Fantasia ’21 Interview: Thirza Cuthand on their film Kwêskosîw (She Whistles)

Earlier this week I was able to watch and review a number of short films, including Kwêskosîw (She Whistles), a story with a supernatural twist from Indigenous filmmaker Thirza Cuthand. I was able to speak with Thirza about the film as well, and here is the conversation I had with them. I hope you enjoy it!

Ed. Note: This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Matthew Simpson: Welcome, Thirza, and thank you for joining me today. I just speak about your short film Kwêskosîw (She Whistles). Where did the inspiration for this film come from?

Thirza Cuthand: it’s based on various true stories that have been happening to Indigenous women in Saskatoon and Saskatchewan, where they get into a cab, and the cab driver starts taking them somewhere they don’t want to go. A lot of them will get out by opening the door, opening a window, but often the door’s locked, and they have to get on their phone and threaten to call the cops. So it’s based on that.

The supernatural elements are based on, in indigenous communities, we tell a lot of supernatural stories, and one of the stories is the Northern Lights. There’s this legend that if you whistle at them, they’ll come down and take you away, that they’re the ancestors. So those two things combined.

And wanting to tell –I don’t know if empowering is the right word– but a story about kicking ass.

Matthew: The legend of the Northern Lights, is that particular to any one nation or is it universal?

Thirza: It’s almost universal. It changes nation to nation, but it’s basically the same thing: don’t whistle at the northern lights and don’t disturb the ancestors.

Matthew: So I didn’t know about what’s going on with Indigenous women in Saskatoon, but it does feel very ripped from the headlines, even for Vancouver, where we have an epidemic of missing Indigenous women. So is [the film] in response to how Indigenous women and people are treated in Canada in general?

Thirza: Yeah, I think so. There are certain times as an indigenous person –I’m non-binary, so I’m not really a woman, but as someone who appears to the outside like a woman– there have been times I’ve gotten in situations where I’ve realized, “Oh, this person like really doesn’t, think we’re people”, or there’s this attitude that we’re kind of disposable people. Sometimes you’re around people where you know that that’s what they think, and it’s very scary, and you want to get out of the situation because it’s so sketchy.

Matthew: When and where did you film this?

Thirza: We filmed it in Toronto, down by Cherry Beach. We were lucky that it was nighttime because we could kind of mask what was going on around us. The whole team was situated in Toronto, even though Sarah-Lys and I are both from Saskatchewan, so that’s where we shot it.

Matthew: Sara-Lys, is an up and comer at this point; she’s had appearances on and recurring roles on several shows, and I’m watching her in another movie [Don’t Say Its Name] later this week. Were you already acquainted, or was this your first time working together?

Thirza: We’ve been working together for a few years on this, and we’re working on a feature based on this short. We’ve been working on the feature script for a while, and we wanted to make a calling card for the feature. This film was the first time we worked together on a production, so it was a good experience for us, I think, to figure out each other’s working styles.

Sera-Lys McArthur with director Thirza Cuthand, behind the scenes on Kwêskosîw

Matthew: That was actually my next question; this obviously feels like it has the potential to be a feature, so it’s heartening to hear that it’s being worked on. Is there any movement towards that happening?

Thirza: Yeah!, we’ve got a script, and we’re trying to do one last pass at it and then submit it for production financing from Telefilm Canada.

Matthew: Well, I hope it works out because I enjoyed the short! Has the response been good so far?

Thirza: Yeah! We won an award at Yorkton Film Festival for Best Short subject fiction, and we won the Mana Award for Advancement of Indigenous Rights at the Wairoa Maori Film Festival in New Zealand. We are hoping to win an award here at Outfest, And Fantasia, so we’ll see what happens with that.

Matthew: I watched it as part of Fantasia Fest in Montreal, but it’s also an Outfest right now. Is it playing anywhere else?

Thirza: Those are the two most recent. We’re also going to be screening it at the Native Spirit Film Festival in the UK. That’s in London, England, which is interesting because it’s an indigenous festival but in the heart of colonialism.

Matthew: That’s super weird.

Thirza: Yeah…

Matthew: Are they just ….appropriating indigenous stuff into…. anyway, that’s a whole other conversation, probably. Do you have any other plans for Canadian festivals? I think ImagineNATIVE is coming up, for example.

Thirza: Yeah, so we haven’t heard back from ImagineNATIVE yet, because they haven’t released their results. Hopefully, though! I’ve shown there a lot, but we don’t want to say for sure. And then yeah, we’ve got a few other festival submissions, so we’ll see what they say.

Matthew: How do you feel about the state of indigenous storytelling –in Canada in particular– at this point?

Director Thirza Cuthand. Photo credit Jason Jarrett

Thirza: I think it’s in a pretty good state! I think we’re finally getting more attention and telling our own stories. There was that weird thing with the person-we-won’t-name who was not indigenous who was making a big production, but aside from that, I think there’s like a lot of attention being paid to our stories now, and people are seeing that they’re important and that people want to see them. So I think we’re at an exciting point.

Matthew: Yeah, it feels to me, like maybe we’re at a tipping point towards more, especially with films like, say, Monkey Beach or Beans last year, or even with that series, you were just mentioning that I won’t mention. Is there any worry –and I am just asking because I’m a bit ignorant of what’s going on– of more of that? Obviously, there was a person who is basically appropriating culture, is any worry of that happening to a further extent?

Thirza: I’ve seen a lot of people who are not indigenous basing their careers off of an assumed I did indigenous identity, which is really… it’s really like, why is this… why is…. why are you doing this? Is it because it’s profitable? I don’t understand, and just the inauthenticity of the way they tell their stories is very problematic.

Then I know of another person who was like a writer who got outed as non-indigenous and is still really hanging on to that identity even though people have shown proof that they aren’t, so it’s very as problematic for sure. I don’t know if we’re ever going to totally stop it, though.

Matthew: Yeah, I mean with folks like that and whats-her-name name in the states who said she was black forever? Dolezal? I feel like … White people are kind of the worst. Yeah.

Thirza: <laughs> Yeah..

Matthew: So I guess what is what’s next for you? You’re on the festival circuit with this one, and you have the feature in development, any other irons in the fire?

Thirza: Yeah, besides all that, I just finished a five-channel installation about racism in Saskatchewan. I interviewed five women and non-binary people about their experiences, and then I’m working on a video game about a lesbian vampire; that’s going to be fun. It’s like an ethics video game; you have to be a vampire ethically and also find your girlfriend.

There’s another project I’m working on about monsters that live in a potash mine and a non-binary character who’s like, trying to try and just survive these monsters in potash mine, but it’s also talking about colonialism and resource extraction.

Matthew: So one at a time: the first project, the one where you interviewed the five people, is that going to be available somewhere? Or is it more like an installation in a place?

Thirza: It’s more like an installation and a place, so I’m aiming for galleries. Probably mostly in Canada, but I also made an installation that was supposed to be showing at Berlinalé, and they had to move it to next year, so they said, if we’re interested, we can show them other projects we have next year. So I’m gonna see if Berlinalé wants to take it.

There’s also a gallery in BC talking about maybe showing it there, and I would like to show it in Saskatchewan, obviously.

Matthew: And where’s the video game coming from? Both artistically and studio wise?

Thirza: it’s like an independent game. It’s just me, and I got a Canada Council grant to make it. It’s basically gonna be a two-dimensional unity powered video game that is just taking these sketchy drawings I do and making them into a cute game. I don’t know how long it’s gonna be in terms of the playtime, but it’ll probably be released independently.

Matthew: And this one about the monsters in the potash mine, is that a film or series?

Thirza: It’s gonna be a feature. I just got funding to write the script, and I have been thinking deeply about the plot outline, and we’re going to start working on the script this fall.

Matthew: Awesome! Well, thank you for taking the time to speak with me. I hope that the short continues to be received really well. Of the shorts that I’ve seen at Fantasia, it is one of my favorite ones, and I really do think there’s a lot of potential for it to be a feature, so I hope it continues to go well for you.

Thirza: Thank you so much.

You can read my short review of Kwêskosîw here. It is still playing as part of the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival.


Like this? Please consider supporting us via Patreon or Ko-Fi!