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TIFF 2022: Stellar

Darlene Naponse’s experimental film celebrates Indigenous peoples and the Land
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Naponse shows the inspiring resilience of Indigenous communities. COURTESY OF TIFF
Naponse shows the inspiring resilience of Indigenous communities. COURTESY OF TIFF

How would you react to the destruction of the physical environment around you? Some might find this concept unimaginable, but Indigenous peoples across Turtle Island have witnessed the devastation of their lands and livelihoods for centuries at the hands of colonial powers and, eventually, the Canadian government. 

Stellar — an experimental film by Anishinaabe director, writer, and producer Darlene Naponse — explores the generational trauma caused by this destruction while simultaneously celebrating Indigenous culture. In the film, a meteorite crashes into Northern Ontario, triggering a chain of catastrophic events and natural disasters. While most people panic, She and He, played by Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Braeden Clarke, respectively, calmly take shelter in a dive bar amid the winds, floods, and fires raging from outside the front window. 

Their cosmic and slow-burning romance premiered Sunday, September 11 at the Scotiabank Theatre during the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). According to TIFF, the film is based on the director’s short story, which shares the same name, and is Naponse’s fourth feature film. In a short speech prior to the screening, Darlene Naponse described the film as a “celebration of the land and the people.”

Naponse brings the generational trauma, abuse, and oppression that Indigenous people have endured to center stage through how She and He’s past informs their present. Their ongoing personal and ancestral histories are reflected in the emotions and words of the characters in the moment.  

One of the ways Naponse achieves this effect is through giving neither main character a proper name. They are only referred to as “She” and “He.” Their experience of racism, colonization, and generational trauma reflect the reality for many Indigenous peoples throughout the last few centuries. In contrast, the views of the assortment of visitors who pass through the bar align with the views of unwelcomed saviours, unwarranted advisors, and abusive figures that are also frequently present in Indigenous history.

However, I also watched She and He learn to connect through touch and their own language despite various external and internal barriers, fulfilling an intimate romance between two Indigenous people. Their love story allows them to share their most cherished memories and painful stories, which becomes a vehicle to celebrate Indigenous peoples and their history.

Historically, colonizers stripped forms of communication and connection — such as language, physical touch, and love — from Indigenous peoples. But Stellar’s characters speak in both Ojibwe and English, which integrates lost elements of their culture into the healing journey of She and He. The discourse helps the lead characters become closer. Over the course of the film, they shift from two strangers in a bar to people who share and relate to each other’s past experiences.  

But the movie ultimately focuses on She and He’s connection to the land. Toward the end of the film, She and He share their common longing to return home. Their deep connection to the land is unquestionable and the camera perfectly portrays it as it cuts from scenes in the dive bar to memories of the natural environment — including clear rivers, blue skies, and full forests — prior to its man-made destruction.

The cuts offer time for reflection in between the short scenes of dialogue between the characters. But they’re also intercut with the active destruction of the same landscapes — imagery of the Canadian government’s mining project highlights the careless use of land, which Naponse discussed after the screening. 

In Stellar, Naponse critiques the gap between privileged and marginalized communities. For She and He, the story’s central problem, ironically, isn’t earth shattering because, for these characters, the world was already crumbling. They have always been survivors of racial oppression and witnesses to the deterioration of their homelands. Instead, the movie emphasizes that only the privileged can react when natural disasters directly affect them. 

Stellar is an acknowledgement of the hardships Indigenous communities face through generational trauma, the loss of land, and genocide. However, it is also a testament to their resilience.