Beth Mairs and Darlene Naponse are talented independent filmmakers who take it for granted they have to work a little harder to be recognized.
The world first fell in love with film about the same time women began their crusade for rights in Europe and North America. There was no “old boys club” that kept emancipated women from working in film. French cinema pioneer Alice Guy made her first film, La Fée aux Choux, (The Cabbage Fairy) in 1896. Canadian Nell Shipman wrote and starred in Back to God’s Country (1919), the first movie to have a “nude scene.”
Yet, more than a century later, the film business is dominated by men. In the United States, only eight percent of directors, 13.6 percent of writers and 19.1 percent of producers are female. Less than a quarter of the Canadian films made in 2012 had female screenwriters, according to a 2013 study by Canadian Unions for Equality on Screen.
Women have to work a just a little harder to succeed in an industry that attracts people like bees to pollen and can be a hornet’s nest of egos, politics, dreams and broken promises.
Beth Mairs and Darlene Naponse are talented independent filmmakers who take it for granted they have to work a little harder to be recognized. Their career choice is not about the money, the fame or the glory.
“It’s not about getting rich; it’s about doing what I love,” says Mairs, who runs BAM North Productions. “If it’s your own project, and you are going to stick to it, you have to be really passionate about it.”
Naponse of Pine Needle Productions agrees, “Independent films don’t make much money. It is about the stories I want to tell.”
Neither Mairs nor Naponse have film school on their resumes.
Mairs has made a reputation for telling stories – as well as championing films at festivals such as the Female Eye Film Festival – that challenge mainstream thinking. Her stories are about women, the LGBT community, and people of colour. She writes, directs, produces and often acts in her films.
She worked as a social worker in Toronto before investing in an old tourism camp on the Spanish River more than 20 years ago. She started Wild Women Expeditions and organized outdoor adventure experiences. She sold the company but still owns the property where she occasionally hosts writers’ weekends.
“I sashayed sideways from adventure tourism as a career into adventure film,” says Mairs. Film “wasn’t a premeditated career move.” She had simply watched too many adventure films about macho white men conquering nature.
“I was very disappointed with the portrayal of women in that medium. Women were not portrayed at all in adventure films or they were mute. When they were major characters, they were more macho than the men.
“There was a story that was not being told. That was the different way women interacted in a group setting in the natural world: the concept of challenge, adventure and adversity. It occurred to me I could make that film.”
Her first film, Does This Canoe Make Me Look Fat?, was about a group of five city women on a northern canoe trip. The 40-minute documentary was shot in the Temagami region. The trailer for the 2011 film is available on YouTube. It is rated PDF for “pretty darn feminist.”
Her second film, Awaiting Atwood, was a spoof of an adventure film.
“It was a send-up of the National Film Board film, Finding Farley (Mowat), about a perfect Canmore family who develop a pen pal relationship with the writer and are invited to visit him in Cape Breton.”
Her story is about a less-than-perfect lesbian couple who are misled to think their literary hero Margaret Atwood has invited them to stay with her in Toronto. The couple meet up with many misadventures.
Mairs contrived to have a copy of the script treatment delivered to Atwood when she was visiting Sudbury.
“I heard from her assistant and we lined up with three hours (of filming) with Margaret Atwood six months later. That really set the project in motion.”
Her latest project, Roll-Her Dervish, is about a women’s roller derby league in Sudbury. She followed her subjects for two years and soon a story emerged about aggressive and competitive women who challenge the myth of women as passive, collaborative and supportive. Roll-Her Dervish is now in post-production.
Her next short, Abandoned Houses on the Reservation (2001), was shown at Sundance. In 2003, her first feature-length film Cradlesong premiered at the Utah festival founded by actor/director Robert Redford. Her experiences there put her in contact with experienced filmmakers and she learned quickly.
Naponse, who is also an author and educator – she teaches at University of Sudbury and recently completed her master’s in creative writing – may have been born a storyteller. When she travelled by car with her mom, a photographer, across Canada, she remembers making up stories in her head to pass the time.
From her father, a chief, she learned about social issues on and off the reservation.
Like many filmmakers of her generation, she was inspired by Star Wars (1977).
“At an early age, since Grade 8, I knew I wanted to make films,” she says.
She started making films to counter stereotypes about First Nations people but came to realize that by telling the stories she wanted to tell, she could achieve her goal.
“Even if it’s a First Nations story, these story lines are universal… I want to make truth-based stories that are
really imaginative and interesting.”
Every Emotion Costs was shot entirely on the Atikameksheng reserve in 2012. The film is about two women who return home to bury their mother.
Laurentian University associate professor Hoi Cheu, writing in Anishinabek News in July 2014, says, “Every Emotion Costs reaches beyond its cultural borders; it moves me as a male Chinese immigrant. We do not share the same history, but we share the story because each of us has to reconcile with our dark emotions.”
Every Emotion Costs was nominated for numerous awards in the past year after doing the film festival circuit across Canada and the United States. It is available on demand on the Movie Network and the trailer is available on YouTube.
Naponse lived in Toronto and out west for a time, but about 15 years ago, she came home.
“I came home to see if I could make it on my own. I met some amazingly talented people,” including Julian Cote, who would become her business partner and husband. In 2009 they built a film and audio production studio on Atikameksheng Anishnawbek.
For the past two years, Mairs has been leading the charge to establish an independent film cinema downtown. She has been hired as the project manager for Sudbury Downtown Independent Cinema Co-op, a committee of citizens who hope to establish a theatre in the former St. Louis de Gonzague School building at 162 Mackenzie St.
The building is owned by Autumnwood Mature Lifestyle Communities. The independent theatre will lease a 3,000-square-foot space that can accommodate 188 people. That project has been delayed pending government funding but the show must go on. The film co-op has many special film presentations planned for November and they will be shown at Sudbury Secondary School.
Women in Film Wednesdays, a monthly meet-and-greet started as a social media support group for women involved in film, has morphed into regular networking sessions and film series. The co-operative is planing a series of Aboriginal films called First Person Thursdays. Naponse is the guest programmer.
Both Mairs and Naponse smile when asked if they are getting rich in the movie business. Naponse teaches, while Mair’s job with the cinema co-op is helping to pay the bills.
“I like to joke making films is how I lose money,” says Mairs. The creativity, challenges and satisfaction she gets from making films, however, is priceless.
Naponse is hesitant to talk about economic realities because she doesn’t want to discourage people from following their dreams.
“I want people to be able to choose what they want to do. Being an artist is not an easy road but it is one of the most rewarding roads because you are doing what you want.
“I don’t make a lot of money but I get to meet some amazing people, travel and tell stories. It’s pretty interesting to wake up one day at the reserve and the next day I’m at Sundance meeting people like Matt Damon and Robert Redford.”