Cara Gee leads Empire of Dirt

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As a celebrated young stage actor in Toronto, Cara Gee is no stranger to strong Native roles and complex female parts. After all, her repertoire spans everything from Tomson Highway’s The Rez Sisters to Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad. But when it comes to movies, the Calgary-born Ojibwa actor knows how few and far between those kinds of characters are. And talking to the Straight from Toronto, she is still marvelling at her good fortune to play the lead in Empire of Dirt, her first feature.

“Do you know how rare it is to have a movie where the lead is a young Native woman? That in itself is a rare, rare thing—and here, three Native women carry it,” says the good-humoured Gee. “I feel so lucky to be a part of this thing, because so often the representation in the media is that, as a people, we are a problem or an issue. We’re all lumped together. And in this film, really the individuality and humanity of these women is front and centre.”

In Empire of Dirt (now playing) Gee plays Lena, a mother who works as a housekeeper and has overcome her own addiction to raise the child she had as a teenager. But she’s losing touch with that daughter, Peeka, now 13, who ODs in a Toronto alleyway. Lena flees with her daughter back to the small cottage town where she grew up—and to the mother with whom she has her own neglect issues.

The hard-working Lena can’t seem to keep her own daughter out of trouble, but she volunteers as a counsellor for other urban Native kids trying to kick drugs.

“For me, what hit home was the complexity of Lena’s character and how she seems to make choices that contradict each other, but tries really hard and loves her daughter so much. That’s what really broke my heart,” says Gee, whose relationship to her own parents is solid.

Empire of Dirt takes on some difficult subject matter, much of it culled from the most painful corners of modern Native experience. Peeka gets high huffing aerosol cans, and Lena’s trip back to her hometown lays bare a family cycle of residential school, alcohol abuse, and gambling addiction.

But Gee says the shoot was a happy one. “I grew up in a small town up north, and so, for me, it wasn’t that far away. The location where we shot, in Keswick [Ontario], was so beautiful. We would finish after a long day of shooting and people would want to hang out on the dock.”

In the end, as thrilled as Gee is to be telling a Native story, she stresses that the success of Empire of Dirt hinges on the fact it speaks to universal truths.

“It’s not an issue film; it’s a way in. I don’t think with art that you can shove issues down people’s throats,” she says. “These women happen to be First Nations, but it’s not about being First Nations. I think that’s why people are responding so positively to it: it’s about families and cycles, and how do you break a cycle and heal?”

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