Debajehmujig Storytellers get dubbing gig

Brian Peltier is just one of the elders working on the dubbing project.

Will supply Ojibwe language for TVO-APTN series

MANITOWANING – When producer Jennifer Podemski of Recloud Studios was casting about for an Indigenous post production collaboration partner with the chops to tackle dubbing of the Ojibwe language challenges of her new 10-part drama series ‘Unsettled,’ her mind immediately went to Debajehmujig Storytellers.

“I have known about Debajehmujig through my connection with the arts,” she said. “In the Indigenous arts community, everybody knows about Debajehmujig. I also produced a documentary series that included a story about Debajehmujig.”

Thanks to those experiences, Ms. Podemski had a strong understanding of the available facilities and infrastructure, as well as human resources that Debajehmujig has at its disposal.

“They have a fully operational production and post-production facility,” she noted. “There was really no better option.”

The drama series ‘Unsettled’ focuses on an urban Indigenous family from Toronto who are forced to move to a Northern Ontario First Nation when they unexpectedly lose their fortune. While that might sound a bit Schitt’s Creek at first blush, the similarity ends there, full stop.

“‘Unsettled’ is a fish out of water drama series about a family in the midst of an identity crisis trying to navigate the complex realities of living on a reserve at the dawn of a new political era,” explains Ms. Podemski. 

The protagonist, “urban, Indigenous adoptee Rayna Keetch grew up with no connection to her Indigenous roots. Recently reconnected with her birth family, she is about to return to her First Nation for a traditional homecoming ceremony when her husband Darryl announces that he’s lost their fortune.

“Despite the devastating news, Rayna goes North to her reserve hoping to find solace in ceremony and culture but what she finds is a dysfunctional birth family and a community in turmoil. 

“What begins as a weekend out of town becomes a search for meaning and identity, a journey of healing and transformation for Rayna, her family and the divided community of Beezee First Nation.”

So not a light-hearted comedy by any stretch.

The project was commissioned by TVO and APTN and Ms. Podemsko shares executive producer credit with Derek Diorio of Distinct Features Inc. The producer is Geoff Ewart. His name might be familiar as the force behind 2013’s ‘Empire of Dirt,’ 2015’s ‘Guantanamo’s Child: Omar Khadr’ and 2017’s ‘Ransom.’ 

Ms. Podemski is no slouch in the industry either, perhaps best known as an actress (Pique in CBC’s ‘Diviners’ and a star of ‘Dance Me Outside’), she noticed the almost complete dearth of Indigenous eyes on the other side of the lens—almost no writers, producers or directors.

Along with Laura Milliken, she founded her first production company, Big Soul Productions, the first Indigenous-owned and operated, full service production company in Canada, going on to produce hundreds of hours of television that included three seasons of the award-winning dramatic series ‘Moccasin Flats’ for Showcase and APTN.

Ms. Podemski has continued her acting career (‘Degrassi,’ ‘Republic of Doyle,’ Sarah Polley’s ‘Take This Waltz’ and especially her own role in her film ‘Empire of Dirt’ that garnered nominations for two Canadian Screen Awards for Best Actress in a Supporting Role as well as Best Feature Film) but she maintains a strong drive to continue telling Indigenous stories.

‘Unsettled’ stars Cheri Maracle, Brandon Oaks, Tamara Podemski (familiar to Debajehmujig audiences for her performances in their mainstage), Pam Mathews, Wesley French, Lawrence Bayne, Mitchell Loon (North Bay local) and Albert Owl (Ojibway language speaker).

Recurring roles are performed by Michaella Shannon, Tashena Sarazin, Glen Gould, Joshua Odjick, Lisa Cromarty, Migwan Buswa, Sid Bobb, Pheonix Wilson and Stephanie Aubertin.

Composer for the series is Adrian Sutherland of the acclaimed group Midnight Shine and the cinematographer is Clement Lush.

In addition to being the first dramatic television series to be funded through the CMF Aboriginal Language Program, the series was shot almost entirely on Nipissing First Nation.

“We have a training initiative for Indigenous filmmakers made up of graduates and current students from the Canadore Digital Cinematography program,” explained Ms. Podemski. “The team, led by aspiring director and our director mentee, Morningstar Derosier, will be shooting second unit, narrative content throughout the community.”

Ms. Podemski held an open casting call in the community and 53 Indigenous community members responded. “They have all been cast in a variety of roles,” she noted, “including principal actors, actors and background performers.”

“There are not many television series with an almost entirely Indigenous cast,” she said. “Out of 55 roles, 50 are Indigenous characters played by Indigenous actors. The series was translated and dubbed into the Ojibway language at the Debajehmujig Theatre Company located on Manitoulin Island.”

Unfortunately, an all Indigenous production crew remains out of reach yet, as the industry remains short on Indigenous faces on the other side of the camera—something Ms. Podemski continues to work to correct.

“But Debajehmujig is a completely Indigenous operation,” she said. “All the pieces were great. I was really thrilled to be able to work with Debaj.”

That is a sentiment shared in the other direction by the Debaj crew. “We have all known Jennifer for a very long time,” said Jason Manitowabi, who managed the Debajehmujig side of the collaboration and described the experience as “exciting.”

“The Indigenous voices she has brought to the table are amazing,” he said. 

The trend toward Indigenous voices telling their own stories will be a game-changer in the industry, moving from the Hollywood myth to a new era of authenticity that will help lay the foundations for a more honest reconciliation.

It is still not settled as to when ‘Unsettled’ will be going to air. “It has been a slog,” admits Ms. Podemski, who notes that this project has been years in the making.

“It takes a very long time to get a show made, especially Indigenous content,” shared Ms. Podemski, noting it was a dream coming true to come together with Mr. Diorio and be able to “tell the kind of stories I wanted to tell.”