Thursday, 21 November 2013

EMPIRE OF DIRT - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Terrific Screenplay By Shannon Masters & Superb Performances

World's youngest granny
with petulant granddaughter.
Lena (Cara Gee), a former drug-addicted model is now a single Mom, clean and sober, working as a house cleaner, volunteering in an at-risk-youth-centre and caring for her thirteen-year-old daughter Peeka (Shaye Eyre) in the Kensington Market area of Toronto. In spite of this, a few too many misfortunes catch the attention of a nosy social worker with the typically easy-way-out-and-hardly-helpful suggestion of foster care. The two women hightail it up to North Country and stay with Lena's estranged mother Minerva (Jennifer Podemski). Relationships rebuild, unravel, then come full circle with new hope for all concerned. Lessons are, not surprisingly, learned. - G.K.

*NOTE* I watched Empire of Dirt with my 12-year-old daughter Julia who occasionally enjoys writing about film on this website as my Junior Cub Reporter. When the film ended, she exclaimed, "I LOVE THIS MOVIE! Can I write about it, Dad?" I agreed wholeheartedly to her tackling this film, however, I told her I didn't want to discuss the picture with her in any way, shape or form until after she wrote her review because I decided this might be the perfect film to run two reviews side by side - two perspectives on the same film coming from two very different places.

The review you'll read here is mine.

My daughter's review can be accessed by clicking HERE.


Sisters? Nope. Mom and Daughter!
Empire of Dirt (2013) ***
Dir. Peter Stebbings
Starring: Cara Gee, Jennifer Podemski, Shaye Eyre, Luke Kirby

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Some pictures are so beautifully acted and/or written with a potentially potent delicacy that you want to forgive the fact that what you're watching seems little more than a by-the-numbers TV-movie. Empire of Dirt is consistently easy to consume, but that's just not good enough. The film is begging - nay, it's demanding - a distinctive directorial voice to pull the inherent drama out of the screenplay by Shannon Masters. A personal auteurist stamp would have made all the difference between what it could have been and what, ultimately, it is.

Peter Stebbings's direction is perfectly competent, but that, alas, is the movie's biggest problem. There's a very simple tale at play here that has all the potential in the world for a kind of Terrence-Malick-like poeticism which might have done wonders to bring a kind of harrowing, yet (borderline oxymoronic) muted quality to the proceedings. I'm not, by the way, referring to Malick's woeful "I talk to the trees and God" phase of his previous two outings, but rather his richer poetic-narrative period of Badlands and Days of Heaven wherein his chief influence was clearly Martin Heidegger's seminal work "Being and Time" (contrasting the more existentialist springboard of Jean Paul Sartre's attempts at Heideggerian gymnastics that seemed to infuse the insufferable duo that is Tree of Life and To The Wonder).

While Stebbings takes a simple approach to the material, it's without a firm grasp of the spiritual and philosophical qualities that appear inherent in the film's source material. The screenplay feels loaded with so many opportunities to visually evoke a kind of search for the essence of Being that's structurally inherent in Masters's writing and, in fact harks back to the structure of Malick's first two feature films.

Badlands, paints a portrait of a sun-dappled agrarian world within the context of a small town - the closest thing to an urban environment that Malick gives us - a stifling world of Status Quo societal mores and Old World patriarchy as embodied by the gruff, sign-painting Father (Warren Oates). This is what inspires Holly (Sissy Spacek) to be attracted to Kit's (Martin Sheen) self-styled James Dean persona in the first place while he is conversely attracted to the physical appearance of a young beauty twirling her baton, but slowly discovers what he assumes is a spirit, a state of Being similar to his own. He, and by extension, Holly make a decision to tear down this old world and embark upon an odyssey into nature to discover a wholly new state of Being.

Days of Heaven is imbued with a similar story structure that's fuelled by a Heideggerian spirit which allows for the added dimensions of both philosophy and poetry. Its characters (Richard Gere, Brooke Adams and Linda Manz) are initially locked into the stifling poverty and grime of an urban factory until they're placed in a similar position of irretrievably wiping the slate clean before landing in the bucolic farm setting of the distant young patriarch (Sam Shepard) who owns the sprawling property they eventually call home.

Empire of Dirt shares this structure on a script level. Lena (Gee), the former model of First Nations descent and single Mother, has long been absent from her home in the North Country of Ontario. She makes a meagre living as a house cleaner and try as she might, poverty and elements of big city Status Quo racism and mistrust place her in the position of losing her job. The biggest challenge of life in Toronto is that her attempts (mostly successful) to also raise her daughter are scuttled when Peeka (Eyre) falls in with a bad crowd of kids and she suffers a near-death sniffing overdose. When this all adds up to potential catastrophe, Lena, with Peeka in tow (not unlike the characters in the aforementioned Malick films) embark on an odyssey to Lena's former home in the crisp, clean Northern lands where she reunites with Minerva (Podemski), her long-estranged Mother who operates a live bait business for local fishermen.

It's in this environment where the material also delves into an exploration of Being and while we are engaged in the genuine humanity of characters looking to mend old wounds and build new bridges, the utter simplicity of the writing, which should yield so many more levels of thematic resonance, are at odds with the dull, by-rote competence of the film's uninspired direction. It's fine that we're watching a film wherein the outcomes might well be recognizably inevitable, but for this to work successfully as film art that rises above its narrative beats requires a lens, an eye if you will, that can see past the surface elements of the writings and dive head first into what feels like levels of experience that are always there, but never exploited with the qualities of visual poetry.

There is so much here that places Empire of Dirt in a position of being a work of importance and resonance. It's a film that explores the relationships of three generations of women, but also does so within the context of a colonial history that has wreaked havoc upon Canada's Native Peoples, focusing upon their dreams and desires - not to assimilate, so much as to live their lives in a world that should not still be tied to the remnant shackles of colonialism.

Like Malick's characters, the screenplay is clearly placing our three women in a position where they are searching, not just for Being, but questioning and discovering the very essence of Being. Alas, we sense this, but must work extremely hard as viewers to scratch below the surface. A more assuredly distinctive directorial voice was needed to render the film's spirit visually, cinematically, rather than as a series of dramatic beats covered so plainly that we don't get the full nutritional (if you will) value of the screenplay's true essence.

In Emma LaRocque's extraordinary book of literary scholarship "When The Other is Me", she notes:
"The theme of Native people’s confusion and despair runs through much of Native writing and cuts across centuries. Native missionaries, analysts, commentators, scholars, novelists, poets, playwrights — all in some way address the emotional costs of imperialism."
from University of Manitoba Press
For me, what's especially egregious about the lack of directorial cinematic poetry in Empire of Dirt is that this is writing for the screen - which for me, automatically implies a need for visual rendering beyond mere "coverage" of the writing - taking us into visual and emotional territory that seeks the kind of journey of exploration of its characters that our great film artists, like Malick, have brought to bear upon the work.

As a screenplay, the film presents an extremely important departure from what LaRocque describes as "confusion and despair" being the overriding thematic elements inherent in so much of the work by Native writers.

Yes, these are elements which exist in the story, but the important leap forward that Masters makes as a writer (first) and a Native writer (second) is that we are in territory where characters are searching for that essence of themselves as part of the larger whole of humanity.

This is a film about Native Peoples, written and produced by clearly powerful voices in Canada's Native community within the domestic film industry and equally important, work that comes from female voices. This is not to say a male director like Stebbings is incapable of rendering such work, but the veteran actor-director seems to be the wrong choice to have adapted the material.

However, based upon his first feature as a director, the very original Defendor, I might, in all fairness suggest he's potentially not the wrong choice, but rather a director who has, with Empire of Dirt, made his own wrong choices in rendering the work with a mise-en-scene that never moves beyond the pallid competence he employs. Canada's long tradition of auteur directors and the importance placed upon distinctive directorial voices makes it so disappointing that such an original piece of writing is given short shrift.

The seeming simplicity of the writing and its veneer of predictability deliver a perfect opportunity for a filmmaker to use the superbly structured blueprint of the screenplay to put a distinctive stamp upon the material and move it more evocatively into a lyricism it insists upon. At this, he fails.

Stebbings, does not, however, err in his handling of a superb cast. Gee and Eyre feel fresh and natural, while Podemski commands the screen with her powerful presence. The delicacy missing from the mise-en-scene is almost made up for with screen acting of the highest order (and not just with the leads, but all the supporting roles and even background performers). This then, is almost enough, but ultimately, we're faced with a movie that feels more like something that resides in the territory of "close, but no cigar."

Can-Lit Classic By Beatrice Culleton
And this, for me, is a drag since Empire of Dirt, especially in terms of its writing, is a movie that breaks new ground in the territory of Canada's film writing from the industry's Native Peoples. In the early 1980s, the Native Canadian author Beatrice Culleton (Mosionier) delivered "In Search of April Raintree", a passionately etched novel that had and continues to imbue feelings of great power.

That said, it is also a product of its time and focuses upon elements that LaRocque cites as "...Despair and violence [which,] run particularly strong…" throughout the work.

Empire of Dirt, as a script, however, is quite unlike Culleton's own groundbreaking literary work. As LaRocque notes, "'In Search of April Raintree' deals with the disintegrating effects of colonization on a family." Here we are, though, some thirty-plus years since the books publication and we have, with Empire of Dirt, the remnant effects of colonization. In Masters's screenplay, these Native characters who, like Culleton's, are searching, ever searching.

Interestingly enough, in the case of young Peeka in Empire of Dirt we have a character who is flirting with the potential of self-destruction not unlike that sound in Culleton's "April Raintree" novel. There are, to my mind, big differences between the two works, but also, some obvious parallels that link them over the decades that separate them.

In her description of "April Raintree" LaRocque writes:
"The story follows two metis sisters who are, on one level, searching for reintegration of family selves, but on another, perhaps deeper level, searching for a positive Native identity. April is searching for her sister Cheryl, who had been taken away by Child and Family Services. Both sisters are searching for a positive self-image of their Indianness, for Cheryl, an image based apparently on the White man’s romanticized invention of the “Indian.” April’s search for her sister is also a search for herself. Having been conditioned to be ashamed of her culture, April finds self-acceptance through her sister, but not before April’s personal dignity and Cheryl’s life are sacrificed."
In Empire of Dirt, we have three generations of Native women "searching for reintegration of family selves" and yes, on a "deeper level, [a Grandmother, her daughter and granddaughter are] searching for a positive Native identity." In so doing, though, Masters's characters are searching for a sense of family and identity - period (or are, I'm at least compelled to assert, "period").

Tellingly, when Lena approaches her old modelling agent to restart her career, he "reduces" (by his words and actions) her "self-image" not so much in terms of "Indianness" or even "an image based apparently on the White man’s romanticized invention of the 'Indian'”, but rather she is lumped categorically into a larger and more general stereotype. "Ethnic" or "exotic" in the modelling marketplace is, according to the agent, "not in". Not that this is any more or less egregious in terms of Imperialistic Colonial attitudes, but the racist and ethnocentric attitudes of the perceived needs of White corporate Imperialists includes all people of colour.

Lena is no longer sought for solely being an imagistic representation of some manner of "Pocahontas", but is being rejected in spite of the overall changing face of Canada's "ethnic" makeup. This is hardly progressive and certainly just as racist, but is also, in fact, a more disturbingly sweeping dismissal of all things not "White".

There's even a strange parallel in Masters's screenplay to that of "April Raintree", rooted in representations of different eras and hence, experiences. Rape and prostitution are the overtly violent elements that face the Native women in Culleton's novel, whereas there's a somewhat and seemingly more "benign" form of exploitation when Lena's agent grudgingly sends her out on a modelling gig and she finds herself outside Toronto's East End "Gentleman's Club" Jilly's.

Essentially, the implication at best is that Lena will be posing for nude photos and at worst, modelling or rather, performing as an object of sexual gratification in a strip club - perhaps even being reduced to providing borderline prostitution services as a private lap dancer where the primary "service" is a dry hump.

Masters also presents the compelling backstory of Lena's father who eventually committed suicide, haunted to self-destruction due to his childhood abuse within Canada's notorious "residential schools" for Native children. There's a parallel here to Culleton's narrative wherein a key character discovers that her father was, in LaRocque's analysis, “'a gutter creature',” as Culleton describes him...a drunk in the slums." In Culleton's work, though, this is impetus for despair and self-destruction whereas as Masters uses this information as the ultimate impetus for empowerment and moving forward.

Finally, Empire of Dirt, is a good and decent film with its heart in the right place, but given the sophisticated levels of the screenplay, one keeps waiting for the movie to soar and finally, it simply does not. The writing and performances keep the film a compelling experience, but this is still, I think, an important aesthetic development in Canadian Cinema (and cinema period) and required direction that went far above and beyond the call of duty. The film's clever title presents, within the screenplay itself, a very powerful metaphor. There is an empire of dirt in the city represented by the cleaning of homes belonging to rich, privileged White people and even within the mean, dirty alleyways of Toronto's Kensington Market area. Furthermore, there's Minerva's worm farm for live bait in the country which equally presents an empire of dirt rooted in "making a living". Even more astute, though, is that Masters's screenplay evokes the dirt of the city and the country in much larger, thematic ways. The neighbourhood in which Lena and her daughter initially live is full of the grime covered concrete, bricks and mortar of Chinatown, the garment district and Kensington Market - the cold, filth and graffiti-encrusted neighbourhoods of Toronto that smother the Earth of the once-traditional ancient settlement and travel routes of Canada's Native Peoples. This is truly an Empire of Dirt built up from exploitation, genocide and evils of colonization and it is the definition of dirt evoking genuine filth - that which soils all that's pure - which has such power: so much so that one years for a more poetically visual rendering of it. Then, of course, is the dirt of the country - the loose soil used to grow plants, flowers, vegetables and other living things that provide sustenance.

It is this specific Empire of Dirt that is, especially within the context of our contemporary world, a dirt, a soil, an Earth worth living in and living for. It's the sense of Being many of us search for, the sense of Being so many of us question and seek to understand.

It's the world - for better or worse - of this flawed, but still extremely important and vital film.

"Empire of Dirt" is in limited theatrical release via Mongrel Media following its World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival 2013.

12-year-old Film Corner Cub Reporter
JULIA KLYMKIW's ***** 5-Star review of