Three generations of First Nations women struggle to deal with the demons of their past, in this powerful and affecting drama from actor-turned-director Peter Stebbings (Defendor).
Contemporary World Cinema
Empire of Dirt
Centring on three generations of Canadian Aboriginal women, Peter Stebbings' Empire of Dirt is a gripping story about confronting the past, set within a family burdened by cycles of addiction, poverty, and teenage pregnancy.
Lena Mahikan (Cara Gee, 2013 TIFF Rising Star), a former addict and model, is now a single mother struggling to make ends meet in Toronto. True to her last name — which means wolf in Cree — if Lena senses danger, her instinct is to run. So, when her troubled and headstrong thirteen-year-old daughter Peeka (Shay Eyre) overdoses, attracting the attention of child services, Lena packs them both up and flees to her hometown in rural Ontario. There, reunited with her estranged mother Minnie (Jennifer Podemski, who also coproduced the film), she is forced to face a past she has desperately tried to ignore.
Based on a superb script by Cree screenwriter Shannon Masters, Empire of Dirt brims with sharp, candid dialogue and memorable characters imbued with refreshingly human flaws and contradictions. (Though Lena can't get her own life together nor control her daughter, she counsels street kids on their life choices at a community centre.)
The film also marks a striking departure
for talented actor-turned-director Stebbings,
whose debut, the quirky superhero film
Defendor, premiered at the Festival in
2009. Though it traverses an entirely new
terrain, Stebbings' latest is a major progression;
his taut direction captures the
emotional tumult of his protagonists' lives
with maturity and verve, eliciting remarkable
performances from his cast, particularly
newcomer Gee in a breakout role. Not just a
contemporary portrait of an indigenous family,
Empire of Dirt resonates as a film about a
mother's struggle to make the right choices,
and about making peace with the past.
AGATA SMOLUCH DEL SORBO