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You might not know who Jennifer Podemski is, but you should. She isn’t new at this. In fact, she’s been doing it most of her life. It’s not an accident, however, that she largely works behind the camera as a producer, and when she does step in front of the camera it’s largely in Canadian productions.

Podemski is the producer and one of the stars of Empire of Dirt, the latest film from director Peter Stebbings (Defendor). She has had roles in the adaptations of many important Canadian novels, such as The Diviners, Fugitive Pieces, and The Robber Bride, but also in films like Bruce McDonald’s Dance Me Outside and Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz. When someone with so much talent doesn’t just work in Canada, but prefers to work in Canada, as Canadians we always wonder why.

“I went to LA very briefly. It was almost directly after Dance Me Outside, and the experience was so surreal for me and I felt kind of outside of myself,” Podemski says. “And I just don’t like that feeling.” In LA she was presented with great opportunity, but in the end she returned to Canada because she felt like there was something more for her in life than counting calories and having men in suits discuss her ethnicity like it was a commodity. “So I stayed in Toronto. And I struggled. I struggled a lot. There were very few opportunities for me, so I just did regular day job stuff.”

When she was 25 she moved to New York with her sister who was doing RENT on Broadway. Crashing on her sister’s couch for a while, she began taking auditions and found many opportunities to work. Sometimes when you get what you think you want, however, you find out it’s not quite the right fit. “So I came back, I was 25, I came back and I started a production company, because I felt like my purpose was different. There was a different path for me,” she says.

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Cara Gee as Lena and Shay Eyre as Peeka

Podemski came home and founded Redcould Studios, a production company dedicated to positively showcasing Aboriginal talent in the film and television industries. With this in mind, it is not a giant leap to see why Empire of Dirt caught her eye when writer Shannon Masters, a former Redcould employee, brought her the script.

“I originally really loved the three women. It was pretty much the same kind of legacy story about what we take with us, what we pass on, and the struggle with family and being estranged and a coming home story – all of those things really resonated with me. But I think what was really the most, what sparked my interest the most, was I knew from being already a producer for several years that this project was going to be impossible to make, so I kind of loved it for that reason.”

The script remained in development for eight years, certainly not doing much to smash the idea that this was an impossible task. The film was accepted to the Canadian Film Centre (CFC) and things began to move forward. Podemski never gave up on wanting to bring the film to the screen, however, as she began to feel like she owed it to these characters to get their story out there. “I guess owed something to those people who will one day watch this in the next generation, and say, that was one film that showed three Native women and we’ve never seen that before,” says Podemski.

In order for Empire of Dirt to work, the script called for three actresses with a great deal of talent. Looking around, Podemski didn’t see anyone in the current Native talent pool who was also the right age, so she and Stebbings knew they were going to have to “discover” some talent. Discovering talent, while exciting, does come with some drawbacks. “The discovery element is always amazing. The other part of it that’s really difficult is, in terms of raising money, you’re constantly faced with the challenge [that] we don’t have really that big of a star system in Canada. In the Native community we don’t have much of a talent pool, in terms of people that will bring in an audience, so sometimes you’re asked to consider people outside of that ethnicity and we knew for sure – I knew for sure – that I would never want to change the ethnicity of someone just to get bums in seats. So it was either, okay, whatever happens we’re going to have to do this movie for less money because people don’t want to take a chance like that. Most people don’t in the unknown.”

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Jennifer Podemski and Cara Gee in “Empire of Dirt”

You’ll notice Podemski is also in the film herself, as Minerva, mother to Lena, grandmother to Peeka, but that wasn’t always the plan. The role of Lena was originally written for her, but when the film was accepted to the CFC, the executive producer felt that producing a feature and starring in it would be a very big job, and cautioned against it. “As things started to progress and we started to develop the film, we knew that to really tell this legacy story as accurately as possible – I mean, my mom has just turned 17 when she had me, so I had followed in that kind of path then she, too, would have been 40-something with a teenaged grandchild. So we were looking for a very early 40s grandmother. The people we were looking at were more my peer group, you know, my category. It was discussed that I might play Minerva, but it was never really on the table until we came really close to production and realized that the two actresses that we wanted lived in BC. We couldn’t afford to bring them here. It became a lot of complication, so Peter told me I had to play the role.

So I did end up producing and starring in a movie and it was very challenging and the executive producer at the CFC was probably right that it probably isn’t the best idea for your first experience as a producer.”

The result is a film that tells a story we can all relate to: being part of a family I hard. It’s in this way that the story lands its hardest punch for Native issues. When you see people who are just like you, struggling with the same things you are, it brings us together. That’s the magic of Empire of Dirt. It’s not an “issues” movie – Podemski and Masters specifically steered clear of making it that – it’s a human story which also happens to peak your interest enough in the issues to want to know more.

For Podemski, the film isn’t perfect, but she would love to see it blossom into something more. “I would love to have the opportunity to turn this into a TV series, because I love the idea of the legacy story, because everyone can relate to it. Everyone can relate to just how difficult it is to like your family sometimes and try to raise your kids. I would love it to have a second life in the form of a TV series.”

With all her experience in producing television, there’s a strong possibility that just might happen. Fingers crossed.

Empire of Dirt opens Friday, November 22, 2013 at Cineplex Yonge & Dundas. You absolutely should not miss this film.

Featured image photo credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Galit Rodan

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