Published Feb 18, 2020The word "kuessipan" means "your turn" in the Innu language, and in her novel, Naomi Fontaine uses that word as its title because it's the Innu people's turn to tell their story. Kuessipan speaks of the experiences of the Innu on the Uashat reserve where she was born. The Quebec community, like many in our country, is made to feel like they're not Canadian.
Myriam Verreault, in her feature debut, takes Fontaine's story and crafts it into a coming-of-age tale; the white director worked closely with Fontaine in order to learn about the culture, to capture the Innu with as much truth and respect as possible. She excels, crafting a film told through an Indigenous lens that discusses universal themes of friendship, identity, love and heartbreak.
The film follows Mikuan (Sharon Ishpatao Fontaine) and Shaniss (Yamie Grégoire), inseparable best friends who grew up together (Mikuan serving as a stand-in of sorts for Fontaine) and make a promise at a very young age that they'll never separate. They both have completely different home lives: Mikuan comes from a loving family, while Shaniss comes from a broken one.
As the film chronicles their upbringing, their lives go in different directions. Mikuan is in high school and excels at academics and goes to a writing workshop on the weekends. Shaniss is a dropout with an abusive boyfriend, and is mother to an infant child that she struggles to raise. Shaniss has gone from one toxic environment and into another.
Life on the reserve is told in beautiful prose by Sharon Ishpatao Fontaine's narration. Through her words, you feel the soul of this community as she delivers a love letter to her people. As Mikuan, she describes throwing "a white sheet over the dirt." The film touches on the racism they must endure and the refusal of government and industry to respect their land. The film also discusses how continued cultural assimilation is affecting them and how they're struggling to balance their traditions in a changing landscape of capitalism and technology.
Out of the two friends, the film's primary focus is on Mikuan and her innermost thoughts. At the beginning of the film, she talks of how she's dreamed of other lives, of seeing beauty and creating it. She doesn't want to live on the reserve forever and wants to be an author. When she falls in love with a white boy named Francis (Étienne Galloy), this desire is fuelled even more as they both talk about going to Quebec City for university. Because of this, Mikuan is made to feel as though she's betraying her friendship with Shaniss and her Innu community as a whole, like leaving and tossing away her culture go hand in hand. Through Francis, Mikuan learns how incredibly small her reserve is and how there's a bigger world out there, but we also see how hard it is to include yourself in a new community you haven't been exposed to before. The desire to include Francis into her family and teach him her culture causes tension, a reflection of how easily we give up on or don't care to include Indigenous people in our communities.
The film discusses the unbreakable bond of sisterhood, sure, but it's also a joyous celebration of culture with heartbreaking reality in between. The Innu, as the film points out, are prideful and believe in their legitimacy. It's time we make them feel it, too.