Famed Canadian producer and actor Jennifer Podemski has taken on the role of showrunner for the new Crave and APTN lumi drama series Little Bird, authentically and honestly telling the story of a Sixties Scoop survivor uncovering her family history, starring Darla Contois.
Little Bird is a story told in multiple time periods. It begins in the '60s, when we see the Canadian government's abhorrent practice of taking Indigenous children away from their parents, where some ended up in foster homes and others got adopted.
It's estimated that between 20,000 to 40,000 children were part of the Sixties Scoop removal of Indigenous kids from their families.
Little Bird jumps 18 years into the future, in 1985, and brings us to Montreal, specifically to an engagement party for Esther Rosenblum (Contois), who was adopted by her Jewish family when she was five, and her fiancé David (Rowen Kahn).
It's after this party that Esther, born Bezhig Little Bird, starts off on her path to find out about her life before her adoption, in Long Pine Reserve in Saskatchewan, including her quest to find the siblings she was separated from.
'It's about time that we understand the gravity of these experiences'
The initial idea for the project was brought to Podemski from Rezolution Pictures in 2015, the general concept of an Indigenous adoptee who was raised by a Jewish family. Podemski herself is Jewish on her father's side, and Anishinaabe, Leni Lenape and Métis on her mother's side, so it connected to her personal life.
“From that sort of conceptual pitch, I was just hooked right away and really wanted to dive into not just that identity intersection, but also as an important story, like the Sixties Scoop, which I had also been working on in various ways for many years,” Podemski told Yahoo Canada. “I knew very consciously that nobody knew about it.”
Contois is absolutely exquisite in portraying Esther, with the actor revealing that she was "immediately very excited" to take on a project about the Sixties Scoop, attached to Crave and APTN.
“I think one of the things that was mainly attractive was that it's about time that we tell the story and it's about time that we understand the gravity of these experiences, and add to the collective Canadian consciousness of what happened,” Contois said.
“I think because in my career I've always focused so much on authenticity and honesty when it comes to the Indigenous experience, the role of Esther was sort of made for me and meant for me. [I] got so lucky because this has been my focus for such a long time. So walking into Esther and playing Esther, I was just so honoured and so grateful to be there.”
Contois, describing the experience on set, said that there were moments where she really relied on co-directors Zoe Hopkins and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, with this being the actor's first "major" production.
“There was a lot of trust involved in our working relationship," Contois said. "But also, they allowed me a freedom to sort of just go where I needed to go for Esther and allowed me to really bring her experience to life through what I thought was necessary.”
In balancing the different elements of this story, from the historical components to the psychological element of Esther's journey and social commentary, Podemski explained that it was important to have everything established "through Esther's lens."
“Our dominating rule was if it's in the 1985 storyline, our timeline, every single thing has to be centred through Esther's perspective,” Podemski said.
“That made it ... easy to interconnect that social commentary because it's seen through someone's lens, and the psychological journey that she's on and the PTSD that she's experiencing. Everything was woven in very consciously … to help us incorporate the multiple complex layers of storytelling that had to take place.”
'The space between being alienated and integrated'
Another core element for this series is the concept of "belonging," as Esther explores what "home" means for her.
“One of our guiding principles [was] to utilize this idea of belonging and not belonging, and sort of the space between being alienated and integrated, and that wavering between those places that you may never exist entirely,” Podemski said. “The overall tone was exactly that, was trying to anchor it in this feeling of, what is family and what is belonging and that is more of a universal experience.”
“Something that everybody can relate to is, where do I belong? And seeing it through Esther's perspective, anchored in Indigenous identity and birthplace and homelands, and all of those things. Then her experience being Jewish, her search for home brings her to a place where she realizes that home is maybe not a place necessarily.”
With a project that is this authentic, real and harrowing to depict on screen, it can be hard for people watching to imagine taking on a role like Esther and then leaving that on the set at the end of the day. Contois recognizes that she's acquired the skill of "compartmentalization."
“Then also, because I am a mother to a toddler, there's a different hat that you have to put on when you're a mother and there are certain things that you have to learn how to do, like setting work aside," Contois said. "So that was really important and something that I learned very quickly.”
While the whole story of Little Bird is incredibly compelling, the sounds of the series really help build tension, but also really ground the story in its locations and time periods.
“I knew going into this that I did not want a soundtrack and I wanted to have a very like diegetic audio experience, or acoustic experience, that was very much connected to her psychological journey,” Podemski said. “Very authentic sort of source music from the eras and also, this kind of idea that the land has a voice.”
“For sound, it was really an incredible journey. It was the first time I was able to work with our location sound person and our post-production sound person, who were both brilliant and they kind of worked together to bring the sounds of the environment into the soundtrack, into the acoustic soundtrack that was the land speaking to Esther.”
Podemski also praised the "brilliant artists" behind making the series visually come to life.
“We were really looking for a very poetic expression of two different, very different, versions of Esther, without feeling like we were telling a historical story,” Podemski said.
'It's pretty dire in terms of representation'
In terms of where we stand with telling Indigenous stories in entertainment, specifically with Indigenous talent in front of and behind the camera, veteran actor/producer/director Podemski indicated that it seems that things are "a little bit better."
“I think in front of the screen, it seems like things are doing better, a little bit better maybe even behind the scenes sort of above the line with directors, and maybe writers and producers," Podemski said. "Just marginally sort of better than lets say the last 20 years.”
Podemski also has a non-profit organization, The Shine Network, that tackles the underrepresentation of Indigenous women in Canada’s media production industry. The research pulled from that work indicates that there is still significant work to do.
“It's pretty dire in terms of representation and ownership of IP and production companies, and just generally, there's a lot of capacity to be built and a lot of narrative sovereignty to be achieved,” Podemski said. “There's a lot of work to be done, but I'm not going to discredit the work that’s being done and the incredible, beautiful storytellers that have emerged.”
“But there is a lot of work to be done and it's really the platforms that are the most important. So the fact that Crave, along with APTN lumi, took [Little Bird] to this level, and other stories like it, I think is a good sign that people, industry is beginning to step up to the plate and recognize the importance of uplifting these kinds of stories.”
When it comes to what Podemski hopes viewers take from watching the Little Bird series, she hopes that "people see themselves in the story.
“I hope that people experience an entirely new perspective from the story,” Podemski said. “I hope that people are awakened by the story in a way that might impact bigger societal change, as it relates to the current reality for Indigenous people and how we are seen in this country."
"I hope that uplifts Indigenous voices, and makes an impact on the hearts and minds of all the viewers.”