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A Native Storyteller's Long Journey to TIFF

09/02/2013 07:46 EDT | Updated 11/02/2013 05:12 EDT

Actress and Producer Jennifer Podemski's film Empire of Dirt premieres this week at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. It screens Friday, September 6, and Sunday, September 8.

Having a film premiere at TIFF is a big deal for me; the experience carries a 35-year-old legacy of performing and storytelling. You see, I believe that we are each given a unique set of skills or gifts, and it us up to us, and those around us, to foster those gifts. Since I can remember, I always loved to perform for an audience. Perhaps it was because I was the product of teen parents and somewhat of a novelty to those around them, or maybe it was something I was born with; whatever the reason, I got the "bug" at an early age. I grew up entertaining, whether I was singing and dancing for guests or writing and performing skits with my sister, I seemed to excel in that environment. Whatever the case may be, performing became my refuge; a refuge from feeling out of place and different. Oddly enough, it seemed as if all the other people who felt out of place and different also gravitated towards the stage. By grade three, I was immersed in the performing arts and surrounded by other "creative types." Those around me nurtured my interest: My grandmother took me to the theatre, my parents sent me to extra curricular dance and theatre classes, and in general, my creative spirit was supported.

It wasn't until I was older that my creative spirit was compromised. Prior to attending Claude Watson Performing Arts High School (at Early Haig S.S. in Toronto), I had and extensive performing resume that even included several television appearances. Although I was majoring in dance, I always flirted with theatre. By 16, I had my first agent and had begun auditioning. It was then that I became painfully aware of the cultural barriers in film and television. A part of me wanted to quit; it seemed pointless. I was only sent out for Native roles and even those were few and far between. I don't think it was anyone's fault, but I do know that something was wrong with the industry as a whole. Growing up, I had almost never seen Native people on television, none that I could relate to anyway. I was frustrated and angry at the world, but something inside me told me to "keep going." If I wanted to change things, I had to stick with it and follow in the path of my predecessors, inlcuding Tantoo Cardinal, Gordon Tootoosis, Jay Silverheels, Thomas King, Pam Mathews, Tom Jackson, August Schellenberg, Monique Mojica, Michelle St. John, and Jani Lauzon. Even though I didn't know what it was all for, I chose to take the path of most resistance.

My major turning point came when I was cast in Bruce McDonald's Dance Me Outside; it gave me some notoriety and showcased my ability. But at the end of the day, I was still seen as a Native Actress, an actor defined by my cultural affiliation, and the opportunities were always limited. If it weren't for my agents Celia Chassels and Gary Goddard, I may never have had the opportunity to be seen "outside the box." They shamelessly submitted me for everything, convincing casting directors and producers that I could play the girl next door, the waitress, the doctor, etc. And it worked. But still, the jobs were few and far between.

By 25, I felt defeated by the business and my inability to shift the paradigm. I prayed and asked for guidance, and the answers that I received all pointed behind the camera. At 26, I launched Big Soul Productions with Laura Milliken. Our mandate was to train aboriginal youth in film and television while creating culturally relevant content for all audiences. The struggle continued. It was an uphill battle. It seemed as if people were just not into Native Stories, Native perspectives, or Native talent.

That is at the core of the struggle. Popular opinion about Native people was created by Hollywood back in the John Ford days. It was a cooperative effort with all media at the time and ultimately it created a divide between America and its Indians. That is the paradigm that still resonates today. Although we, as Native storytellers, have enjoyed some incredible achievements, we still have a long way to go.

That is why being at TIFF with a film I produced is a huge deal. It comes with a lot of baggage. It took eight years to make this film, but for me, it really took a lifetime to the courage to do it! I am especially proud to star alongside two extremely talented Native women. If you do have a chance to see Empire of Dirt, you will see that it isn't exclusively a Native story. It is a film about a broken family; about people with baggage and about the power we each have within ourselves to end negative cycles. Although it is a culturally specific perspective, it is a film that has a universal message, and I hope the film will resonate with cultures around the world.

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