“The question, ‘How do I define myself as a person?’ has always been one that has fascinated me,” expressed filmmaker Myriam Verreault, director of Kuessipan. “When I got to know these young people, I thought there was an added layer. When you’re 16 and Innu, what do you become as a person?”
Kuessipan follows the lives of Mikuan (Sharon Fontaine-Ishpatato) and Shaniss (Yamie Grégoire), two Innu childhood friends who grew up in Uashat Mak Mani-Utenam, next to Sept-Îles. Their bond is put to the test when Mikuan starts dating Françis (Étienne Galloy), a local white boy, and looks towards a future beyond her traditional roots.
“Cultural diversity is valuable, and we need to stop thinking that it’s a threat,” remarked Verreault. “Rather, a person can be proud of their own culture while accepting another’s.”
Recently Verreault spoke about the accolades she has received for Kuessipan, and the experiences she had during the seven years it took to make her film.
Kuessipan (“it’s your turn” in Innu)
leads viewers to often relatable scenarios as characters struggle with
questions of identity, love and culture. “They’re also descendants
of a rich millennial culture that’s being threatened. You can’t easily disconnect yourself from this history.”
The script, co-written by Verrault and Naomi Fontaine, is an adaptation of Fontaine’s critically acclaimed novel of the same name. The book is a collection of stories largely inspired by her experience growing up in Uashat until the age of seven, when her family moved to Quebec City.
Looking back, Verreault is deeply grateful for the opportunity to develop close ties with community members during the shoot. “The confidence people gave to me to share their stories, knowing full well I’m a white cinematographer, was amazing. There was a non-verbal contract that said, ‘Okay, I’ll confide in you, but respect my story.’”
For Verreault, the seven-year production period was a blessing in disguise. It gave her more time to establish deeper relationships that gave meaning to the project. “It takes time to meet people, it takes time to create real relations and gain the confidence of people.”
Associate producer Réginald Vollant, who passed away during filming, was a key figure in allowing for an authentic telling of the community. “He believed in us, he was a builder of bridges,” said Verreault. “He allowed for the project to take off.”
Verreault carefully ensured her production team of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people possessed the empathy necessary to respect the nuance of the project moving forward while working at a pace set by the Innu community.
She knew early on that the film could only succeed by following the drum of the community. “We had to understand and respect each other in order to work with together. We were in their homes, not in ours,” she said.
“Experiencing moments like these helped us become a team,” added Verreault. “It didn’t matter who was Innu or who was white.”
In early September, Kuessipan premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and then later that month, picked up the award for best feature at the Quebec City Film Festival.
On September 22, Kuessipan was screened to a full house at the Jean-Marc Dion theatre in Sept-Îles, with 700 spectators in attendance. “It was crazy. People laughed hard, and they cried hard,” stated Verreault.
“One of the jokes that they laughed at the most is when Mikuan says, ‘Oh, a white!’” She is referencing a scene where Shaniss taunts her friend for seeing an off-rez boy.
“At the end, people rose from their seats and gave it a standing ovation,” marveled Verreault, who saw this moment as a highlight of her personal and professional career. “I’m still on cloud nine,” she sighed, adding, “I’ll remember this all my life.”
The next major screening will be at the Festival International de Films Francophone de Namur in Belgium, where actors Étienne Galloy and Cédrick Ambroise (who plays Mikuan’s brother) will represent Kuessipan.
Verreault said that the production could have been halted altogether because it was difficult to convince the right people, from film boards to financiers, to believe in the project and see beyond its viability in the commercial market.
“Quebec cinema is homogenous and lacks diversity,” explained Verreault. “It’s not easy to showcase diversity in Quebec films, so there needs to be a way to empower one another to make films like this.”
Verreault hopes that through laughter and sadness, viewers will see a part of themselves in the people who live up North. “I hope that they have a beautiful time watching the film, the same way they watch any other type of movie. And that they think, ‘Oh, this could be me.’
“To see an Innu character,” said Verreault, “who is a typical teenage girl wanting to go to school and having a boyfriend, all of a sudden a link of empathy has been created.”
Kuessipan opens in theatres on October 4.