intentions were truly to let go of them in order to make the best movie possible, but I knew that they were there. One by one, they fell away. It took seven years to make the movie. But above all, what I wanted to do was make a good movie, and for that, I needed the participation of the people of Maliotenam. What I felt was that they wanted to participate. They were consenting.

“It’s like a romantic relationship: if you’re doing something for your own profit, if you latch on to someone because you want something for yourself without caring how they feel, then that’s abuse,” says Verreault. “I think that the debate about cultural appropriation is necessary and that First Nations activists were absolutely right to call it out. I’m in agreement with their criticisms. But I think that the moment that the other party wants to participate and that artists from two universes are joining together to create something consensually, why not? White artists can’t be scared of this subject, because First Nations actors want to work, too. They don’t want to just be the ‘token Indian’ on some TV show for two episodes.

“It’s all about the approach. I don’t think any stories are off-limits, but it all needs to go through characters. And I don’t have the pretension of saying I made a movie about Innu people — not at all. I made a movie about Mikwan and Shaniss, and those characters are a little bit like me. Enough that I understand them. I can say that I know them; I can’t say I know all Innus. If someone had asked me to do a film about residential schools, I don’t think I would have been able to,” says Verreault. “The suffering that comes out of that, that has to come from a First Nations filmmaker. But this is a story about a friendship, about friends living through grief together. I can see myself in that story. I have friends like that, too. Those subjects are universal.”

Uashat and Maliotenam are certainly infamous in the news for the wave of suicides that led to a coroner’s inquest in 2015. For most people — myself included — that’s the first thing that springs to mind when you hear the names of the neighbouring communities. Kuessipan, for all of the hardships and tragedies it explores, doesn’t really touch on those themes. It’s one of the great surprises it holds — that for all of the death, depression and sadness that surrounds the characters, the film remains full of light and life.

“The movie talks about death, it talks about abuse, it talks about alcoholism, but that isn’t what the movie is about,” says Verreault. “It’s part of the context, but the film is about two characters. When I go back to Maliotenam to see my friends, I’m not ‘going up there to visit with the Innu.’ I’m going to see my friends Mike, Caro, Douglas… We have dinner and I sleep over at their house. That’s what the movie is. Naomi participated immensely in the writing and creation process, and she trusted me. She told me where she wanted me to go, and if she saw me going elsewhere, she would’ve stopped me. She grew up on the reserve, but she moved to Quebec City as a teenager. And she had that kind of perspective — you know, the perception that the media had of her people wasn’t what she saw. Yeah, there are suicides, yeah, there’s tragedy. But her day-to-day is her family.” ■

Kuessipan opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Oct. 4. Watch the trailer for Kuessipan below.

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Kuessipan trailer