“Kuessipan” by Myriam Verreault

How do adolescent girls experience their belonging to an oppressed people, a minority in every sense of the word, and threatened with extinction? Myriam Verreault, Quebec filmmaker, from her first encounter with the Amerindian Innu community of Uashat, living in a part of the reserve near Sept-Iles on the shores of the St. Lawrence River, ‘falls in love with the people’. A revelation: only the cinema (and a fiction shot at home and with them) can give them an image on the big screen that the dominant media in Quebec so often obscure. So she undertakes scriptwriting and preparation work with the young Innu writer Naomi Fontaine, author of the eponymous book. Together they imagine two Innu friends, with a camaraderie as fusional as a promise of childhood. At 17, however, Shaniss started a family and Mikuan fell in love with a white man while dreaming of freedom. The result: an intimate and realistic fiction, subtly suggesting the complexity of emancipation while respecting its origins. And the lyrical and moving portrait of the Innu people, filmed with love, here in full light.

Unfailing friendship, fragile community

In the dark night and the surf heard from the waves, strange lights catch the eye. Two laughing little girls, in boots and oilskins, bustle about in the fish-filled water, guided by their little headlamps in the darkness and the white foam where the scales of their prey sparkle. A good catch for Mikuan (Sharon Fontaine-Ishipatao) and Shaniss (Yamie Grégoire) celebrated in joy and a complicity all in tenderness, dance, song and sharing. A close friendship from childhood in games and belonging to the same Amerindian community, that of the Innu of Quebec. And the promise (very tight fists, touching foreheads) that nothing will ever be able to separate them. A wish all the more powerful as in the reserve where they live, poverty, domestic violence, the temptation of alcohol do not weaken the spirit of solidarity and the tenacious feeling of belonging to the same people, to the same tradition and same culture, even if the new generations do not interpret in the same way as their elders the past which connects them to this small granted territory …

‘We are not serious when we are 17 years old. Not that easy. Shaniss, sensitive to the skin, gives way to a custom that is very widespread in her community: she becomes a mother and moves in with a young guy who is unreliable and pungent. Mikuan, for her part, -the one whose voice-over accompanies us as we entrust benevolent ears with disturbing truths-, a good student, fan of pop music, lover of words, begins by participating in a writing workshop. In hazardous conditions (in a nightclub with brawl between boys with unfortunate consequences), she leaves the restricted ‘circle’, crosses impassable barriers and ventures into the territory of the other. And she falls in love with Francis, an open and sympathetic white man.

Fractures, ruptures, transgressive love

The two friends continue to see each other. One tries to alert the other to the dangers that her violent companion poses to her little family and to herself (Shaniss no longer tries to hide the huge bluish coquart on her face).

“I put a white veil on what was dirty” warns the voice-over of the narrator from the first minutes of our trip to Innu land. It prevents. Mikuan finds it increasingly difficult to cope with the maelstrom of feelings that assail her. How to preserve the affection she has for this young mother and friend overwhelmed by her motherhood and her loneliness in a dysfunctional family? How to reconcile the love affair with a boy, sincerely drawn to her and curious about his culture, with the hostility that this affair generates among his Innu relatives, including his best friend?

It is the impulsive Shaniss, hurt by what she sees as a betrayal, who takes the plunge, accuses Mikuan of ‘racism’ and also reproaches her for her desire to leave the reserve, her ambition to start studies in the capital city. The manifest disarray and the frank denials change nothing. This dramatic shift in a rupture which causes so much pain to each one resonates in us like the sign of the impossible dialogue between the Whites “ come from elsewhere and after ” and the indigenous populations, relegated and clinging somehow to foundations. weakened (mastery of the original language, maintenance of certain rites, taste for Innu music, etc.).

From literature to cinema, paths to freedom

Like the two creators (the director and her co-screenwriter) who imagined the main characters of “Kuessipan” (‘Yours! Your turn!’, In the Innu language), through a process of immersion and Long-term empathy, Mikuan, carried by the impulse quivering within her, continues her process of emancipation, without denying what resources her. Even if the young lover forfeits by acknowledging his inability to go further in the relationship with a young woman who is not of his world, the disappointed lover transcends this experience by deepening her writing work. Competing in daring in the workshop where she speaks, reads her texts and gains recognition.

Far from the conventional happy ending, the farewells and the embrace of the found friends take place. Tears flow for the first time on the face of Mikua who leaves the reserve for other horizons.

His voice, soft, lucid and determined, does not let us go, modulated by the electronic musical composition of Louis-Jean Comier. She takes literally the call to transmission formulated in the title of Myriam Verreault’s beautiful film, echoing the work of her Innu accomplice in writing Naomi Fontaine. It is said. From the dense forests to the immense waves of the St. Lawrence River, beyond the wooden barracks of the reserve, cut out by limitless skies, Mykuan begins to write his singular history and that of his people. And “Kussiepan” encourages us to share the ambition of his heroine: to access the ‘rage for life’ of the Innu and to look at ‘the eyes of Indians who have seen everything and are astonished to smile often’.

Samra Bonvoisin

“Kuessipan”, film by Myriam Verreault-released on July 7, 2021

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