Empire of Dirt is the latest offering from actor-turned-director Peter Stebbings, and while I haven’t yet seen his first film (Defendor), I was definitely looking forward to delving into this second effort. The film opens with TIFF 2013 Rising Star Cara Gee as Lena, the young, single mother of a teenaged girl, who works long hours cleaning houses as she struggles to provide a life for her daughter, Peeka (Shay Eyre). When Lena loses her job, however, and Peeka is hospitalized after getting high off spray paint fumes with friends, the time for drastic change has come. Lena grabs whatever they can carry and hitchhikes them both north out of the city, and all the way back to the place where she grew up, and moves them in temporarily with her mother, Minnie(Jennifer Podemski).
The mother she’d told Peeka was dead.
I had a hard time understanding Lena’s reactions and motivations for much of the first half of the film. To me, she came across as a tempermental hot-head who would rather storm off and blame everyone else for her problems than actually face them and deal with anything. Her struggle with addiction had been her mother’s fault, but her mother’s gambling addiction was also her fault, as was her father’s suicide. And while Peeka seems to be heading on a similar downslide, to Lena, that is somehow someone else’s fault, too. She continues to lash out abruptly at her mother in particular, even as Peeka begins to settle in and become more acquainted with the First Nations culture Lena had tried so hard to leave behind by moving to the city.
The things the three generations of women say to one another – or, rather, scream at one another – is completely disproportionate to all the things left unsaid. Rather than finding any sort of balance between her two worlds, Lena has instead created a gulf between them within herself, often dragging Peeka along as an unknowing and unwilling participant. Peeka knows things like that her last name means “wolf”, but has no real understanding of her culture or history beyond what she could read in a book or look up on Google. Lena, on the other hand, ran from what she felt was a suffocating life among family and friends – including Peeka’s biological father – to the city, where she could maintain as large a degree of anonymity as she so desired, and even deny her native heritage if she wished.
Watching Peeka slowly begin to embrace a quieter lifestyle with the family she never knew she had is what first began to truly win me over with this film. Not only does she begin to see how generations of addictions and mistakes made by those who came before her have affected her present reality, but by breaking out of her own bad habits, she starts to grow and spread her own wings a little bit, even as her mother continues to fight against it all. None of the women can go back in time to do anything differently, but slowly they all begin to make changes in the present, and move forward to the future – past and beyond the past – to finally bridge the gap and find balance within themselves once again. When tragedy strikes, the three women must all come together to discover the true meaning and importance of family.
The true success of this film lies not only in the performances Stebbings captured from his cast, but also in the wonderful script (written by Shannon Masters), which manages to tell the story of a particular indigenous family while also encompassing themes that can be found in any family, of any culture, throughout time. The issues the characters face are universal, and while not tied specifically to First Nations women, the story is told in a way that honours and respects a specific culture, while still opening itself up to interpretation and understanding from viewers the world over. The struggle to make peace with the past and embrace the future is something anyone can relate to, and yet Empire of Dirt still manages to find a unique and fresh lens through which to tell an age old tale.
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