For Canadians who have experienced the Great White North, any story about it must be unflinching as well as tender. It must capture both the beauty and the brutality of that part of Canada. Lori Stoll has done both in her heartbreaking film, Heaven’s Floor. How can you go wrong when the title of your film is so right? That part of the country is, indeed ‘Heaven’s Floor’. But in beauty there is also great irony and in the case of what we call First Nations Territories, life is unkind. Very unkind. Cultural loss has all but destroyed any semblance of true happiness. Suicide rates have risen astronomically. Crime is rampant. People live forever like birds on a wire. Death is ever present. This is a story that Lori Stoll also tells with brutal honesty. It is no different from life on a Native American reservation. I should know. I have lived with Lakota Sioux as well as with Iqaluit.
Heaven’s Floor is wonderfully paced. Its spoken parts hum with the rustle of sled on snow. Its silences echo with the howling wind. The rhythm of the film is exquisite. It is like music, only it is visual and it is gripping. The sequences featuring Clea DuVall’s character’s journey to the RCMP station deep in the frozen wasteland are heart stopping. It draws you into the story and you almost hold your breath, hoping that no harm will come to this brave woman. Of course you know that she has been cheated into going on the expedition. Jack is too glib and Julia is gullible. And you want to take sides immediately. Good dramas can do that to you; they suck you in. The story wears thin at the part when Malaya leaves her home for Los Angeles. When did she get her passport, you ask yourself? But this is a minor flaw in a script that is otherwise quite beautiful. In a film about a beautiful wasteland nothing must intrude to disturb its stunning starkness. Stoll has given herself a marvellous one to work with.
It is also easy to fall in love with the visual aspects of the film as well. Director of Photography George Billinger has extraordinarily lovely locales to work with – especially in Canada and the camera seems to caress this landscape. But the cameramen do a lot more and if you pay close attention you will see how it caresses Julia’s face as well. Even in challenging lighting sets such as the cabin of Malaya’s grandmother, the camera moves hauntingly into the craggy lines of Naya’s (Sheepa Ishulutaq) face. Perhaps the greatest triumphs come with the honesty with which it explores emotion both in the case of Julia as well as in Malaya’s. There are times – with Julia in the tent and elsewhere as well as when Malaya tells her story – when you feel that the nakedness of the soul has been revealed. And of course there is the cinematography that captures the beauty of the Great White North.
Casting is often key to a film and this becomes so real when the audience begins to identify with characters, developing feelings for one or the other. To this extent, Amey Rene Morris and Jason L. Wood have done a wonderful job for their director. Clea DuVall gives a masterful performance as Julia. She breathes in the role and breathes out authenticity. Her ‘wife’ sequences are so differently paced from her vulnerable moments on the initial expedition and then in the settlement. Katie May Dunford (Malaya) turns in an admirable first performance. She is asked to be a child as well as an adult – during the demanding scene when she has to describe her sexual assault – and you cannot help but despise the slick Jack (Timothy V. Murphy).
This is a courageous project in many ways. One can only hope that the film will enjoy a good run, both on the festival circuit as well in cinemas. Lori Stoll as well as Heaven’s Floor deserve to be celebrated and treated with great love and a lot of respect.
Produced by: Justin Ford, Sally Hanson, Phillip Rose, Lori Stoll
Executive producer: Malaya Qaunirq Chapman
Music supervisor: Koo Abuali
Cinematography by: Steve Cosens
Directed by: Lori Stoll