Acclaimed filmmaker shooting Indigenous love story on Atikameksheng territory

By: Colleen Romaniuk, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Sudbury Star
The stars aligned for Darlene Naponse when she approached two producers about turning one of her short stories into a feature film last year.
Just a few days after the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic, Naponse reached out to Canadian film producers Jennifer Weiss of Nice Pictures Inc. and Paula Devonshire of Devonshire Productions Inc.
“Do you know that short story I’ve been adapting? Let’s do it,” she said.
Weiss, known for her recent work on Last Letter from your Lover and Guest of Honour, said that it was around March 13 when she first reached out.
“I’ve been producing for 25 years, and for a film to come together this quickly – financing and all, and during the COVID-19 pandemic on top of everything – is pretty amazing. I think it’s a testament to Darlene’s vision and her unique way of storytelling,” she said.
“It feels really special to be here, and to be telling this story right now for so many reasons. The film is a metaphor for colonialism and environmental evacuation. I think after the pandemic, everyone can relate to the idea of touch and the interruptions and outside forces that keep us from connecting. With Stellar, the moment was definitely right.”
Naponse’s feature film is now shooting on location on Atikameksheng Anishnawbek territory, 20 km southwest of Sudbury.
Based on the short story of the same name, Stellar follows two Indigenous characters who meet in a chance encounter.
Their touch sets off a cosmic and environmental connection that seeks to restore the past while bringing hope to the future.
Starring Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers (The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, Night Raiders) in the role of SHE and Braeden Clarke (Outlander, Run Woman Run) as HE, the film explores powerful themes of touch, reconciliation, love, connection, and repercussions with original storytelling and visuals.
Tailfeathers, who is from Kainai First Nation (on the Blood Reserve) in southern Alberta, said that Naponse is a visionary and she jumped at the opportunity to work with her.
“She writes poetry on screen, and this script is like nothing I have read before. It’s brilliant, poetic, and brave. I love the idea of being a part of an Indigenous love story,” she said.
Given the current climate for Indigenous people in Canada, she said, including the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and the unearthing of unmarked graves at residential school sites, a film like this one is timely and important.
“I mean there is so much to be upset about in terms of the systemic violence we face every day, but this story challenges all that in the most beautiful way,” she said.
Tailfeathers added it’s inspiring to see Naponse embrace desire and desirability.
“So often, Indigenous women on screen are framed through a fetishized or violent lens, and as an Indigenous woman, it can often feel unsafe to embrace those things given the fact that it’s not safe to be an Indigenous woman in this country,” she said.
Paula Devonshire, known for her work on Indian Horse and Run Woman Run, said that the interesting thing about Stellar is that everyone she’s spoken to has a different takeaway.
Some of the universal themes of the film are clear, but it means something different to everyone.
“For me, the theme of touch resonates. So much damage has been done to the Indigenous community through residential schools, children being separated from their parents and not getting that touch and affection that children need or deserve,” said the producer of Mohawk descent.
“It’s a valuable exploration to show the world how this damage echoes through our lives. These two people are just meeting and trying to fall in love. It’s harder than it is for those who have had nurturing childhoods.”
Naponse is an Anishinaabe from Atikameksheng Anishnawbek and the founder of Baswewe Films Inc. where she is committed to telling stories from a community and Indigenous perspective.
Her previous films have screened at festivals such as Sundance, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), and Winda.
Her most recent film, Falls Around Her, marked its world premiere at TIFF in 2018 and was the opening night film for imagineNATIVE Film Festival the same year.
She has earned numerous accolades for her work including the inaugural Creative Impact North Award, Best Screenplay and Best Direction for Falls Around Her at the Northern Ontario Music and Film Awards in 2019, and the REVEAL Indigenous Art Award in 2017.
Turning her short story into a feature film was a good experience, according to Naponse, because she looked forward to collaborating with a talented cast and crew.
“I wanted to tell a love story about two Indigenous characters resetting their connection to the space between them and the natural world, allowing themselves to let go of everything and fall in love,” she said.
“I just really wanted to look at the idea of love, desire, want, and two people who are just trying to find each other.”
Stellar will be filming at several locations on Atikameksheng Anishnawbek territory, including in Val Caron, downtown Sudbury and on reserve. A group of mentees are working with the crew on set to learn the ins and outs of the film industry.
“Those mentorships help create sustainable jobs within the Sudbury area, Atikameksheng Anishnawbek, and Northern Ontario,” said Naponse.
“It’s about creating opportunities for people who never had those opportunities before and to keep growing our skills and what we have around us as a film industry and community.”
Naponse said she hopes that audiences will feel the love and desire, the beauty and the wonder of the film and the story they are creating.
“I think it’s really important to talk about love, to understand love, and to appreciate those love stories. We all need a bit of kindness and inspiration. I think it is a great time to be putting something out about love,” she said.