By Joel Kalkopf
21st August 2020

Based on the novel of the same name, director Myriam Verreault crucially brings in author Naomi Fonatine as her co-screen writer for her feature debut 'Kuessipan', inviting an authentic and poignant snapshot of the Innu people in the Uashat community. I will be the first to admit that I knew very little of the Innu going into this film, and it was therefore a privilege to gain some insight into this Indigenous community. The word "Kuessipan" translates as "your turn", referring to the spotlight that shines on this community, and the chance they have to finally tell their stories.

The Innu community inhabit an area of Quebec, and as the traditional owners of that land, are still known as nomadic hunters and fisherman. With family life a bedrock of hard-working parents, there is an ever-present undertone of harsh realities, but with the delicate and understanding approach from Verreault, it is all endured with a quiet dignity. Verreault takes Fonatine's novel and together they are given unprecedented access to the community, bringing an authenticity as the story unfolds. The Innu voice is ever present, which is so important as it offers a glimpse into their lives without a Colonial perspective. It's a feature that, while seemingly an obvious advantage, is hardly ever utilised for similar films. It means that audiences can enter the world in a respectful manner - which isn't to say the film shies away from the issues, but it does mean that those issues are approached in a confident and dignified way.

This story is of a friendship between Mikuan (Sharon Ishpatao Fontaine) and Shaniss (Yamie Grégoire), two girls inseparable from a young age, whose commitment to one another is challenged as their lives begin to take different paths. Mikuan is from a loving and supporting family, a family that frequently take in and shelters Shaniss, who is unfortunately from a broken home due to an alcoholic father and a runaway mother. 'Kuessipan' spends the best part of a 15-minute prologue establishing the close bond these girls have for one another, but as they grow up and start assessing their life goals, it's ultimately their ambition that will test their bond.

Now on the cusp of graduating high school and a burgeoning poet, Mikuan has her sights set on going to college in Quebec, while Shaniss, a high school drop out with a daughter and an abusive partner, has dreams of being a family and continuing the traditions of her people. The clash of preserving a community's identity - against the modernisation of it - is laid out briefly in a school mock debate, but really comes to the forefront when Mikuan starts dating a "Quebecian white boy", Francis (Étienne Galloy). How Francis is perceived by Mikuan's family as well as Shaniss is really the backbone of this film, and as it begins to test Mikuan's own relationship with Shaniss, it's their difference of opinion that will shape who these girls become.

Shaniss has dreams confined within her community, but for Mikuan, the Reserve (where they live) has become "too small" as she seeks a brighter future. It's a hopeful yet realistic portrayal of life in the Reserve, brilliantly echoed by the poems Mikuan recites to her classmates and at recitals. The issues and hurdles they face are real - and still present - and even though this is a community-based story centred around two girls, everyone has their own story to tell. The dreams, ambitions and hardships of all those within the Uashat community are easily envisioned, if not explicitly depicted. 'Kuessipan' is strongest when unfolding the challenges Mikuan and Shaniss face as a friendship, but it's the authenticity of the supporting characters that allow that turmoil to grow.

'Kuessipan' is a coming of age character-driven story, the tones and arcs of which audiences have seen many times before. But it's the moments in between the standard beats that really shine, and the insight into a new community, that separate this film from its predecessors. There are really interesting conversations to be had about modernising one's values versus the grounded traditions of your ancestors, but above it all, 'Kuessipan' wants to prove that it comes down to pride. Shaniss can't understand how a proud Innu woman could possibly date outside her community, while Mikuan embeds her pride in her traditional roots, which for her symbolise her freedom of heart. There are no simple answers, and none can be expected when approaching the subject of assimilating and embedding a modern culture to tradition.

The Innu voice is ever present, which is so important as it offers a glimpse into their lives without a Colonial perspective. It's a feature that, while seemingly an obvious advantage, is hardly ever utilised for similar films.

The Indigenous actors are all genuine Innu people, and I believe most of them are actually from the Uashat tribe. They aren't actors, but you wouldn't know it. Because Verreault created such an authentic space, audiences really feel invited into their lives and can feel their struggles. There are touching moments of community bonds and friendship, as well as heartbreaking realities that feel unavoidable. That hopefulness exists, but it's the trials along the way that test the commitment to not only the tribe, but to the family and to oneself.

'Kuessipan' runs just under two hours, which is quite long for this genre of film. I didn't mind the length because I had never seen this community depicted before, so I was happy to spend time exploring and establishing what the Uashat community are all about. In saying that, this film is best when Mikuan and Shaniss share the screen, with maybe too much emphasis placed on other supporting character subplots. However, for me personally, that was an important aspect of the film, even if it wasn't the strongest, and ultimately it meant that it never feels too long.

Mikuan posits that "you need to know captivity to know freedom". What Shaniss and Mikuan both see as freedom are not aligned, nor is their idea of captivity. It will test their friendship and their commitment to one another, and results in a beautifully poignant and melancholic conclusion. It's what has left 'Kuessipan' lingering on my mind, and I believe it's a film that the more people who see it, the more people will learn and benefit from it. There is no "right" path for these girls to take, but the confidence with which Verreault approaches the issues makes for a captivating and tender film.

Looking for more Melbourne International Film Festival reviews? Click here to check out our collection of this year's highlights.
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