Half Empty, Since 1998

Series takes Moccasin Flats, Saskatchewan to Park City, Utah. Starring a cast of first-time actors, RepREZentin’ In Moccasin Flats screens at Sundance. Jen Podemski of Toronto-based Big Soul Productions talks about giving aboriginal youth a voice on television.

RepREZentin’

Jen Podemski, Marty Spellerberg. June 2nd, 2003

Production still from RepREZentin'

Production still from RepREZentin'

Production still from RepREZentin'

Cut from a rural landscape, the horizon punctuated by the shell of a tepee, to the skyline of a city, working-class houses on urban streets. In a yard behind a worn-down house, a girl sits on a torn-up couch, nursing her baby; in a secluded alley, a young man slaps a woman and throws her against a wall; in an empty schoolyard, a gang swarm a boy and kick him to the ground; in an abandoned car, a teenage prostitute goes down on a john, while her friend stands guard duty.

The show is RepREZentin’ in Moccasin Flats, a half-hour teenage drama set in urban Saskatchewan. It is to be the first dramatic TV series on ground breaking Canadian cable channel APTN, and the first in North America produced from an all-aboriginal perspective.

“I’d gone to Sundance 3 or 4 times as an actor, but this was the first time as a producer, which is very exciting,” says actress/producer Jen Podemski, of Toronto-based Big Soul Productions. “We got a great response – three sold out shows to over two hundred people each. We were approached by a few other festivals that want to screen it and a station in Maine that’s interested in airing it, so I am very happy.”

The project is is as much about community activism as it is television. Headed by Podemski, the Big Soul team left their Toronto studios for the streets of Saskatchewan, building the series around what they found.

None of the stars are professional actors; they’re real kids from Moccasin Flats.

“First thing we do when we get to the community is a casting call. We pick the people we want to star in the show and the rest of them get jobs on set. We said ‘let’s not just make a show, let’s make a show that trains 50 youth behind the scenes.'”

The script is written after the actors have been cast, and the stories often come from interviews with the kids.

“We ask them what their situations are, what are some of the issues they deal with on a regular basis and what life’s like where they live so we can be as accurate as possible.”

“It’s amazing – you get 14, 15 year olds sitting in a discussion about the things that are important to them – racism, how it affects them; or abuse, the legacy of abuse; alcoholism and living on the Rez -just the fact that they’re talking about it is such an incredible thing! But then we go further and they get a chance to apply it.”

The team spends four days or five days workshopping, with each group assigned an industry mentor.

“We realized that it works a lot better when you have more time with the kids, so for this one I trained the actors for 60 hours rather than 35. It made a huge difference.”

Big Soul has mounted productions of RepREZentin’ twice before, but they knew this time was different.

“We knew when we watched this one that it had so much potential,” says Podemski, “I think we proved ourselves with this one, as producers, and I think we really hit the jackpot with the crew and actors too.”

“We saw really die-hard, dedicated kids who came out everyday and worked ’till really late. Those kids who stayed could work on a film or television set anywhere in the world – and that’s the idea, to make these kids interested in pursuing careers in film and television.”

Working with the kids is great, she says, because by the time Big Soul arrives in town the hard work has already been done. Community leaders are often reluctant to take the plunge.

“Drumming up the interest, funding and local support needed to bring a project like this into a community… It’s like getting water from a stone!” she laments, “People don’t understand what it is. They don’t understand that you can actually have a lot of control over the media if you just take it!”

“If you know the tools and you have the resources to use media to spread your voice, your ideas, accurately from where you’re from, then you actually can make a difference. So many of us are so accepting of the media, we just sit back and watch – but we want to show young people that they have a choice, they can actually empower themselves.”

“I grew up in Toronto and no matter what you are in Toronto you’re a Torontonian,” Podemski explains, “My community was mostly Jewish and growing up in Toronto as a Native/Jew it’s very easy to go unnoticed. And while I can’t speak from any other perspective than my own, I know that I’m native too, and there’s a lot of people like me out there.”

“The most important thing for me is that my future generations feel really cool and empowered to be native, rather than ashamed or embarrassed about it. I want people to understand that you can be urban, and funky and cool and still be connected to your roots and your history.” It was that goal that provided the base for Big Soul’s first series, The Seventh Generation, now in its third season.

Each episode of the half-hour show features profiles of young Aboriginal achievers and casts a positive light on their activities. The show casts a wide net, with episodes dealing with topics as diverse as business, politics, engineering, technology and the Arts.

“They see people who are like them in situations that they may want to be in,” says Podemski.

But the producers are also aware of their other audience – non-natives. One of their main goals with Seventh Generation was to create a show with universal appeal, one that breaks down stereotypes and preconceived notions.

“Our hope is that our non-native viewers watch the show and see doctors, lawyers, scientists first, not just native people. That’s what intrigues us when we’re finding these people. We’re not finding the most ‘native-looking’ people we can find. I meet people on the show and I can’t believe I’m sitting next to them! I think ‘I do so little and you do so much!'”

Aboriginal Peoples Television Network licenses both series and has been a solid supporter of Big Soul’s activities from the start

Launched in 1999, APTN is a uniquely Canadian endeavour, providing First Nations, Inuit and Metis people with an opportunity to share their stories to huge native and non-native audiences. Available to all basic-cable subscribers in Canada (and via satellite in the US), it is community-based television on a national scale, presenting a full range of programming including news and documentaries, cooking shows, cartoons and, with RepREZentin’, dramatic series.

According to Podemski, the creation of APTN has given confidence to aboriginal producers, resulting in major growth in the number of projects being created from a native perspective. But as far as the mainstream film and television industry is concerned, things haven’t changed much.

“It is a great industry but there are hardly any native people in it! Since The Rez has there been another TV series like it anywhere? Networks think ‘oh, we already did the Indian thing.'”

It was in The Rez that Podemski first made waves on television (the title is slang for “Reservation”). Premiering in 1996 on CBC Television, the show was a springboard for many young aboriginal performers, including Adam Beach, Darrell Dennis, and Jen’s sister Tamara Podemski.

Even after three years in business, it’s the pervasiveness of those attitudes that keeps the Big Soul crew coming in every day and staying late.

“There’s so much more work that needs to be done,” she says, “and if our little part is making a dent in the industry, then that’s what we’ll keep doing.”

But in the midst of her ambitions for Big Soul, it is increasingly difficult for Podemski to find the time to do what she is best known for – acting.

“It’s hard to get out of the office to go to an audition, and even if I get that audition, I have to look at the breakdown and my schedule never fits!”

But she does manage to squeeze in a few projects – recently acting in the Big Soul-produced short-film Laurel, an episode of the new TMN series Bliss, and a spot on Degrassie: The Next Generation.

“All those projects happened in three weeks when I had nothing else to do! It was amazing! Considering that I’m a non-working actor, that’s pretty good!”

Big Soul’s next project will be another RepREZentin’, this one set in Toronto. Artist/Filmmaker Kent Monkton will be writing and directing the pilot this spring.

“Our story is going to be about two spirited, homosexuals – one from the city, one who’s just come from the rez – the kind of stories that we grew up with,” says Podemski.

But she’s already thinking bigger, and wants to produce a feature within three years. And while she has her hands on a couple “perfect scripts,” the young company will have to weather its growing pains.

“We have to figure out what our purpose is,” she says. “Right now we have the studio, we have the editing, we have the administrative part, we have the production company – there’s a lot of ways we can go.”

Production stills from Reprezentin’ in moccasin flats, courtesy Big Soul Productions. Catch Moccasin Flats on APTN and Saskatchewan Communications Network; The Seventh Generation can also be seen on CLT and Access.

(Included in Half Empty #1.)