An Impossible Being: Rhayne Vermette Discusses “Ste. Anne”

The Métis artist talks about her circuitous path to filmmaking, the collectivist making of her debut, and Indigenous storytelling.
Joshua Minsoo Kim

In Rhayne Vermette’s feature debut Ste. Anne, the director plays Renée, a woman who returns home to the titular town after a four-year absence. Her daughter Athene has been under the care of Renée’s brother and sister-in-law during the interim, and this unexpected arrival comes with multiple questions that never get answered. While dialogue and a soundtrack exist, there’s a palpable quietude to the proceedings, casting a ruminative atmosphere over the film’s lush images shot in 16mm.

Vermette herself ran away from home at the age of 32. She explains the event in the description for her 2016 short film Les Châssis de Lourdes: “Dramatically, I left with only my cat and copies of all the still and motion images taken by my father (these dating until the mid 1990s when he then passed his camera down to me).” Across 18 minutes, she constructs a collage with these home videos and photographs, employing disparate music samples and editing rhythms to create a spectral sense of home, identity, and place. It should feel uneasy, but it’s oddly comforting.

Such is the nature of Vermette’s work: It’s built from a multitude of influences, imbued with a sense of searching in both form and content, and assured that any processes will lead to something formidable despite their evolving nature. Her 90-second short film Black Rectangle (2013) is inspired by Kasimir Malevich’s famous Black Square, a painting that has deteriorated greatly over time, and finds 16mm found footage cut up and reassembled like window blinds as grainy noise music plays. Domus tells the story of the Italian architect Carlo Mollino, but is also a homage to other artists, including the avant-garde filmmaker Takashi Ito, whose kinetic Drill (1983) is paid homage during the film.

On the surface, Ste. Anne’s narrative leanings may feel peculiar following Vermette’s experimental shorts, but it shares the same curious, adventurous spirit. Vermette brings on a crew largely consisting of close friends and family, which lends an autobiographical bent to the story. It’s not a straight-ahead documentary, though, and this midpoint between fiction and non-fiction reflects Vermette’s interest in exploring her Métis—people of mixed Indigenous and European ancestry—identity.

There’s a sense of displacement in Ste. Anne, mirroring the historical treatment of the Métis. Naturally, the film is set and shot in Treaty 1 territory—the land taken from First Nations for settler use after the 1871 signing of Treaty 1, the first of several numbered treaties between Canada and First Nations. Some of the initial negotiated promises were either absent from the official document, written without First Nations leaders’ complete understanding of the terms, or left unfulfilled. The film’s ambulatory pacing and ethereal ambiance conjure up a sense of hazy memory recollection, but there’s an understanding of the locale and its people that nevertheless shines through. Ultimately, there’s a miraculous sense of comfort found in family.

Vermette’s disinterest in providing clear, concrete depictions reflects a broader truth regarding the reduction of Indigenous peoples to stereotypes. Still, this decision doesn’t feel like reactionary art-making as it does a liberating one: Vermette simply wants to create in ways that pulls from her many interests, in ways that are boundless.

Ste. Anne recently played at TIFF and NYFF, and Vermette was awarded the Amplify Voices Award for Best Canadian Feature Film at the latter. We talked with Vermette over Zoom to discuss her circuitous path to filmmaking, the collectivist reality of Ste. Anne’s production, Indigenous storytelling, and her love for music.

NOTEBOOK: I know that you ran away from home when you were 32. Did you run away when you were younger too?

RHAYNE VERMETTE: No, I’m really happy at home. I grew up in a small town and always thought I was stuck, but I prefer to live and think I’m stuck than actually do something about it [laughter]. I grew up in Notre Dame de Lourdes and at the time it had a population of about 600. There was no art in school, and it was about an hour and a half away from Winnipeg. So I grew up in Notre Dame but on this weird periphery of rural and urban areas.

NOTEBOOK: What sort of things defined that small town for you?

VERMETTE: I just think about my weird loner upbringing—I was artistic but there was no avenue for that. My parents took us to music lessons, but I had very few friends. I was too weird to have friends, frankly. Everything—the world—was all in my head. That idea of imagination and play and the outdoors, and the agricultural world, really shaped me. My grandpa had this business and my dad worked for him, and we had a farm just a few houses down from our home.

I have a mom and dad, one brother, and a niece and nephew now. And my aunts and uncles and my cousins… my father’s family. Family was both these families and I’m very close to all of them. Both of them were hyper-involved in Ste. Anne—some make appearances in front of the camera—and there were always people helping behind the camera. Family is everything to me and that’s why I’m in Manitoba and why I stay here. I always wanted a sister and my friends who worked on the film with me are my sisters: I love them like family. I would be nothing without all these people—they poke me and prod me in different ways, so I’m a result of their influence.

NOTEBOOK: You said there wasn’t a lot of art growing up. What would you say was the first time you had an opportunity to engage with it and recognize it was something you really wanted to pursue?

VERMETTE: There was a lot of self-discovery and confidence building. I loved music because there was always music around, but filmmaking never really occurred to me. During university, I took a film theory class my first year and had no interest because it was all white-dude films. I didn’t understand myself but I really didn’t understand all this stuff. I tried again the next year and it was all dudes, and I made this film where there was no talking and my professor told me it wasn’t an actual film. So then I dumped it and studied English literature, and went into fine arts, and then fell into architecture. It was in architecture school where I closed the loop and came back to filmmaking as an animator.

There was this one class, Architecture in Film, where I made this weird animation. The School of Architecture felt like this masochistic ritual of feeling shitty all the time, so making this film was the first time I had made something that was hyper-enjoyable. That was one of the first moments where I recognized that there was something to chase there. The first time I was like, “I can do this,” was when I finished my film Black Rectangle. It was badass—to me it’s such a great film.

NOTEBOOK: With this winding path you’ve had to filmmaking, do you feel like your stints in English literature and architecture have had a notable impact in the films you’ve made?

VERMETTE: Yeah, 100%. When I was studying literature I took some creative writing classes and was really struggling. My professor told me to focus on the small shards—the fragments—and that really changed my world. When I was studying English literature, I also took an Indigenous Writing course. We studied fiction and non-fiction, and that was my first introduction to Indigenous storytelling and it really affected me. And architecture… my first films were spatial, and everything is spatial. Architecture school created this way of thinking about film that I wouldn’t have had if I stuck with filmmaking when I was 18.

NOTEBOOK: You have your one film, Domus, which at one point pays clear homage to Takashi Ito’s Drill. You get a real strong sense of your affinity for space in that one.

VERMETTE: Yeah. To me, cinema is just a device to understand different dimensions of space. Domus is my favorite film because it’s me. It’s an homage to the animators who really inspired my work: Takashi Ito, Ed Ackerman, and Al Jarnow. A lot of the animated props are old works from my studies in architecture school, so it really places me in this intersection between cinema, architecture, and animation.

NOTEBOOK: I have to ask, then, who are you? In the sense that, how do you try to make sure you come across in your films? Is that a goal?

VERMETTE: Who am I… [laughter]. An impossible being. I think that’s reflected in my films. I was talking with my friend the other day about genre films and I think my films are a mix of fiction, non-fiction, experimental, drama, but I think it’s easier to say that I make hyper-complicated stoner movies [laughter]. I often think that’s what they are.

NOTEBOOK: I liked watching Ste. Anne because there’s such a stark contrast between it and your other films. The rhythm is really different despite the same emphasis on these sonic pulses, and there’s a lackadaisical pacing that feels true to what you’re saying. I saw you noted that the film is “Paris, Texas rewritten into Treaty 1.” It made me think about the idea of someone coming back to their hometown and being disoriented. There are multiple scenes in Ste. Anne where there’s a mismatch between the sound and image, like a constant sense of having an out-of-body, out-of-place experience. What were your intentions with this film in relation to Treaty 1?

VERMETTE: I see a lot of my work as a cosmology of things happening. A lot of my interests are vast and varied so I try to throw all that stuff in, like with Domus—taking these polar opposite animators and [makes thwack sound] bringing them together. You mentioned earlier that I had run away when I was 32. Ste. Anne was happening at a time when I had just come back from Winnipeg. I had left a lot of the community that was surrounding me and my discipline of filmmaking. I was at a point where I really had to rebuild, and I had just come out of this Indigenous industry-based incubator, this intro-to-filmmaking program, and my experience with that got me interested in Indigenous storytelling, three-point narratives, and identity tropes.

As a Métis person, I look at my family and, in Manitoba, when you start researching the Métis, it’s about jigging and beading, and we don’t do any of this stuff! So I started this process of thinking about myself as a filmmaker and the worlds I wanted to engage in as a Métis person, and what values they have on my practice in a nuanced way. I started researching, building, meeting people, and out of that came Ste. Anne.

With Ste. Anne, I wanted to make a narrative. I wanted to challenge how we make film, challenge storytelling, and challenge who gets to be part of a film. It was all arts council money so we could do whatever we wanted. This was a big leap from animation into live drama, and I wanted to rewrite Paris, Texas. It’s my favorite film. Harry Dean Stanton's character, Travis, has always reminded me of my dad. It’s not my dad’s story but there’s something about how silence cloaks that character. So through that, I started examining family histories, making myths out of these things, and assembled a crew that was basically all women—it was friends from the Indigenous Filmmakers Collective. Amanda [Kindzierski] and Charlene [Moore], Janelle [Tougas] who did art direction. Like, emerging artists who had just started working in film. My friend Savannah [Luff] did casting and she had never casted before.

We were all just figuring it out. There was space and there was money for people to do that. There was so much feeding into it, and while it started with Paris, Texas, the more we worked on it, the further we got away from it, which is what I knew would happen; I just needed something to start with.

We had a lot of fun together, and people who had worked on my film and have gone on to work on more industrial things have talked about what it was like working on my movie, and people in the industry will be like, “That’s not real!” There was no hierarchy—everyone got paid the same. I had five cinematographers, and that’s unheard of. We had Lindsay McIntyre and Erin Weisberger, who are both amazing. They were shooting on an Arri SR3 and it’s like, ooh, only men have been allowed to use that in Winnipeg! So I learned to use it and taught Amanda and Kristiane [Church, one of Ste. Anne’s cinematographers]. The first thing we did was put it in my dad’s truck and made a tracking shot.

It was ride or die. It was the best experience for a first feature film. There were all these nerves but my cousins were there, so it wasn’t intimidating at all! There was a space for me to be intimate with my project, and it was a time for me to collaborate with people, too; it made sense to bring on people I trust and love. To me, the film was a success even before we were done just based on how our worlds really expanded. We all worked on this for two years, had strong ties, and put a lot of care into it.

NOTEBOOK: Given that your previous films were animated, what do you feel like you’ve learned about yourself as a filmmaker with Ste. Anne?

VERMETTE: I definitely learned to trust myself more. I learned more about my process, because we had a script but as soon as we started, it went out the window. The film was shot with hunch feelings or moments when we were on set and had time to improvise. A lot of the stuff with my dad was improvised and that’s my favorite stuff in the movie. I learned that my process is about engagement with others. As I’m thinking about my next project, the film has to start as soon as I start writing it, because I need those relationships, I need to experience those faces and places in order to manifest a cinematic take on it. I learned so much because I was directing, producing, acting, shooting, editing. I was packing craft services for people and picking up the gear. I would drive everybody in my car to where we were going and whatever fit in the car was what was coming with us.

NOTEBOOK: Do you already have ideas for your next film?

VERMETTE: I have ideas for two separate projects. I thought of a Domus trilogy. I want to make Domus 2, and I want it to be an IMAX film, collaging on IMAX cels. I’m also developing a project called Levers, which is another dramatic, experimental narrative about rural living hitched on an illegal killing of a bear and that story being retold and retold and retold.

NOTEBOOK: Earlier, you mentioned this idea of Indigenous storytelling. Do you mind talking about that? How does that compare with other forms of storytelling?

VERMETTE: For me it was coming into the idea of a three-point narrative and not really experiencing that so much in a lot of the Indigenous stories I was researching. I was reading a lot of Métis folktales and they were really quick, jokey, and to-the-point. They helped set the pace of Ste. Anne, but I was primarily trying to break up the three-point narrative—I think that’s a really colonial construct. While there’s a time and a place for it, I’m not interested in that at all. I really like to work with circular narratives and have things intersect, and see how you can build a story that way. I try to think through poetry, like having poetic stanzas as a means to keep myself from falling into explaining everything or making sure everyone’s on board with you. At a certain point I have to just say, fuck it. It’s about play, I’m always playing.

As a kid, being Métis was always explained to us but in a really broad way. It was something I knew I was, and it’s something I carried with me. We grew up really close with my mum’s family, and they were all in Notre Dame, and my dad’s family was all in Ste. Anne. There was a bit of a distance there, and coming out of a more industrious, Indigenous filmmaker program, I started thinking about, where can I find that in my art? Does that have any play in who I am? I started working and researching beyond just history and identity tropes. I was working with a historian about the [Métis] Nation through concepts, this idea of cosmology and being at the center of two cultures, and then thinking about the Métis in terms of the Michif language. It was this fluid, liberated language that wafted in and out of French and Ojibwe and Cree. It was this hyper-private thing that only Métis communities would speak amongst each other.

I got into Howard Adams, who wrote Prison of Grass: Canada from a Native Point of View, and it was a monumental moment in my life reading that because it gave me language and understanding of what happened in Canada. My father is a strong man and he was able to stop a chain of events that allowed for me to have a good life, so I can also recognize that privilege, the privilege of how I appear, and how I can speak both French and English.

I would often look at my father; if I want to know what being Métis is, that’s my dad. The Métis were often in charge of transportation, moving things across Manitoba, and my dad was always in his truck. When my dad was six his father passed away, and through bureautic theft—because my grandmother had all these young kids and was undereducated—they took the farm away. My dad’s love for the agricultural world probably stems from his memories as a child. My grandmother’s sisters were racist towards them, telling them, “You’re Métis, that’s not a good thing.” When I think about it, it’s insane that they were so proud of it and let all their children know. Dolorès Gosselin, who plays the grandmother figure in my film, found out she was Métis much later in life. I think about Jupiter’s Metis moon, I think about all these things that work their way into how I think about the Métis.

I see my work at the center of a lot of things and I’m assembling my own truth through all these various styles and techniques surrounding me. Like, who are the Métis? I’ve sat on panels with people and they can’t really talk about it beyond tropes, and I love to sit and think about, like, what if Manitoba had become what [Métis political leader] Louis Riel and his council had envisioned? I would probably speak all the languages. Because of how the Métis presented, and because they were in charge of transportation, they were a part of all communities and spoke all the languages, and all these languages were taught in their schools. And it was primarily women who taught at the schools.

NOTEBOOK: Given all these different ideas and influences, and how you’re still in the process of understanding what it means to be Métis, is there something that you specifically wanted viewers to take away from Ste. Anne regarding the Métis? Is there something you’re taking away from it?

VERMETTE: I want to open people’s ideas of what it can be, but I understand how it’s so dense and complicated. I sort of just want people to pay attention. I made a lot of references to Métis folklore—there’s a reappearance of this bull. Ste. Anne is where my father’s from, but there’s also the Ste. Anne pilgrimage in Alberta and I decided to name the film that and tried to learn about it. I opened the dialogue up to this event that happened far away from where I live but I could find some ties there.

NOTEBOOK: I like that you’re framing this as an opening up of dialogue. I don’t imagine many people watching this film and seeing very specific messages.

VERMETTE: Or a specific culture. I think for me, it’s all family. That’s the thing I take away most from being Métis: family values. It’s family first. It’s no surprise that that’s overwhelmingly clear in the film.

NOTEBOOK: Do you mind sharing about other elements of Metis folklore that appear in the film?

VERMETTE: There’s the wolf. And these are figures that are evident in a lot of cultural folklores. We play with images and symbols, and even in the score we played with the fiddle, and had that change and evolve.

NOTEBOOK: How did you approach the sonic aspect of the film? It’s clear you like music and think about it, as you have your one short film, Suzanne Ciani on Letterman, that also doesn’t have a direct audio-visual match.

VERMETTE: Music is my favorite thing in the world—I don’t make films often because I listen to too much music. For Ste. Anne, it was a bit different because there were people talking. It’s a much quieter film, and it was a nice bend in my road because there was air and space to breathe. Sound is often a way for me to think about how I can put something in my image that’s missing. I often use sounds to channel other realms. I like to think about all dimensions of life, like sometimes with memories. With Les Châssis de Lourdes, there’s a lot of vacuuming sounds because my mum vacuumed all the time. In Ste. Anne, I use a lot of off-camera sounds. I sat with the sound team and tried to explain the complexity of how I approach it. I try to put a lot of samples in, and Bret Parenteau—who did the score—he would make stuff and I would drop it in whenever it worked. It was very playful. The rough cut had all these sound notes and text all over the images. It’s my favorite part of filmmaking. I love sound.

NOTEBOOK: The big thing about Ste. Anne for me is getting sucked into its rhythm. The sound plays a role in that, but your images are also “composed” in a way where it feels like it’s following a more musical trajectory.

VERMETTE: The guys who taught me the most about editing are Madlib and J Dilla. Even in production I’m thinking about audiovisual samples, and I don’t get too caught up in it—like, let’s just get images! I do my own edits, and when I put everything together, I think about samples and sampling. I DJed a lot in Winnipeg, so I think about playlists and making a cinematic playlist. I’m always thinking about rhythm and pacing, and when you’re into music, you just know when something’s off.

NOTEBOOK: There’s a question I ask everyone I interview that I want to ask you: Do you mind sharing one thing you love about yourself?

VERMETTE: I love how I love others… these people, they’re weirdos, they’re misfits. I like big personalities because it’s never boring. I never want to be bored.

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