Dir: Shirley Cheechoo. US. 1999. 82 mins.
Prod Co: Girl From The Backroads. Prods: Shirley Cheechoo, Phyllis Ellis, Christine K Walker. Exec prods: Henri Kessler, Ezra Swerdlow, David Pipers, Steve Gottlieb. Scr: Shirley Cheechoo. DoP: Jonathan Brown. Ed: Lee Percy. Main cast: Renae Morriseau, Sheila Tousey, Shirley Cheechoo, Greta Cheechoo, Maximilian Martini.
Culturally significant as a feature written, produced and directed by a First Nations woman, Backroads is a commercial non-starter. Inadequate performances, inelegant dialogue and a lack of visual polish are among the factors that render the film painfully amateurish at times. Shirley Cheechoo may have some serious issues to address but she has yet to find the vision or skill that would allow her to communicate them to a wider audience.
Set in the Northern Ontario of 1976, the plot revolves around the events that push Ella Lee to the end of her tether. Worn down by an abusive marriage and raped by her former employer, she awakens next to a husband covered in blood and obviously dead. Her attacker has also expired from natural causes. Her subsequent arrest and imprisonment places her within the custody of a bitter, bigoted cop who has featured in her past. The family that rallies to her side includes a sister who has left the reservation and now practices law in the big city. Justice however is more readily served by a form of mystical, karmic retribution.
Institutional racism, the empowerment of women and the depths of injustice faced by native American peoples are all subjects with powerful dramatic resonance but Cheechoo paints everything with a lack of subtlety and labours some very obvious points. The lack of financial resources also hampers her ability to convincingly visualise the more supernatural elements of the narrative. The overall impression is one of disappointment.