I think particular stories sort of choose you, you know?,” says Michelle Derosier. “You’re directed. You’re not really the director.”
Derosier’s short film The Grandfather Drum is an “animated fairytale”: the story of a drum revered for its healing powers and the people touched by it. Bringing a lovely, creative treatment to a story spanning 100 years, the film premiered at Sundance Film Festival, and now screens at Hot Docs.
Derosier lives in Thunder Bay, where she says, “we do things here completely differently—with a handshake. There’s no ‘that’s not my job’ attitude. Everybody does everything. We get sh*t done.” The film’s entire crew hails from Northern Ontario, including artist Sonya Lacroix, whose beautiful illustrations create the film’s dark, mysterious aesthetic.
“Sonya and I came up with the idea to make it like a fairytale. There’s an element of “pop-up” about it. Things pop up and you hear the sound of paper. It’s like a children’s pop-up book. I gave some direction in terms of the look: I wanted it to be kind of a cross between traditional woodland artists like Norval Morrisseau and Roy Thomas—and Susan Ross.” Despite its whimsical approach, Drum explores the heritage of colonialism and the subsequent trauma still deeply affecting First Nations communities.
Derosier’s heritage is Anishnaabe (Eagle Lake First Nation). Before filmmaking came into her life, she worked as a social worker: “For 10 years I did counseling with First Nations youth. I was crawling back to Thunder Bay from Sioux Lookout, saying ‘I’m DONE. I couldn’t listen anymore. I just felt so powerless, you know?
“I left and thought, ‘I just need to do something different.’ And I had this thought, about images…and story.”
Not long after, she met filmmaker Dave Clement, who became her partner and collaborator at Thunderstone Pictures. Over the next decade, she has created a short drama, a feature documentary and is currently developing her first feature drama, Angelique’s Isle, in collaboration with filmmaker Marie-Hélène Cousineau (Before Tomorrow, Uvanga).
“I never had a camera growing up. Never went to film school,” she says. “I’m still learning how to use all the tools [of the filmmaking trade]. And I see a lot of people now, starting to learn to use those tools. But there are so many things inside my head, so many stories. I can’t get them out fast enough.”
During the making of Grandfather Drum, she sometimes felt daunted by the responsibility of carrying the story: “There’s the whole animate and inanimate world there. The film itself has a spirit. That’s not something you take lightly… I’d been worried about whether I should be telling this story…whether it was my place to share it,” she says.
“When I was writing the script—in my bedroom, I had paper on my wall— sometimes I need to write the script on my walls,” she laughs, “I was awakened one morning by thunder and this was in the dead of winter.
“At 6am, this thunder was rumbling through my room. Outside, it was quiet, a peaceful, dark winter morning.” In Derosier’s film, the thunderbird plays a central role as the mythical being who brings the gift of the drum. “And I thought, ‘OK, this is what I’m supposed to be doing!’”
“I had this realisation recently, our people were so powerful and the colonial powers were afraid of that. I still see a remnant of that. I think I’m trying to hold on to that, and somehow light a fire under what we do have.
“I’ve seen so many of my people suffer. The things I do, I like to think they’ll shake things up a bit. I just want to do what I’m supposed to be doing and go wherever I’m led.”
The Grandfather Drum screens:
-Sunday, May 1 at TIFF Bell Lightbox at 7:00 PM
-Monday, May 2 at Cineplex Scotiabank at 4:30 PM
-Saturday, May 7 at TIFF Bell Lightbox at 3:15 PM
Please visit the POV Hot Docs hub for more coverage on this year’s festival.
Hot Docs runs April 28 – May 8. Visit www.hotdocs.ca for more information.