Industry Spotlight: Jennifer Podemski is creating the representation she wishes to see in the world.
Native and Indigenous people, specifically women, are the lowest represented demographic in the film and television industries, both in front of and behind the camera. It’s not a new concept, but it still stings. According to a 2019 report from IllumiNative, the inclusion of a Native American character in primetime television or popular films ranges from 0-0.4%. The likelihood that this token Native is portrayed accurately? I think we know those odds. It’s true, there’s been an uptick in Native representation– networks are slowly but surely realizing that the market for programs that centralize around Indigenous experiences isn’t a niche one.
Award-winning filmmaker Jennifer Podemski (Anishinaabe/Ashkenazi) has dedicated her career to making #MoreNatives the norm in film and television. As an actress she has appeared in Native-centric shows like “ReservationDogs” and “Moccasin Flats.” She’s also the creative mind behind “Unsettled,” a new Canadian series that centers around an urban Indigenous family who loses their fortune and must move from Toronto to a Northern Ontario First Nation. The show balances between modernization and preservation of a culture with ease. A far cry from the usual depiction of Natives donning buckskins and existing no later than the 1800s, the drama explores modern struggles of identity, financial instability, drug and alcohol dependency, and infidelity. While each episode contains roughly 20% of dialogue in Ojibwe, traditional Anishinaabe language, there is also an Ojibwe version of the show.
Jennifer’s fight for representation doesn’t stop there. In 2020 Jennifer created The Shine Network, a digital platform designed to empower and celebrate Indigenous women in film, television, and media. The site currently houses a digital symposium of interviews with Indigenous women reflecting on their experiences in the film and television industry, hosted by Podemski herself. Jennifer graciously took time out of her busy schedule to talk to the Cherokee Nation Film Office about Native representation, and what she would like to see in the future.
Why is Native representation in film and television important to you? When I reflect on my childhood it becomes clear that my feeling alienated, alone, other and ashamed of the way I looked, was reinforced by the absence of people that looked like me or my mom on tv and across all media and stories about people like us. As I got older and began pursuing a career in film and tv (by 10th grade) the absence of Native people and stories became more obvious because as an actor no one knew what dowith me. No stories, no work. No work, no career.
Still from “Unsettled,” that Podemski created, writes, directs, and executive produces.
What is your dream project? I dream of doing an entirely Anishinabemowin soap opera.
What advice would you give to young people wanting to pursue a career in the film and television industries? The climate is different today but the advice remains the same as always: you do not build any career over night. It takes training and commitment and a deep belief in yourself that will help you work through the rejection. Do everything you can to take up space in workshops, as an extra, on the crew, volunteer at organizations or production companies that will give you exposure to the industry and put you in the spaces with people who have careers you aspire to have yourself. Also do everything you can to take classes.
What was the best part of filming “Reservation Dogs” in Oklahoma? I have such a small role in the show but I honestly was just so damn grateful to be included. My sister is on the show and for the first several weeks of production (before I was cast) I would hang on her every word when she told me about what it felt like to be on set of what will be known as the most epic, all-Indigenous project of all time. For me, every aspect was remarkable. Watching the kids held extra special meaning for me.
“Unsettled” was filmed almost completely on Nipissing First Nation in Ontario.
Who would you thank in your first Oscar Acceptance Speech? As always, I will thank my ancestors and my family. Both provide me so much support and have kept me going along this very rocky road of a career. I would also thank those remarkable predecessors like Gary Farmer, Tantoo Cardinal, Gil Cardinal, Loretta Todd, Alanis Obonsawin, Chief Dan George, Graham Greene, Thompson Highway (and so many others) who laid the foundation that would allow me and my peers to stand on. I would also give a huge shout out to Bird Runningwater who 20 years ago invited my show Moccasin Flats to Sundance and that’s where everything became real for me as a producer and content creator. I would also say, to every single Indigenous kid out there, no matter what you look like, or where you live, you matter. If you feel like you don’t matter that’s because the media has been reinforcing that concept and feeding it to you through erasure and other tactics. But I want to tell you that you matter and you have all the potential under creation to thrive and shine.
Later this month Jennifer will be on a virtual panel during ImagineNative’s Industry Days with CNFO’s own, Jennifer Loren. You can subscribe to our monthly newsletter for a list of upcomming in-person and virtual events, or you can follow us on social media for updates on events. To find out more about Jennifer Podemski and the Shine Network, click here.
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