Audition after audition, Adam Garnet Jones walked in with sweaty palms and shaky legs. After too many attempts, he eventually realized acting wasn’t for him.
Struggling to become a child actor in British Columbia, Jones eventually came to realize that he would never succeed because of his crippling fear. “My fear got in the way of being able to audition properly because I had no confidence. So I was terrible,” he says.
At 14, he found out about a camp called the Gulf Island Film and Television School (GIF), located on Galiano Island, B.C. It was there that Jones quickly realized he wanted to make films, not star in them. “I felt really accepted by that group of people and felt like my ideas had value all of a sudden,” says the now 35-year-old filmmaker.
Making plenty of short films and eventually attending Ryerson University for film studies, Jones made his feature debut in 2015 with Fire Song. He was inspired by his lived experience as a Canadian with indigenous roots, being of Cree and Métis ancestry.
Jones always knew a film like Fire Song would be his first, considering the themes and events it addresses, which include indigenous youth suicide and struggles with sexuality — both of which Jones himself experienced growing up. He wanted to tell this story as he knew it wasn’t just about him; it was one that many people could relate to and wasn’t being talked about much at the time.
Not everyone believed in the film as much as Jones did. Fire Song took him seven years to make, with much of that time dedicated to writing and finding people who believed in the idea as well. Despite having won awards, including the Jim Burt Screenwriting Prize, all those he showed it to recognized it as a great story, but didn’t think it would do well financially. He says people often told him, “I really want you to make this film, but I don’t know who’s going to go see it.”
Jones himself had moments of doubt when he questioned the film’s broader appeal, thinking that people in the indigenous and LGBTQ communities would like it, but not knowing if others would feel the same.
Eventually, Jones gained some funding from the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts. The director admits there was some luck involved, as his project just happened to be the perfect fit for a new fund, one specifically made for new indigenous feature filmmakers. Along with this, Jones already had experience with short films, making him a worthy recipient of the fund. With money dedicated to the project, it was much easier for Jones to attract other investors.
With feature films made by indigenous filmmakers about indigenous peoples and their culture being a rarity, it seems that what Jones has done is special. He accounts for this in two key areas: money and the cast of the film.
“Broadcasters want to see famous names attached to the film and often, indigenous filmmakers are asked to rewrite their stories so that they can cast a white actor [as] one of the main characters, in order to bring in some financing,” says Jones.
It’s often the case that people in charge of financing movies don’t believe in the stories indigenous writers are telling, according to Jones. He adds that the reason Fire Song was made is because of his experience with short films and the topical nature of the story.
When he was writing the story, Jones says people weren’t talking about indigenous youth suicides, but as he continued to work on it, it became more of a hot topic.
Now, Jones has just finished his latest feature film, Great Great Great. It’s a short film about a struggling relationship. Jones directed and wrote the film along with Ryerson graduate Sarah Kolasky and it premiered last March at the Canadian Film Festival. Unlike Fire Song, it was entirely self-funded and did not draw from or address his indigenous roots.
Jones feels a responsibility to tell indigenous stories with his work, especially because being afforded the ability to do so is rare for a filmmaker of his roots. “In a way, I feel weird that Great Great Great isn’t an indigenous story. I didn’t feel weird when I was writing it, but now that it’s out there in the world, there’s something that’s almost uncomfortable about it and I don’t know why exactly,” he says.
Jones admits that despite this, “my culture and my family and where I come from makes it essential that I am always considering why I’m doing things and how I’m doing things.”
When Jones was in film school at Ryerson, he was surprised that his classmates never talked about stories and why they’re worth telling. Instead, discussions were had about how to get certain shots and what movies they were watching.
Jones doesn’t only want to make good movies. He wants his films to contribute to culture, art and the world as a whole — an aspect indigenous (and all) filmmakers should strive for.