The Incredible 25th Year of Mitzi Bearclaw: New film takes a comedic look at life on an Indigenous reserve

“What really highlights who we are is our joy and laughter — just laughing about everything — because we can, we survived, we’re so strong,” says actor Vance Banzo.

It’s everything from a feminist coming-of-age story, a spiritual journey to a “truthful archive"

Director and famed Indigenous artist Shelley Niro says tragedies on Indigenous reserves drove her to create her latest comedy film, The Incredible 25th Year of Mitzi Bearclaw

"There are so many suicides of children on those reserves. I often think, what can we do?" says Niro. 

"As an artist, I have no solutions, but this is something creative that can bring some joy into the lives of people. Its my contribution."

The film, which had its world premiere earlier this year at the Art Gallery of Ontario, will be opening the 2019 Reelworld Film Festival on October 17th and screened at several festivals this fall. Filmed in Sudbury, Ontario, Mitzi is the second feature film directed by Niro, a member of the Six Nations Reserve, Turtle Clan, Bay of Quinte Mohawk. 

Niro brings us into the world of Mitzi Bearclaw, a 24-year-old Indigenous woman in Toronto, applying to fashion design school who wants her hats to "save the world."

Played by American-born Indigenous actor MorningStar Angeline, Mitzi is a creative, young daring and rebellious character. 

"She's ready to go out into the world and do whatever she has to do to make her dreams come true," says Niro. But soon enough, Mitzi's life is turned upside down when she has to put these dreams on hold, leaving her urban life and boyfriend to return to her Owl Island, B.C., reserve.

Family and resiliency

As she turns 25, Mitzi needs to take care of her sick and "miserable" mother. "She doesn't want to do it," says Niro, "she doesn't want to leave her career, ambitions, and just drags her feet going back."

Her mother, played by Gail Maurice, has a "no-holds-barred" attitude to everyone, including her daughter.

"She loves to inflict a little pain there," says Niro, "meanwhile she is damaged too, she is hurting a lot. She is a survivor of the residential schools." 

Although the film touches on heavy themes, Niro uses humour and satire to convey truths and make fun of social misconceptions about her culture. 

Vance Banzo (CBC's TallBoyz) who plays Ringo Leaves-No-Shadow, says, "it was kind of a relief to hear a story be about our own personal relationships and family instead of the trauma. What really highlights who we are is our joy and laughter — just laughing about everything — because we can, we survived, we're so strong."

Banzo describes Mitzi as a Native cult film, like 1998's Smoke Signals, which starred Canadian Indigenous actors and filmmakers. 

"I loved that it's a story about somebody coming from the city and going back home, taking care of their family, and I think we can all relate to that," said Banzo. 

"Young Indigenous people know the feeling that we have to take care of our parents, just because it's inherently in us, not because it's something we have to do, but something we want to do. I really connected with that."

At first resentful, Mitzi soon finds life with her family and on the reserve growing on her. 

"I like to think of it as a spiritual journey," says Niro, "she goes through these emotions and thought processes, and everything affects her – in a way, it is a coming-of-age story." 

Banzo describes the character he plays as somewhat similar to himself.

"He didn't grow up on a reservation, he's coming into the world of the reserve," says Banzo. 

"He lives a very privileged life, his family always had money through the casino, so he doesn't know about that other kind of life."

"We are a bit similar in the sense of disconnection from people who are more connected to the culture than themselves.

Niro started working on the film in 2005. 

In her art, Niro uses a variety of media including beadwork, painting and photography, but she loves film for its ability to historically archive the people in the film. 

"So many years went by where we were the objects and not subjects," says Niro. "Until now, our Native persona has not been truthfully archived." 

"Native reservations are portrayed as isolated places, not really being a part of the world," says Niro. "It's important to see our Native people on film, so that 50 years from now we can look back and say 'here they are.'"

Niro wanted the film to have a feminist viewpoint. She says, it should tell young women that "you don't have to stay there for the guy. Go out and do what you've got to do, the guy will be there."

"I just imagine nine-year-old girls watching this and I want them to feel really happy. I want them to feel that they can write stories too, produce their own stories, participate in more ways than just as a viewer."

"Being an artist is the best thing. You can create, be self-employed, become economically independent, all of those things that are important to me. You will have something to be excited about when you wake up in the morning."

Banzo also hopes it makes people watching want to get into filmmaking. 

"It's such a passion project," says Banzo. "It's projects like this that make it all worthwhile. Everyone's in it for the love of it, and everyone's really happy making it."

"Shelley lets her actors just act, she's not too picky, she likes the collaborative part – it feels like we're all artists, so let's all contribute to this art. Although it took time to get comfortable on set, I was able to loosen up, and do some adlibbing."

The 2019 Reelworld Film festival, running from October 17-21, will showcase, for the very first time, 100% of its festival films created by Canadian Black, Indigenous, and POC filmmakers. Mitzi will also be screened at ImagiNATIVE Film Festival, Art Gallery of Hamilton, and Richmond Virginia Pocahontas Festival