Written by Malin Evita
*This interview has been slightly edited and condensed for clarity and context.
“Sge:no, Sge:no,” Jessie Anthony greets me as we virtually meet on a Tuesday, well, British afternoon and a Canadian morning. The filmmaker, whose directorial debut Brother, I Cry, is currently circling film festivals, has instantly melted away the awkward technological distance we sit with these days as she introduces herself with a natural glow. She is a proud Indigenous woman of the Onondaga Nation’s Beaver Clan from the Six Nations of the Grand River territory in Ontario, Canada, raised on the local reserve. But currently, she is living on the unceded territory of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and Sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations in Vancouver, B.C.
Growing up, Jessie was known as a drama queen. Because she was all about the drama. The acting. The theatre. The performance lifestyle. From middle school to college, becoming an actress was what she had set her eyes on, like a jets’ radar lock. Some years into adulthood, she got a scholarship to study acting for film and television in Vancouver. And that’s where the message, Make your own work, was continuously encouraged – eventually inspiring her to seek out Capilano University’s Indigenous Digital Filmmaking programme. “That’s where I learned; I can be in control of my own story. I can be in control of the voice that is being heard,” she says. From that seed, Brother, I Cry, the first thing she had ever shot, grew.
The drama with surrealist undertones follows the turbulent life of Jon (Justin Rain), an Indigenous man, as he struggles with addiction, crime, and a running warrant for his arrest. It takes hold of his life and spreads like venom to the women around him: His girlfriend, sister, and unborn daughter. Can he learn to control his demons? Fight against the detrimental influences around him? Or is it too late? It is a delicate and brutally raw film all at once which challenges your perception of family, trauma, substance abuse, and the institutions that try to ‘contain’ it.
The film, which has won two Leos and was recently nominated for Outstanding Directorial Achievement by the Directors Guild of Canada, was inspired by a rapid heartbeat dream the director had of her brother, who himself struggled with addiction, and is further drawn from life experiences and intergenerational trauma. To speak about her experience in creating it and the emotional vulnerability and strength it has taken to tell this story to the world, Jessie Anthony sat down with me to cover it all. Below is the transcript of our conversation. Enjoy.
“The camera is the trauma.”
Malin Evita: I understand that this all started with a dream you had about your own brother. Can you tell me about that experience?
Jessie Anthony: Something about me that I don’t normally share a lot, [is that] I am a medium, and I do spiritual readings, so I’ve just always been kind of in tune with my dreams. I had went to bed, and in my dream, I felt anxious and panicked. [My brother’s] spirit had come to me, and I was shocked that he was in spirit.
He told me he couldn’t find his body. And he told me that he had done needles — that he was shooting up. So I panicked, and I started running to every drug house I knew physically because of him. So I was running, and I was looking, and I couldn’t find him. He kept saying Hurry up, hurry up! But he didn’t know where he was either. Finally, I found him in the nick of time and was able to save him.
When I woke up, the feelings were still there, and it was very scary and emotional. Our family is still working through these things. And I’ve realised that I can’t save him. I will never be able to save him. I can encourage his recovery, I can encourage him in a better life, but I’ll never be able to save him. But what I could do, is write a story, and put all my fears on the big screen, and hope that it might change him or give him something to think about.
As specific as it was, I realised it was quite universal. Everybody has a Jon in their life. Everybody has a Leah in their life. That’s the emotion from the dream that transferred to the script, and though the script took a while, it took a couple of drafts; I think it was exactly what it was supposed to be.
ME: Working with something that is deeply personal and carries intergenerational trauma rooted in many indigenous communities, can I ask how you worked with such sensitive subjects like addiction and abuse? How did you feel as you were writing the script?
JA: Writing the script was really hard. I found I was writing a bit around it; I was writing a bit around the topic. The whole movie, most of it, is based of experiences I have had with my brother and my ex-boyfriend. So there’s a lot of things where I had to remove myself from that and go, Let them live on the page. Let them have their own life. It was a lot of prayer. That’s my process. I pray a lot; I burn some tobacco and smudge and pray that whatever the story the Creator wants me to tell is going to come out. It was hard. It was hard. Especially when I made the choice that I made in the end. That draft kept changing; even my actor was like, This isn’t what I signed up for. I signed up for the truth. And I’m like, You’re right. You’re right!
So the writing process wasn’t too bad; it was the directing where I had my moments. Where it was so real … Justin [actor behind Jon] encompassed a lot of my brother, and I did have to step away. It was my actor, it was Justin, who gave me the space to cry. Who gave me the space to realise why I wasn’t going to certain places. I am really fortunate for his friendship and his support throughout this project.
ME: As I was watching the movie, I kept thinking about the title. Brother, I Cry. And I kept wondering who was saying that, but now, can I ask, is that person you?
JA: Yeah, that was exactly it. It was initially titled The Passthrough because he goes into the passthrough. Drugs are this escape, this place that people have to go into because reality is hard enough. But it wasn’t fitting. But as I was sitting with my then producer, we were at school just twirling on the chairs, trying to come up with a new name, and we came up with Brother, I Cry. And it was just different; the way the words were used… The overall message of this movie is that I’m sad. I’m sad, I’m scared, and I’m preparing for the worst.
ME: When it comes to a story that is so close to your heart, how has it been to release it to the world, and watch it be received?
JA: Honestly, it did well in Vancouver. Vancouver has been so … Vancouver has just been really awesome. I don’t even know what else to say. The community here has really shown their interest, their love… It picked up a few awards here, so it’s been very nice. And imagineNATIVE has been really nice in Toronto. But I got rejected from so many festivals across Canada. And I was like, Okay… Is it too dark? Is it not good? Those things run through your head. Maybe this isn’t the film I thought it was. Maybe it’s not as good as I thought it was. You just go through so many emotions! And I thought, Okay, this is just not the door. That’s all I had to say: It’s just not the door, and that’s fine. I know that it’s going to reach the right audience.
I made it specifically for my brother, and when he watched it, he just had one thing to say to me. All he said to me in his reaction was, What the fuck [REDACTED: SPOILER]? And that was it. He never talked to me about it up until recently where he went to rehab, and he called me up. He said, Hey, do you think you could send the movie to my councillor so they can show it in the centre here? To the other clients? And I was like, That’s the door. That’s the door! And I’m emotional about it because that’s the door I wanted to be in, that I wanted to knock on and open. And it’s there. The movie is going to go to this First rehabilitation centre. I did talk with the woman saying, What if this is super triggering? And she said, That’s what we are here for. That is the point.
I just wanted to create a dialogue, but the dialogue isn’t necessarily with the addict either. The dialogue is for the family, too, for the enabling family. I think that was my biggest reward; being received in Canada and the messages I would get from friends and family about how familiar this story was. I was getting a lot of messages and stories about what people [have gone] through, and I thought, Okay — it’s doing something.
ME: A huge focus in this film is on the family dynamics, and the one that interested me the most was the relationship between Jon and his mother, Arlene (Odessa Shuquaya). The one shot where she is sleeping with her mother’s ashes added so much depth to the movie. What were you aiming to convey with this specific dynamic?
JA: With this particular shot, with her on the bed with the ashes, if you look at everything around her, she’s in boxes. The blanket, the mirror on the wall, the closet, the framing, the bed, the door [her daughter] shuts… everything around her is a box… We never see her leave her home; she’s boxed in. She’s trapped in so many ways. In her grief, in her sleep, in her room, in her home, in her family. So I really was consciously unconscious about what I was framing. And we do it on her level, in the low corner, because, again, that’s the trauma of it staring at her. It’s her trying to rest, and here we [the camera, the trauma] are, still with her.
That scene, to me, was a message to my mother of understanding. Because my mother also went to residential school and was a survivor of residential school. Then you are thrown into this mix of, You should know how to be a mom. You should know how to express your emotions. But when you can’t, I can’t imagine how trapped one would feel.
ME: What also stood out to me was how differently the mother treated him, compared to the other women in his life. She was very much an enabler, while the rest was trying to intervene.
JA: In my honest opinion, it’s a mother’s guilt. There’s guilt of not understanding why your child is in so much pain and not being able to help them. And so you just give, and you give, and you give, and you give because you think it makes them happy. But really, it’s not doing them any good. And you don’t know what else to do. It’s a cycle. That’s the trauma. In a lot of homes, that relationship is the trauma.
ME: This movie is very rich in its writing, characters, genre exploration, and cultural elements. Can you tell about some of your favourite visual techniques that you used to enhance the story?
JA: Breaking the fourth wall. There’s the moment where [Jon] glances at the camera — some people be like, Oh, he spotted the camera! Yeah, no. He knows you are watching. That’s the thing! Addicts know people are watching. And that’s the pressure. That’s the hard part.
The part where we really see it, through the mirror when he is washing his face [and] he is looking at us, that… You think he is looking at himself, but he is actually starring at us watching him. And then we have that shot of him when he smokes crack, the harder drug. We hear all of the noises, and he takes a moment and looks at us.
It’s a cry for help.
It’s when my brother cries for help,
and I can’t do anything.
And it’s not even a [vocal] cry for help. It’s just a look in his eyes. He has no power, he has no control, and then I feel helpless. Then I cry.
And it’s not just my brother. Just before I went to camera — maybe the year before — I lost my sister cousin. The cousin that babysat me my whole life. That I lived with. She even came to Vancouver to live with me for six months, and I lost her to an overdose at forty in 2017. So it was carrying that energy with me through this. It’s happening all around us.
ME: The power and vulnerability that this movie holds and the rawness — it just doesn’t look away. And it’s really impactful and powerful. I personally haven’t had close experience with addiction, but I can still feel this in my chest. Because it’s so pure and so honest.
JA: Thank you. I was very aware when I was making this film of Indigenous trauma porn. I was very conscious of that going in and making this, but this is true. This is what I have experienced. And if people want to say that it’s [trauma porn] for them, then that lets me know that they are not actually grasping the concept of what this is (or other reasons). But I had to just get away from that because I’m like, No. I’m in control of this story. If this was any other non-Indigenous person telling this story, then, yes, there would be an issue if it was an Indigenous story and they were telling it.
But I had to tell this story. For whatever reason, it needed to be told. I had to get over that anxiousness, like yeah, it’s dark. It’s heavy. But it’s just real. It’s just me being as honest as I can about my experience.
ME: For people who are going to watch Brother I Cry, what do you want them to take away from it?
JA: I hope that it starts a conversation. I hope that it starts a conversation around addiction and substance abuse and family enabling and communication. I think the biggest thing I would want someone to take away from this is that you’re not alone. You’re not alone. Whether you’re the addict. Whether you’re the girlfriend. Whether you are the sister, the mother — any of those characters. You are not alone in it.
That’s where I think the healing will come from; when we support each other. If we just hide it, just keep it to ourselves, it’s just going to fester. Whereas if we become vulnerable and open about and let it be known that this is what we are going through, then that conversation can happen. The support can happen. The love can happen. The healing, the healing for the addict, can happen too.
ME: It’s been a long journey, and I am so excited to see what you do next. If the little girl who wanted to be a filmmaker could see you now, what would you say to her?
JA: [Tearing up] Sorry, that’s… that’s a pretty emotional question because when you are born and raised on the rez, there isn’t always opportunities. Nothing was ever set up for us to succeed, you know? To be that young person and have a dream — I had a dream! — to be consistent and knocking down the doors… I have had people message me and say, Remember when you said you were gonna make movies? Remember that? And I’m like, Yeah! I said it when I was young, and I found the avenues. I was very fortunate to have parents that supported whatever it was I was gonna do.
That’s probably why I cried to my mom for thirty minutes when I was awarded something because there’s this feeling of Do I deserve this? Is this real? Am I being heard? Is my voice being seen?
To that little girl… I don’t even think it’s words; I think it’s a hug. I just think it’s a hug and an encouragement to keep going.
Brother, I Cry, is currently screening at various festivals — keep up to date by following the film on Instagram @BrotherICryFilm. It will also be featured in the American Indian Film Festival as a Best Film nominee, which runs from November 5th to 13th. Get your tickets here.
Jessie Anthony is also the creator of Pass Through Productions, which is currently working on the second season of an Indigenous queer web series called Querencia — find out more about that project here and start streaming it now on APTN lumi.
A final note from Jessie:
“I just want to send love to anyone that’s has been affected by drug addiction, or any addiction. But also, lots of love to my family. They mean the world to me.”
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Written by Malin Evita
Written by Malin Evita
Evita is the creator of Making It: Women in Film and a writer focused on script, cultural commentary, and film analysis. She is a Vocal grand prize winner and recently her HNC in Professional Writing Skills. Through storytelling, she aims to amplify empathy and human connectivity.