'Fire Song': A Tale of Love and Death

Fire Song
(Canada, 96 min.)
Written and directed by Adam Garnet Jones
Starring: Andrew Martin, Jennifer Podemski, Harley Legarde, Mary Galloway
Andrew Martin and Jennifer Podemski star in Fire Song.
Fire Song bravely tells a story of love and death within a tightly knit First Nations community. The intimacy of the Anishnabe neighbourhood is essential here because each death of Fire Song takes its toll, while the close proximity of family and friends tightens this tale of forbidden love in Northern Ontario. Fire Song is one of the first Canadian films to offer two-spirited characters as Shane (Andrew Martin) wrestles with his love for David (Harley Legarde) while keeping up appearances as boyfriend to Tara (Mary Galloway). Tara’s a perfectly nice girl, and she’s clearly head-over-heels for Shane, but her college-bound boyfriend would much rather head to school in Toronto with his boyfriend, who happens to be a rising star amongst the young residents in the eyes of the bandleaders. Shane and David profess their love to one another long before Fire Song begins, but their fear of sharing their love with others only adds to the complexity of life in their small poverty-stricken community.

Fire Song comes to theatres after hitting the festival circuit last year and while it remains relevant as a unique and even-handed portrait of queer Canadiana, the film enjoys additional urgency given the alarming rise in suicides in communities like Attawapiskat making headlines today. The film is cloaked in death as the ghost of Shane’s sister Destiny (Morteesha Chickekoo-Bannon) haunts the family home six weeks after she took her own life. She literally roams the halls, appearing in ghostly visions to Shane à la Rhymes for Young Ghouls and leaving a lingering melancholy from which their widowed mother, Jackie (Jennifer Podemski), understandably cannot escape.

Shane therefore carries an awfully big load on his shoulders.  The grief of losing his sister, the responsibility of caring for their mother and maintaining their rundown home, the burden of hiding his true self, the guilt of betraying Tara, and the pain of denying his love for David all pile up to a full weight. He shoulders enough heaviness that he could follow the path of sister and countless other teens from his community, but Shane’s a young man of great strength and Fire Song admirably depicts how an ordinary teen like himself survives day by day.

Writer/director Adam Garnet Jones doesn’t sugar coat Shane’s life, nor does he marinate in misery. Fire Song simply presents life in small, impoverished First Nations communities without sentiment or artifice. This realistic and convincing drama gives the audience a glimpse at the alcoholism, addiction, violence, and hopelessness that exists in communities like that in which Shane resides, but it also emphasises life in the face of all the despair that pervades the village. The film depicts community-based approaches to trauma, like counselling and healing circles, that help teens cope with their lost friends. Similarly, Jones introduces elements of tradition, like the smoke that David’s grandmother, Evie (Ma-Nee Chacaby), wafts through Jackie’s home, or the feather the teens respectfully pass in their counselling session to grant each other the authority to speak.

Fire Song doesn’t elaborate upon the elements of Anishnabe culture that arise in the film, nor does Jones qualify any of the images, rituals, words, or actions that appear. The film simply lets life be. This choice makes the film immediately accessible, and one of the better works of self-representation for stories of First Nations communities in Canadian film.

This refreshing feature debut by Jones makes disquieting use of realism as the ghosts of dead teens arise in effective ruptures of dramatic horror, particularly one ghostly kiss that lets one character bid adieu to this life and move on to the next. The film uses the power of the landscape, too, to capture the beauty and strength of the natural setting—without a hint of postcard porn cinematography or “come shoot your American film here” pizazz—while also accentuating the isolation Shane feels through the engulfing vastness of the land.

The performances are generally strong with Martin offering a compelling and dynamic lead. Podemski, bare of any hint of make-up, conveys the mother’s grief with empathetic pain. The film is a quietly powerful elegy for families across the land.

Fire Song is now playing in Toronto at the Carlton.