Powerful new film tackles suicide and sexuality in Indigenous communities

For Adam Garnet Jones, finishing his first feature film Fire Song marked the end of a long, painful chapter in his life.

Director Adam Garnet Jones opens up about how his own experiences inspired Fire Song

Fire Song (Thunderstone Pictures )

For Adam Garnet Jones, finishing his first feature film Fire Song marked the end of a long, painful chapter in his life.

I always knew I wanted it to be an Indigenous story.- Adam Garnet Jones, director, Fire Song

"I remember, after the film had screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, really feeling the support of so many people and seeing how it had affected everyone who was involved with the film," Jones recalled. "I really felt like that chapter of my life — which has been most of my life — where I really didn't know from one year to the next if I would still be alive, was over for me."

With Fire Song, Jones — who is a gay Cree/Métis filmmaker — chose to tell the story of Shane (Andrew Martin), a gay Anishnaabe teenager living on a reserve in Northern Ontario. Struggling to support his family in the aftermath of his sister's suicide and determined to take care of his mother (Jennifer Podemski), Shane is torn between his responsibilities at home and the potential of moving to the city and starting a new life.

When Jones had started thinking about making Song — one of the first films by a First Nations director to depict two-spirited characters — he kept remembering what it had felt like to be a young person in the middle of a community rocked by a cluster of suicides, while struggling with such feelings himself. 

"When I was six or seven I started feeling like I didn't have anyone in my life who really saw me, or saw that — or was able to help me," Jones said. "It's a dark place to start, but I wanted to try and write a film that sort of lived in that experience."

That led Jones to think about what is it that contributes to that experience, and where it might make sense for his story to take place.

Adam Garnet Jones (Thunderstone Pictures )

"I thought about the feeling of being suicidal and that feeling of isolation," Jones said of his process. "I think that's common to everyone who is struggling with suicide and depression, but particularly people who are actually physically isolated in the north.  So I landed on telling it in this northern community. I always knew I wanted it to be an Indigenous story because it's a huge, huge problem in their communities and has been for decades."

The result is a powerful, poignant feature, one that follows a decade of Jones' making award-winning short films. So far, Fire Song has played at film festivals around the world and begins its theatrical run at Toronto's Carlton Cinemas this weekend. But Jones is determined to bring it to the communities where it matters most.

"We want to start promoting the film to different First Nations, touring it and making sure it's out there and available," Jones said. "A lot of films last in the public consciousness for six months and then they go away. But I think films like this tends to gather momentum and tend to have a longer tail. So it will live through things like the tour and libraries and educational systems, and have a longer life."

Notably, Jones is currently working on a young adult novel adaptation of the film, so that he can create an educational package that speaks to the issues that drew him to Fire Song in the first place.

Fire Song. Starring Andrew Martin and Jennifer Podemski.  Directed by Adam Garnet Jones. (14A). 96min. Opens Fri, May 13. 2pm and 7pm. Filmmaker Q&A following the movie Fri 7pm, Sat 2pm  and 7pm, Sun 7pm.