Mani is a young woman who needs to finish a Masters degree in Law. Her supervisor in Montreal gives her one last chance and in effect sends her back to her Algonquin reserve, Kitigan Zibi in Western Quebec. Mani left the reserve at 14 and hasn’t been back since. A credit sequence at the beginning of the narrative is actually a flashback to the incident which precipitated the need to move. When she gets there she will stay with her grandparents and she will attempt to get involved in the major issue on the reserve, bootlegging of liquor. Mani hopes to get the community to agree to a referendum which will decide whether the prohibition of alcohol should continue or whether the community should seek to allow properly regulated supplies of alcohol to be be legal on the reserve. The problem is that as well as dividing the community in two, the issue of bootlegging directly affects people Mani knows and the democratic process she wants to encourage might be difficult and painful for her.
I still struggle with the ways in which Indigenous communities in Canada are organised and governed. ‘Algonquin’ refers in general terms to the large and dispersed group of Algonquian language speakers who once occupied much of what is now Canada east of the Rockies as well as much of the North Eastern United States, including the Great Lakes and down the Atlantic coast. The Anishinaabe comprise nine First Nations in North-West Quebec and the Kitigan Zibi band is one of these. The issues that trouble these communities stem from the stealing of their ancestral lands by European settlers and the control over Indigenous peoples laid down in the various ‘Indian Acts’ since the late nineteenth century. One of the social issues is focused on identity and who is defined as being qualified for First Nation residency. The legislation has I think attempted to classify citizens on the basis of intermarriage between indigenous peoples and white settlers. Identity is also concerned with ‘first language’ or ‘mother tongue’. In Kitigan Zibi in 2016, Wikipedia tells me that the split was:
- English: 62.7%
- French: 15.2%
- Algonquin: 18.0%
- French and English: 1.2%
The significance here is that Quebec is a francophone province and yet English is the dominant language on the reserve. Mani has lost some of her fluency in Algonquin, having moved to live with her father in Ottawa as a teenager. This film is part of Unifrance’s My French Film Festival and dialogue is in Algonquin and French. I don’t know whether it deliberately underplays English, but this clearly helps for a distribution in France and Quebec.
When Mani goes to a public meeting she experiences the hostility between warring residents – those who want to keep prohibition and those that want a repeal. This isn’t the only issue, there are not enough resources locally to police a large area of forest and there are few leisure facilities for young people. I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I’ll just point out that the bootleggers profit from the ban at the expense of those who pay above the odds for alcohol while another danger is home-made hooch which is even more dangerous for young people. Mani’s own grandfather buys a bottle and she has issues with the bootleggers that go back to her childhood. But she must finish her project and so she pushes for a referendum. The film has an ending which is in some ways a resolution to the narrative but in others is open. The First Nations disputes with central government are unlikely to be resolved for many years.
This is an Indigenous film from an Indigenous director, Caroline Monnet. It’s her first feature after several short films and has received recognition from festivals. She also co-wrote the script with Daniel Watchorn. It looks good in ‘Scope format courtesy of Nicolas Canniccioni and has some enjoyable music sequences by Jean Martin and Tanya Tagaq. All the performances are good and I wasn’t always sure if these were actors or non-professionals. There may be a few too many drone shots, but then it is difficult to think of another way to express the sheer vast emptiness of Canada North of the strip of densely populated cities along the border with the US. There are just 1200 people in 81 sq miles of Kitigan Zibi.
I’m grateful to My French Film Festival for the chance to see unusual and beautiful films from Francophone Canada. They rarely turn up on UK screens, more’s the pity.