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Fire Song’ Shines Spotlight on Gay Teen in First Nation Community

As diversified representations of smaller communities become more celebrated in independent cinema, Canadian filmmaker Adam Garnet Jones’ "Fire Song" explores the traditions and drama within a First Nation community in Northern Ontario.

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"Fire Song" focuses on Shane (Andrew Martin) -- a young, gay Anishnaabe teenager navigating his identity in the face of family and responsibility as he wrestles with grief from a recent family tragedy. Despite having a boyfriend, Shane remains closeted to his friends, relatives and neighbors, and he plans to flee to Toronto to find acceptance and fulfill his potential for the future.

"Fire Song" itself made it to Toronto, where it had its world premiere at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. And it was released in the U.S. earlier this month on DVD and VOD just in time for Native American Heritage Month. Jones, who is of Cree and Métis ancestry, spoke to NBC OUT about his debut feature film.

NBC OUT: As a gay and Cree-Métis filmmaker, did you find connection between your identity and becoming filmmaker in order to have particular stories told?

JONES: Actually, no -- not really. What happened was, the first creative people I saw at their job were actors. And I thought, if they’re at work and this is an option in my life, then that’s just what I’m going to do. And so I tried to be an actor for a while. And, really, because I was a young gay kid, and I seemed really gay, I didn’t get cast in anything. And my high school drama teacher told me I would never seem like a man, and that I didn’t have any future as a performer. And so that was kind of crushing. And around the same time I had an opportunity to make my first short film. And the experience of that was completely opposite to my experience of trying to be an actor. It was just so ... wonderfully collaborative and people were so open. And it was a really queer-positive environment. And I thought if I could just do this for the rest of my life then that would be amazing, and so I never really looked back.

NBC OUT: So you decided to take action and possession of your own storytelling methods?

JONES: Absolutely. And the other reason I was a terrible actor was that I was terrified all the time. I’m just not a natural performer -- so the opportunity to step behind the camera and work at things from a little more distance and a more thoughtful angle, it’s just where I fit best. We all find our path in different ways.

NBC OUT: How did you decide, in particular, to focus on gay youth in an indigenous community in Northern Ontario?

JONES: When I was looking to make my first feature film, I really thought a lot about the kinds of stories I wanted to tell and what was important to me at the time. I was aware that I made short films that had queer content and ones that had indigenous content, but I never found a way to bring those two parts of myself, and those communities, together. And at the same time I was really conscious that in my life those two communities were split and there didn’t really seem to be much overlap. So I started thinking about where those two communities intersect, and that was sort of painful. It brought me to thoughts of depression and suicide I had as a young person -- from about the age of about 6 on. And as I got older and shared my experiences with others -- both queer people and other indigenous people -- I came to understand how common the experience is but how little people at the time were actually talking about it.

2015 Toronto International Film Festival - Portraits
Adam Garnet Jones of "Fire Song" poses for a portrait during the 2015 Toronto Film Festival on September 12, 2015 in Toronto, Ontario. Maarten de Boer / Getty Images

NBC OUT: I know Canada has very good government funding programs for film and the arts -- is that where you found most of the budget or did you have to search outside of them, as well?

JONES: Yeah, the funding came from various government programs, but it was a struggle at first to secure that funding. I had a relationship with the Arts Council of Canada, and they are supportive of artists and their various goals. But another big portion of the funding came from an agency called TeleFilm. And for them filmmakers need to prove the market value of their film and that there is an audience for the film. And that is something that was very difficult for me. They were very supportive of the film -- and of the script and the story -- but when it came down to that aspect, we heard a lot of “I don’t know if anyone cares about, or wants to watch a film about, suicidal or gay kids in the North.” So that was a big barrier and there were a lot of conversations about how the story is worth telling and once the story gets told, we’d find an audience for it.

NBC OUT: What was it like bringing the film to premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival?

JONES: It was amazing! I love TIFF and I live in Toronto so it was great to have that hometown festival experience. And it was great for all the people involved in the film and especially a young cast who, for the most part, had never been on screen before. Having their first opportunity to be on camera and have the film premiere at TIFF and have that red carpet experience -- that was so much fun to see. And just a blast for them -- they were having people come up to them on the street and recognize them from being in the film. In terms of actually gaining an audience for the film and convincing people that the film was worthwhile, and giving it a shot, it was extremely important to premiere at a festival like TIFF. And it was an early stamp of approval for the film.

NBC OUT: The film played at other festivals outside of Canada, too, namely Palm Springs and Mardi Gras Sydney? Was the reaction different in places less familiar with these communities?

JONES: The farthest away that the film screened where I was in attendance was Palm Springs. And I thought the audience may have a hard time connecting with the story given how far removed they are from where the film takes place. And I was really touched by how much the audience seemed to care. It’s really easy to feel like indigenous communities in North America, and Northern Canada specifically, are invisible and there’s hard stuff happening in those communities all the time. And perhaps people who live in the South don’t care, or don’t have an understanding of what’s going on up North. So it was wonderful to go some place as removed as Palm Springs and screen a film for people who don’t really know what’s happening up our communities up here. And the questions were really passionate and really engaged with the subject matter. And the audience seemed really moved by the story and characters. That was a very real, inspiring moment for me, because it really felt like the story was reaching out and really touching those who don’t have experience with our communities.

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