When the world shut down in the spring, live theatre was one of the first casualties. But for Clare Preuss, the artistic director of Downstage, the break gave her the chance to help an important play reach an even larger audience by turning it into a film.
Deer Woman, written by Tara Beagan, has already toured to acclaim in places like Edinburgh and across Australia. Preuss and her team see the COVID-19 era as a great chance to continue sharing the story in a time when live theatre isn’t practical.
“[It’s] a perfect project to do for COVID actually,” says Preuss. “It was directly addressed to a video camera and it’s always been that way. We didn’t change that for the film.”
Deer Woman is about Lila, a Blackfoot woman who seeks revenge for her little sister’s life as an ex-military and daughter of a deer hunter.
Touching on historical and contemporary trauma, the film honours those affected by the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) within the story itself, but also in how it was shot and even the day it was released. The film was released on October 4, the day people in Canada remember Sisters in Spirit.
Deer Woman begins with Cherish Violet Blood (Lila), sitting lit-up and focused on a box in the woods. It’s the dead of night and not much else can be seen but a truck parked behind her and the forest. She tells her story to a camera phone set up in front of her on a tripod with a small LED light shining on top.
The whole experience was unique and special from other projects Preuss had worked on.
“It was pretty wild to be out there in the middle of the night, I think we started at about two in the morning,” Preuss says. “Just to be out there in the forest and to hear it echoing, it was quite powerful just to be on set.”
Indigenization and the matriarchy
Beagan says Indigenous theatre often shares common themes.
“One of the things that set Indigenous theatre apart is that often the protagonist is a community instead of one human,” she said at a panel discussion last month.
“Hallmark elements of Indigenous writing of any kind is that right alongside the most heart-wrenching words or moment is something very hilarious.”
Preuss described the experience of being on set as matriarchal, from the sounds of Blood’s booming voice through the trees to the crackling fire warming those behind the camera and the smells of the hearty home-cooked soups, stews and bread.
Nearly all of the crew members and even the landowner had Indigenous heritage. There were smudging and offerings of tobacco and everyone received a kokum (grandmother) scarf. Time was taken to enjoy proper meals and conversation.
“It just felt very human and like a sense of generosity and collaboration,” says Preuss. “A sense of honouring the story in many ways.”
For the survivors
Although Beagan shared her initial anxiety about the film’s reception, she says she is pleased with the reaction so far.
Preuss says, “I feel like people are really taking it in the way that we intended to share it, in the way that the creators intended to share it.”
The story is about those MMIWG who have been taken, murdered, forgotten. Preuss says it’s for survivors.
“It’s really important that the people who in any way identify with experiences that are being told, and that have experienced an element of that hurt, feel held and seen.”