In Falls Around Her, a new drama from director Darlene Naponse, internationally famous First Nations musician Mary Birchbark (Tantoo Cardinal) returns to her home Northern Ontario reserve, looking to let go and move forward with a new life. But her fame arrives with her, bringing with it a league of expectations.

The film’s examination of these themes are propelled by a wonderful performance by the legendary Cardinal. Falls Around Her marks the first leading role for Cardinal, who was born in Fort McMurray, Alta., and has worked in film for more than 40 years.

“I always knew that (Cardinal) was this character, from the beginning. I really fought for her to believe in me and the project,” Naponse said. “She has this level of craft within her work that’s amazing. I knew that Mary Birchbark was Tantoo and Tantoo was Mary Birchbark. I knew her power would definitely be exploding on screen.”

Falls Around Her premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival and won the Air Canada Audience Choice Award at the 2018 imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival. Photo courtesy Red Eye Media

Falls Around Her follows Mary Birchbark as she seeks to recharge and meditate on her life, but finds herself pursued by the challenges of fame. Naponse said the inspiration for the film emerged out of conversations she had nearly a decade ago.

“It was really about people taking things that they don’t really have the right to take from you, especially when it comes to people thinking that they own you,” she said. “Because of your status or because you’re a woman or because you’re Indigenous or just because you exist. People believe they can rule you and take from you. It was really about that and breaking free from that idea.”

The demands and the claims made on Birchbark echo the experience of Indigenous people, Naponse said.

“Corporations have come into our area and they’re taking and taking and taking and making so much money off of it and not giving it back,” she said. “They strip and they take from it and it leaves those scars and those holes. That really paralleled this Indigenous woman fighting for her life.”

Such a story is familiar to many First Nations people. Naponse said she sought to make Falls Around Her a statement on the strength of these women and of the songs that contain such immeasurable power.

“I wanted to celebrate the power of women, the power of the song, and music and community,” Naponse said. “I wanted the character to be so vibrant and resilient and strong.”

Naponse helped to write the lyrics performed in Falls Around Her with Ojibway composer Julian Cote. Production took place on the First Nation of Atikameksheng Anishnawbek, home to Naponse.

Naponse said Falls Around Her was a testament to Indigenous filmmaking, having been shot in Atikameksheng Anishnawbek and having utilized local crew members.

“These stories are everywhere, and they’ve been ignored for so long. They’ve existed since the beginning. The power and the privilege is starting to come down, which it needs to,” Naponse said. “There needs to be an equality and an understanding. Indigenous people, we’ve been fighting that power and privilege for a really long time. It’s a really important story to tell now and I’m really happy it came out now.”

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