Jennifer Podemski: “It’s a full-time job to be the Indigenous person on a film set”

The veteran actor and filmmaker is out to empower Indigenous women with a free online platform called Shine Network

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      If you've been paying attention to lineups the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) and the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this year, you may have noticed a distinct surge in Indigenous programming. Not just movies featuring Indigenous performers, mind you, but movies written, produced, and directed by Indigenous filmmakers.

      Tracey Deer’s Beans, an autobiographically inflected drama about the Oka crisis, placed third for TIFF's People’s Choice award. Michelle Latimer’s documentary Inconvenient Indian, an adaptation of Thomas King’s book about the commodification and reclamation of native identity, won both TIFF's People’s Choice documentary award and the best Canadian feature prize. The world premiere of filmmaker Loretta Sarah Todd big-screen adaptation of author Eden Robsinson's B.C.–set debut novel Monkey Beach will open this year's VIFF on September 24. And Latimer’s CBC series Trickster also premiered at TIFF, spinning Robinson’s novels into vivid, relevant drama.

      The new wave of Indigenous media is cresting, and it’s going to inspire another generation of young Indigenous filmmakers to put themselves on screen. And Jennifer Podemski wants to help them.

      A veteran actor and filmmaker, Podemski’s credits stretch from Bruce McDonald’s Dance Me Outside to Cardinal; she turned up at TIFF in a small role in Charles Officer’s new film Akilla’s Escape. And she’s been working behind the camera for nearly almost as long, most recently directing the television series Future History and Unsettled for APTN.

      In the latest episode of the NOW What podcast, Podemski talks about launching The Shine Network, a website she describes as “a media platform created to empower and inspire, educate and celebrate Indigenous women content creators.” Access is free; knowledge is to be shared.

      “I’m launching it as a way to raise awareness and raise money to fill it with amazing content created and owned by Indigenous women,” she explains, “and create probably the biggest professional development platform that exists.”

      A digital showcase

      The site will also offer a digital showcase for existing work: “Short-form, genre based, long-form, special events…but also curated exhibitions [of] already established Indigenous women filmmakers. A huge celebration of talent.”

      But the primary purpose of Podemski’s Shine Network will be educational, offering case studies, mentorship opportunities and other services to young filmmakers, the better to prepare them for what lies ahead.

      “The big dream is to have virtual mentors available to filmmakers 24 hours a day,” Podemski says. “To be able to call someone and say, ‘I’m having this problem. I can’t articulate exactly what it is.’ And it might be a very specifically cultural related problem, and the only person who can answer is someone who’s experienced that.”

      Unique challenges

      “Being an Indigenous filmmaker has very unique challenges that many people will never have to face,” she explains. “It’s a full-time job to be the Indigenous person on a film set, even if it’s your own show. It’s a full-time job, aside from the other full-time jobs of writing, directing, producing, creating, whatever it is you’re doing.

      “These are things that I feel people should be prepared for, because it’s going to be a brutal learning curve to come face-to-face with a racial experience on a film set that you’re not prepared for,” she says. “It’s not like it’s racism as we know it; there are ways that Indigenous people are treated, just for the fact that they are representing being Indigenous. Like, ‘Oh, the smudge scene is coming up, can you can go manage that?’ And it’s like, ‘Well, I hope you’re that excited when you talk to me about the cost report meeting.’

      “There are a lot of micro challenges. It’s important for the younger generation, as they build their own companies and their own productions, to be prepared for things like that. Arm them with a great how-to kit.”

      Podemski’s Shine Network will serve as a necessary corrective to the lack of cultural support Indigenous women have received in Canada.

      “You know, we represent less than one per cent of the population receiving funding in Canada,” Podemski says. “We are the most underrepresented in film and television, [both] in front of and behind the camera. We also are the highest numbers of missing and murdered. We have a lot of disproportionate outcomes that we’re trying to address here.”

      Listen to the whole conversation on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, or just play it below. 

      NOW What is a twice-weekly podcast that explores the ways people are coping with life in the time of coronavirus. New episodes are released every Tuesday and Friday. And remember, we’re all in this together.