April 23rd, 2015

by Julie MacIsaac


Canadian actress Tanis Parenteau was workshopping a play at the renowned Spiderwoman Theatre in New York when the idea for her new short film A Big Black Space first took shape.

Spiderwoman Theatre was started in 1976 by three “strong, powerful, fierce, feminist Native women”—as described by Parenteau, an expat living in Brooklyn who now counts the theatre troupe part of her extended family. Their inaugural piece was “Women in Violence”: a play that muddled dark humour and sexual slapstick with true stories of the violence experienced by its female actors.

“They wanted to remount the piece with a younger cast,” said Parenteau, a Metis actress from Peace River, Alberta, who’s best known for her role as “Tammy” on the popular Netflix series, House of Cards.

“The [development] process was very collaborative and the actors would have to tell a story they’d experienced, about violence, and it would get developed and worked into a piece. I thought, ‘I don’t have a story to tell. I’ve never been beaten up, never had a bad relationship.’ But listening to the other actors I realized I didn’t truly understand the spectrum of violence, and that’s when it dawned on me that something did happen to me,” Parenteau said of a sexual assault that had occurred years earlier—a memory she had worked to obliterate.

A Big Black Space is a short film written and produced by Parenteau and based on a one-time encounter at a party. She also stars in the film and the piece is aimed at exposing the way Aboriginal women are viewed in North American society.

“There’s this Pocahontas fantasy,” Parenteau explained. “This perpetuation of hypersexualized images of Native women in media—the sexy squaw, the Poca-hottie Halloween costumes in stores. And then this experience of—when you’re introduced to non-Native males and they find out you’re Native—there’s this whole fascination. ‘Oh wow, you’re Native? That’s so cool, are you full, are you half…?’ There’s this fetish that brews under the surface and it makes me really uncomfortable. …I wanted to tie that together, that fetish and sexual assault; to show that these images and this fantasy are a problem for actual Native women.”

A Big Black Space, which was filmed over a day and a half on a shoestring budget at Parenteau’s apartment, tells the story of “Terry”, who is set up on a date by friends and narrowly escapes sexual assault at a party. The film is Parenteau’s attempt to belie the fantasy and expose the reality faced by Native women every day.

“Things have changed over the years,” Parenteau said of the women’s movement that gained traction in the 1970s. “Things have gotten better for other women, but for our Native women, things haven’t changed.”

According to statistics in Canada, Aboriginal women are two to three times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted. There are over 1,200 cases of missing or murdered Aboriginal women documented over the last 30 years—an extremely high number when they make up only four per cent of the Canadian female population. And high profile criminal cases like the recent Cindy Gladue trial have brought to harsh light the way Aboriginal women are viewed in Canadian society—as objects, first in bed and then in the courtroom.

“You see the statistics for missing and murdered Aboriginal women, and then you see these [hypersexual] images. We’re supposed to be these beautiful creatures and you’d think that we would be respected and loved and somehow glorified, but instead we’re raped and murdered and abducted,” Parenteau said.

While A Big Black Space has finished filming, Parenteau and director Alex Lazarowich are in the midst of the post-production process. Parenteau has launched a 30-day Kickstarter campaign to fund post-production of the film. If she can reach her $10,000 target by May 6, 2015, the funds will go towards completing editing, sound mixing, music tracks and graphics. But there’s a catch with Kickstarter—if you don’t reach your goal, all the funding disappears. The plan is to have the film finished in time to submit it for consideration in the major film festivals across North America.

“Once we got involved, we realized we had something really special. We want to make something that will be seen—the more exposure, the better. …I want to help break down these barriers and help people see that disconnect,” Parenteau said of the detachment caused by the harmful stereotypes of Native women, a detachment that encourages acts of inhumanity, rather than love and respect.

“If you respect someone, that changes everything,” Parenteau said. “It changes the way you treat them, the way you speak to them, the way you think about them. It changes everything.”

Parenteau is over two thirds of the way to her Kickstarter goal, with 12 days left. If you’d like to support the project, you can pledge on Kickstarter here.



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