Creators that inspire: Meet Jennifer Podemski

This article, along with six other portraits of creators that inspire, was first published in the CMF 2022 Annual Report.

Jennifer Podemski has made it her life’s work to bring Indigenous stories to screens both big and small.

The actor/writer/producer is best known for her performances in front of the camera in films such as Dance Me Outside, and Empire of Dirt, and on TV shows including The Rez, Moccasin Flats, and Blackstone.

Her latest project, the TV series Little Bird, which she created and serves as showrunner, draws on her own life history and is her most personal to date.

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Podemski’s father is Jewish, and her mother is of Anishinaabe, Leni Lenape, and Métis descent. That dual cultural identity inspired the premise of Little Bird, which stars Darla Contois as Bezhig Little Bird, who at age five is removed from her home in Long Pine Reserve in Saskatchewan and adopted by a Jewish family in Montréal, who gives her the name Esther Rosenblum. Now in her twenties, Little Bird longs to find the family she lost and returns to the prairies to search for them and reconnect with her past, which includes confronting the trauma associated with the racist government policy known as the Sixties Scoop.

It's taken six years for Podemski and co-creator/writer Hannah Moscovitch to bring Little Bird to the screen, but the effort has been worth it.

“We’ve been working at it for a long time,” says Podemski on the line from Barrie, Ontario, where she lives and works. “It’s gone through many incarnations as stories do during development, but I can say that the journey to get to principal photography was triggering and rewarding and emotional and my own personal lived experience was infused in so many of the moments.”

Set to air on Crave and APTN lumi starting this Friday May 26, the six-part series represents the kind of profound and powerful storytelling the Canada Media Fund (CMF) is proud to fund.

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“The CMF is always a part of the process, and for this particular project, they were a very meaningful participant,” says Podemski. “I’ve had the support of the CMF for every single project I’ve done. They are an important part of the fabric of Canadian storytelling. I don’t know how I could do the work that I do without their support.”

In 2018, Podemski received ACTRA’s Award of Excellence, recognizing her work as a performer and producer, and her commitment to training Indigenous talent to work in Canada’s film and TV industry. She continued that commitment while filming Little Bird in Manitoba.

“Since the beginning of my career, I have invested in training Indigenous youth to have careers in this sector because we are so underrepresented,” she says. “There were trainees in every department doing a variety of things on Little Bird, and when it came to acting, we put a good number of non-professional actors from the community in front of the camera. They were learning on the job and were wonderful.”

“And this couldn’t have been a better project because we had two Indigenous directors, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Zoe Hopkins, and me as the showrunner. I have never been part of a project that was led by an entirely Indigenous creative team on set.”

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The last few years has seen an increase of Indigenous films and shows hitting screens, including the critically acclaimed Night Raiders, Blood Quantum, and Trickster. The struggle to get Indigenous stories in front of viewers continues but Podemski feels heartened by the uptick.

“I do feel there has been a critical mass that I have witnessed over the last couple of years, despite the COVID pandemic,” she says.

“The metric I use is when a project comes up and I go through my list of people to interview or to bring on board, most of the people I reach out to are busy working on other projects, or on their own projects. That’s an amazing sign that we are building capacity, and nothing makes me happier and more excited than to hear people who I know have worked and hustled so hard for so many years making their own projects. I couldn’t dream of something better than that.”

The Canada Media Fund (CMF) fosters, develops, finances and promotes the production of Canadian content and applications for all audiovisual media platforms. The CMF guides Canadian content towards a competitive global environment by fostering industry innovation, rewarding success, enabling a diversity of voice and promoting access to content through public and private sector partnerships. The CMF receives financial contributions from the Government of Canada and Canada’s cable, satellite and IPTV distributors.
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