Caroline Monnet brings her vision of Indigenous cinema to Bootlegger

Caroline Monnet brings her vision of Indigenous cinema to Bootlegger
In multidisciplinary artist and filmmaker Caroline Monnet’s feature debut Bootlegger, Devery Jacobs plays Mani, a 20-something First Nations woman and aspiring lawyer who returns to her small community after many years spent in the city studying. Mani returns home to find a community ravaged by alcohol even though the sale of alcohol is theoretically forbidden in the remote community. All signs point to Laura (Pascale Bussières), a white woman who runs a corner store in town and runs a booze racket with the protection of her First Nations partner Raymond (Jacques Newashish), who still holds Mani accountable for a shared tragedy in their past. Mani takes it upon herself to try and change things by holding a referendum about the legalization of alcohol sales, presenting it with the idea that if people are going to drink anyway, profits should be spread throughout the community.

When I phoned up Monnet to talk about the movie, I briefly blanked — completely unsure of what language to use in our interview. Monnet, who is Algonquin herself, was born in the Northwest Territories but raised between Outaouais and France. Those themes of being uprooted or caught between two cultures are ever-present in the film, starting with the fact that the film moves freely between French, English and Algonquin. (If you’re curious, our conversation wound up being in French.)

“It also represents the region of Maniwaki, where I shot the film,” says Monnet. “We live in that reality, where people switch back and forth between French, English and Algonquin. I liked the idea that the main character doesn’t necessarily speak the language of her community, which only adds to her feeling uprooted. The barrier of language was there from the beginning.

“When you leave your community for a long time and you come back, we feel a little detached,” she continues. “That’s true for everyone, but it’s especially true when it comes to Algonquin culture. We lose our anchors very quickly. I wanted to talk about the reality of small communities, close communities like this one, in which everyone knows each other and has each other’s back. It’s also about the exodus towards the city. When you go towards the city, as an Indigenous person, at least, it’s as if there were a hierarchy. The ‘true’ First Nations people are the ones who speak their language every day, who never left their community and who keep their traditions going. When you go to the city, your spirit is occupied by other things.”

These themes are also explored by Innu poet Joséphine Bacon in the documentary Je m’appelle humain — and, as luck would have it, Bacon also appears in Bootlegger as Mani’s grandmother. It’s a rare acting appearance for one of the most important and celebrated figures in Indigenous arts and letters.

“We shot the film in 2019, which was definitely before the documentary came out, though I don’t really know when they shot it,” says Monnet. “When I wrote the character of the grandmother, I immediately thought of Joséphine Bacon: her luminous face, her beautiful blue eyes. There’s a sweetness, a softness to her that I thought was perfect for the role. She was my first choice.”

A recurring reality of making films set in Indigenous communities in Quebec is the relative lack of trained, professional actors from those communities, nevermind whether or not those actors are right for a film’s particular characters. This leads many filmmakers to cast non-professional actors, which more often than not gives those films a rough-hewn, cinéma vérité style that’s nowhere to be found in Bootlegger. 

“I didn’t want that tone at all,” says Monnet. “I didn’t want something hyper-realistic like a Dardenne Brothers movie. I wanted something that was slicker visually, where I would do a lot of work on colours and visuals. I come from visual arts, so visual aesthetics are very important to me, down to the camerawork or the symbolism in some of the images. I didn’t want it to be realistic — it’s fiction, on a fictional reservation.”

In that sense, Bootlegger exists alongside genre-bending efforts by Indigenous filmmakers like Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum, Danis Goulet’s Night Raiders or Tracey Deer’s Beans — films that depict Indigenous lives through the lens of genre film or, at the very least, a heightened aesthetic.

“I want it to stand out,” she continues. “I don’t want to see that in movies anymore. I want to see things that stand out — horror, science fiction, comedies. I don’t want all the movies about Indigenous people to be hyper-realistic. (…) It’s about going past preconceived notions and exploring what cinema can do. It’s about having fun, too. We’re allowed to have fun!”

Bootlegger is in Montreal theatres now.

Bootlegger, directed by Caroline Monnet

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