In Shelley Niro’s debut feature film, Kissed by Lightning, a Mohawk woman works through the grief surrounding the death of her husband by painting the stories he used to tell.
Mavis Dogblood, played by Kateri Walker (Chippewa of the Thames and Saginaw Chippewa), is a Mohawk painter living on Canada’s Six Nations Reserve. After the loss of her husband, Jessie Lightning, played by Michael Greyeyes (Cree), Mavis retreats to her art studio when Jessie’s ex-wife, Kateri, and son, Zeus, come to live with her.
Bearing the weight of Jessie’s memory on her mind and Kateri and Zeus over staying their welcome, Mavis struggles to move forward with her life. To keep Jessie’s memory close to her, Mavis painted the stories he used to tell.
“It is really about the essence of being an Iroquois person,” said Niro, the Mohawk producer, writer and director of Kissed by Lightning. “I wanted to contemporize that story through a modern-day twist.”
With the support of her charming yet clumsy suitor, Bug, played by Eric Schweig (Mohawk), Mavis summons the will to complete the emotionally loaded art works that carry the stories, face and memories of her deceased husband. The paintings have been chosen to go on exhibition in New York City.
Having loaded the paintings into her van, Mavis and Bug begin a journey to New York that will take them through lands formerly home to the Mohawk.
During their journey, they encounter diverse characters and situations. While crossing the border, Mavis and Bug are questioned by an overbearing U.S. border patrolman. Interrogating Mavis about the paintings she is transporting, the patrolman asks, “Are they pornographic in nature?”
Losing their way after dark in upstate New York, Mavis and Bug stop to look at their map when they see a group of their Mohawk ancestors crossing the road. They also appear lost in the night.
“On the journey they go across traditional land and meet with spirits of warriors which are still wandering around looking for their people they were protecting,” Niro said.
Finding their way, Mavis and Bug end up at the home of Jessie’s mother, Josephine, played by Monique Mojica (Kuna and Rappahannock). Mavis confides in Josephine how lost she has been since the death of Jessie. With Bug passed out on the couch, Josephine helps Mavis realize that she needs to let go of her grief surrounding Jessie and let Bug into her life.
Niro began conceptualizing the Kissed by Lightning story in 1998 during the Bosnian War.
“I started reading articles about what was happening, and it seemed so unbelievably terrible and filled with atrocities you wouldn’t expect to be happening during this day and age,” she said.
At the same time, Niro was also studying Peacemaker, one of the founders of the Iroquois confederacy.
“He came through at a time when everybody was in a kind of crazy state of mind,” Niro said. “If they weren’t killing each other they were catatonic, so I kind of equated the two of them (the situations in Bosnia and during Peacemakers time).”
Kissed by Lightning, Niro said, is a contemporary story influenced by the events of Peacemaker’s time and the war in Bosnia.
In addition to Kissed by Lightning, Niro has made numerous other films and short films including Suite Indian, Honey Moccasin, and The Shirt, which has been screened at festivals worldwide, including its debut at the 50th Venice Biennale. Kissed by Lightning premiered in 2009 at the imagineNATIVE Film Festival in Toronto and won Best Indigenous Film at the 2010 Santa Fe Film Festival.
In most of Niro’s films, the protagonist is a Native female.
“I find that the female leads are so limited,” she said. “I want to make it [films] more interesting for women, which in turn makes it more interesting for young girls.”
Niro is a multidisciplinary artist and has worked in painting, photography and sculpting. She studied visual art in college, and received her M.F.A. from the University of Western Ontario in 1997. Niro said she didn’t go to film school, but approaches filmmaking from her visual arts background.
“As far as knowing how to make a film from A to Z, I usually start at F, and make my way down to R,” she said.
Currently Niro is working on a documentary about Robert Houle, a Canadian artist whose work covers/incorporates/embodies the First Nations identity in Canada. She is also in the early stages of creating another feature film.
“Give me another 10 years and maybe I’ll have it done by then,” she said. “It’s a process you can get lost in.”
Written by Ben Kreimer.
Interviews conducted and edited by Ben Kreimer.