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A banner year for Canadian Indigenous film at the Toronto International Film Festival is tricky to describe in numerical terms, since it’s either three or five features plus two shorts, depending on you define Indigenous. Should you go by director, producer, cast, theme or other criteria?

While the rest of us try to figure it out, the numbers “3” and “1” are working very nicely for Tantoo Cardinal, the veteran Cree/Métis film, TV and stage actress. Tantoo Cardinal stars in Falls Around Her, premiering at this year’s TIFF. She’s in three Indigenous-themed features at TIFF 2018 — The Grizzlies , Through Black Spruce and Falls Around Her — and that latter film represents her first starring movie role in her 48-year-career, at the age of 68.

Yes, that’s right: it’s the first lead role for one of the country’s most celebrated thespians, an Order of Canada member whose lengthy resumé includes the Oscar Best Picture winner Dances With Wolves and the hit CBC TV series North of 60 .

“It’s like a breath of the universe, or something like that, that I was finally able to be a part of a story where I could be No. 1 on the call sheet,” a delighted Cardinal says in an interview from her Toronto home, as she prepares for a very busy festival.

“The importance of that is that you’re driving the story. I’ve had 48 years of standing by while the story goes on, in a sense.”

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The film that made her No. 1 is Falls Around Her , a mystery-laden drama written and directed by Darlene Naponse of the Atikameksheng Anishnawbek First Nation community in Northern Ontario. Cardinal’s character Mary Birchbark is a renowned musician from that same community, who finds it hard to return to home when she decides one day that life on the road in big southern cities like Toronto no longer appeals to her.

Tina Keeper plays Cardinal’s meddlesome sister Betty in Falls Around Her , but Keeper, a Cree actress, has a different relationship to Cardinal in Through Black Spruce . That’s Don McKellar-directed drama involving a missing girl and unresolved issues of abuse and guilt, both familial and societal. The film is set in Moosonee, Ont. and Toronto and based on a novel by Joseph Boyden, whose own Indigenous definition has sparked debate.

Keeper produced Through Black Spruce , a story she’s wanted to make for years — she optioned Boyden’s novel in 2012. She was a steady presence on McKellar’s set, Cardinal says, which should allay any concerns about a white man telling an Indigenous story.

“Nobody could make a move without Tina,” Cardinal says, chuckling. “Tina was the key and Tina is a Cree — and she’s a Cree woman. She chose that story for her own reasons. I’m working for Don in the scenes, but I’m (also) working for Tina.” Tanaya Beatty, left, and Brandon Oakes star in Through Black Spruce, Don McKellar’s screen adaptation of the Joseph Boyden novel, premiering at TIFF 2018 It’s a similar situation with Cardinal’s third film at TIFF, The Grizzlies , which was also directed by a non-Indigenous filmmaker: Toronto-born Miranda de Pencier, making her feature debut.

Based on an inspirational true story, it’s about a white history teacher named Russ, played by Ben Schnetzer, who travels way north to take up a teaching position in the Nunavut town of Kugluktuk. He discovers that the town’s soaring suicide rate, the highest in North America, is fuelled in large part by young people who see no way out of lives torn by violence, alcoholism and hunger.

The teacher’s solution is to create […]

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