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"Ecstasy" personalizes missing and murdered Indigenous women through relationships of sisters

Image: Cara Mumford

"Depending on whose statistics you use there are currently between 2,000 and 4,000 or more Indigenous women who are missing or have been murdered in Canada. I am glad these statistics are being recorded and analyzed but these women are not just statistics. They are mothers and daughters, sisters and friends, and aunties. They are people. The short film "Ecstasy" is an attempt to approach the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women through the relationship of sisters." - Cara Mumford.

Heryka Miranda worked on the initial scouting and live dance performance which Metis/Anishinaabe filmmaker, writer and director Cara Mumford is using in her film Ecstasy. In an in-depth interview, Heryka and Cara explore the origins of this new film and what it is trying to accomplish.

In brief, what is the short narrative film Ecstasy about? 
To personalize the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women through the relationship of sisters. In the film, one sister is alive and the other sister is spirit. It is a journey to find healing from grief through spirit, dream and dance. 

I understand that the ballet, The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, influenced you in making the film. Can you share a bit about the ballet's influence?
It was a play before it was a ballet. George Ryga, who was the son of Ukrainian immigrants -- a non-Indigenous playwright, wrote The Ecstasy of Rita Joe. The play, as described by Ryga, is "an odyssey through hell of an Indian woman," that hell being the racism and violence of an average Canadian city.

Can you share a bit more about the play The Ecstasy of Rita Joe?
George Ryga grew up in northern Alberta and worked alongside Cree people. He had a strong sense of justice and tended to write about Indigenous issues, which made him very political in the 60s. This is also what made him the perfect person for the Vancouver Playhouse to approach when they had the idea for the play. The idea for the play came when Malcolm Black, the artistic director of the Vancouver Playhouse, read a short paragraph in a Vancouver newspaper about an "Indian girl" found murdered on skid row. The article left Black wondering what her life would have been like. He then approached George Ryga to write the play, as a commission for the Canadian Centennial. I think it's really interesting that The Ecstasy of Rita Joe is often considered one of the first Canadian plays and [that] it's about an Indigenous woman seems appropriate to me. But Ryga was an ally without insider knowledge. The play, although well intentioned, reinforces stereotypes and the victim narrative for Indigenous people.

How did the play become a ballet? 
In 1971, to commemorate the centenary of the signing of Treaties 1 and 2, the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood commissioned the Royal Winnipeg Ballet to turn The Ecstasy of Rita Joe from a play into a ballet

Why was it important to you to include aspects of the play/ballet The Ecstasy of Rita Joe in your film?
I started working with the play in my mom's class. I began to read a lot about it and research what people have done with it. I read about Yvette Nolan, who did an Indigenous version of the play at the National Arts Centre with music composed by Jennifer Kriesburg and Michelle St. John. I was very intrigued with the concept of Indigenizing the play that Yvette underwent. One of the many reasons why Yvette was brought on as the dramaturge was because of her understanding and experience with that urge to Indigenize. The character of Rita Joe is a metaphor depicting the hard life that many Indigenous women go through when they go to the city. That feeling of just having everything stacked up against her. I feel that because The Ecstasy of Rita Joe is out there in the mainstream, the play itself has been identified as a metaphor for the violent victimization of Indigenous women.

How does your film write a different ending to the ballet of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe?
There is an article called "The Many Faces of Rita Joe" that really captured my attention as it discusses the different incarnations that the script took. There were five completely different drafts. One of them had Rita Joe speaking after she died. Before I saw the ballet, I was hoping they had incorporated that idea because ballet often has women dancing after they have died, such as Giselle. Unfortunately, the ballet of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe does not. After seeing the ballet, I was left with this feeling that it was not the right ending, because there has to be some hope after her death. I wanted to take the ending of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe narrative and take it somewhere else. That's why [in the Ecstasy film] there is the living sister. She carries that hope forward. The living sister was Rita Joe but she made it out alive. 

What does the word "ecstasy" mean to you?
In my mother's class, we have had discussions about why the play is called The Ecstasy of Rita Joe. As with all art it's open to interpretation. For me I look at ecstasy as a concept as complex as joy, although many people don't see joy as complex. I remember having a conversation with Rulan Tangen about the word joy and how many people tend to equate it with happiness. There is a depth and a tragedy underneath that joy. You don't reach a level of joy without having experience some deep pain. For me, ecstasy is kind of the same thing. Ecstasy can be painful but you feel alive and that's one thing that the Marsha character hasn't been feeling, even though technically she's the living sister. She hasn't been living her life and she hasn't felt connected and alive. For me ecstasy is that connection. There is pain as well as complex joy. It's all of it together. 

Can you tell me about the inspiration behind the character of Marsha?
The names that I have chosen to give the sisters have great significance. The character of Marsha is named after Marsha Ellen Meidow (with the permission of Marsha's mom, Beverly Jean Meidow.) Marsha was a good friend of mine who passed away in 2010, very suddenly at the age of 34. She was a frontline worker with girls on the street in Calgary. Most of the girls she interacted with were Indigenous. Although Marsha herself was not Indigenous, her husband was. She was the director of the Vagina Monologues in Calgary and raised money for Safe Haven House. She was a huge supporter of emerging artists. The feature concept of the two sisters going on a road trip came to me while I was driving across Canada in 2010, specifically the northern shore of Lake Superior. I kept visualizing a dancer along the side of the road as I drove. In hindsight, I now think that this dancer was flashes of Marsha, giving me ideas.

Can you tell me the inspiration behind the character of Lori?
The character of Lori is inspired, in part, by a young woman named Loretta Saunders. She was Inuk from Labrador, living in Nova Scotia, a student at a university studying the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women. She herself was kidnapped and murdered by two people who were subletting her apartment because they couldn't pay the rent. Since she didn't look Indigenous, Loretta was initially assumed to be 'white' when she went missing. I remember reading an interview with her mom saying that her heart almost broke when they changed the description of her daughter from being white to Indigenous. Her mother was afraid that Loretta would be downgraded to just another missing Indigenous woman and the police would stop looking for her. The character of Lori represents the women who should have been safe, according to the government and mainstream media who claim that the majority of missing and murdered Indigenous women live "high risk" lifestyles. For Loretta, and the character Lori, their only "risk factor" is being Indigenous women.

Another inspiration for Lori is Bella Laboucan-McLean, also a university-educated woman. Bella's sister, Melina Laboucan-Massimo, writes about her a lot, as Delilah Saunders writes about her sister Loretta, so that sister relationship is right there, too. Bella had just graduated from art school and was going to be a fashion designer, yet somehow, she "fell" to her death from a condo balcony in Toronto and no one in the small condo knew what happened. Again, these were not "high risk" women except for the fact that they were Indigenous. I want people to understand that an Indigenous woman can be the epitome of success, yet still be at risk because she is Indigenous; there are still people out there who see Indigenous women as less than human. 

Why did you choose to shoot the film north of Sault Sainte Marie on Lake Superior?
I've done that drive so many times from childhood to adulthood. It never loses its magic for me. This territory holds huge significance to Anishinaabe people. We filmed close to the Agawa pictographs, which holds great power and carries many stories and dreams of the Anishinaabe people. There are many sacred sites in that area and the lake is said to be home of Mishibizhiiw -- a manitou in the form of a lynx serpent that has many interpretations. I see him as a creature of balance and protector of the lake. Some people view him as evil but I think when he is acting violently it is to protect the lake. 

What is the significance of Lake Superior and its connection to human trafficking, which you touch upon in your film.
Lake Superior is also it is a huge site of human trafficking in North America, specifically on the boats between Thunder Bay and Duluth, Minnesota. During my research, I came across the statistic that 90% of women being trafficked in Canada are Canadian, and 90% of those Canadian women are Indigenous (this second stat is more contested). I'm not sure what percentage of those women are transported on these boats, but it's one of the main organized sites of human trafficking in Canada outside of Toronto and Vancouver, along with areas around man camps for extractive industries. I read some interviews of survivors that have been on the boats between Duluth and Thunder Bay. Sometimes they are there for years. Some of them have had children on those boats and had their children taken away to become further victimized by human trafficking. 

I accompanied Elisa, the cinematographer, and you when we were location scouting along Lake Superior last June 2016. I remember when we arrived at Katherine's Cove and the excitement that came over us. Could you say more about that day?
Lake Superior feels like this intersection of the natural beauty, sacred sites of significance to the Anishinaabe people, and then this horrific human trafficking. It just felt like the film needed to happen somewhere along the intricacies and complexities of this land and lake. I didn't know if we would find a spot where we would all feel that power, but when we were location scouting and visited Katherine's Cove, I felt the impulse to sing to the water and you, Heryka, started dancing at the waters' edge, and Elisa was so moved by the place. It felt like the right place where you could sing, dance and feel deep emotions. Everything we needed to do. 

What are you hoping to convey when people watch your film?
The main thing I'm trying to do is to connect people to the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women on a personal level. It's important to have statistics and information campaigns out there to raise public consciousness, however, I feel like until people see it in a story with characters that they can relate to that it doesn't really get inside of them. I've learned that dance and music, with the right kind of narrative, can have such an impact on people. I'm hoping that people who watch Ecstasy will finally feel a connection to those women that are missing and to family members left behind. Change needs education with passion behind it -- that will, that urge to change. I feel that this urge to change comes from touching people's emotions. I really feel inspired to create something that is both beautiful and meaningful and has the ability to create change. 

What's next?
Hopefully, this film will also be the proof of concept for the feature film I would like to create with the collective, a road trip film following Marsha and Lori from Vancouver to Halifax, telling more of their story through spirit, dream, and dance.

This blog originally appeared on Cara Mumford's blog. Please contact Cara Mumford to donate or learn more about this project.

Image: Cara Mumford

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Cara Mumford speaks about her film

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