​Making Films and Making Family: Rhayne Vermette on Ste. Anne

Content Warning: Mentions Indigenous children’s unmarked graves and residential schools

In the opening sequence of Ste. Anne, a lone figure slowly makes her way across a prairie field at dusk. A train whistles in the distance. It’s fall, and foreboding storm clouds have gathered just above the horizon. 

We learn that this is Renée (played by filmmaker Rhayne Vermette herself), a Métis woman whose family hasn’t seen or heard from her in four years, including her young daughter Athene (Isabelle d’Eschambault). 

Now, without a word of warning or explanation, she has decided to come home.

Weighty and at times conflicted visions of home form the heart of Vermette’s spell-binding and intensely personal debut feature, which won the Amplify Voices award for Best Canadian Film at TIFF in 2021. Shot on 16mm in Vermette’s home province of Manitoba, with a cast of all non-professional actors including several members of her own family, the film sensitively explores the tumultuous aftermath of Renée’s unexpected return, blending fact and fiction, dreams and reality, in the manner of a story altered and embellished over the course of its many tellings and retellings. 

Vermette calls the film “Paris, Texas rewritten into Treaty 1.” The comparison is not merely thematic: Ste. Anne takes the unconventional approach of borrowing directly from the acclaimed 1984 Wim Wenders feature in many aspects of its script, cinematography, and plot. “It was just an exercise,” Vermette says of her choice to scatter the film with references to Wenders’ masterpiece, explaining that much of her early work involved “taking other people’s films and cutting them up.” 

The divergences outnumber the similarities between the two films, however: where the central figures of Paris, Texas are marked by their loneliness and alienation from one another, Ste. Anne portrays a family’s struggle against the odds to reconnect.

Vermette’s path to filmmaking began while she was pursuing an ill-fated pre-Master’s in Architecture at the University of Manitoba. Though she ended up dropping out with only a few months left of the program, it was there that she stumbled onto stop-motion animation by making simple paper models and photographing them, then putting the photographs together. 

Over the subsequent decade, Vermette came to develop her distinctive filmmaking style, making experimental and largely non-narrative shorts marked by hand-drawn animation, with fast-paced and discordant sound and visuals. She has previously referenced producers Madlib and J Dilla as the biggest influences on her editing style, a lineage evident in the rhythmic, driving energy exuded by her work. 

The seeds of Ste. Anne were planted while Vermette was doing research for a potential documentary on the former Métis fringe settlement known as “Rooster Town,” which was annexed by the city of Winnipeg in the 1950s to build a suburban mall and high school. Its families, many of whom had lived there for decades, were evicted without compensation and dispersed across the city. While she eventually decided not to pursue the project, feeling that it wasn’t her story to tell, the experiences of the families she had interviewed resonated deeply with what she knew of her own family’s struggle, especially that of her father and his siblings. She began writing the script for Ste. Anne, interweaving these histories with the story of Renée: “It’s autobiographical in sort of a weird, mythological sense,” Vermette says.

Speaking of her upbringing, Vermette says that most people don’t have a unified conception of who the Métis are as a nation, including some Métis people themselves: “The Vermettes, we never sat down and were like, ‘What does this mean for us to be Métis folk?’ It’s just like, ‘We’re fucking Métis,’ right?” These questions of identity and self-definition served as a jumping off point for the exploration that takes place in Ste. Anne – questions which are intentionally left open-ended, challenging the viewer to look beyond familiar tropes which ultimately provide only a limited view of modern Indigeneity. 

Certain scenes illustrate the vital urgency of Vermette’s work with clarity. In one vignette, a group of women go trick-or-treating on Halloween, dressed in nuns’ habits with eerie white masks obscuring their faces. The grandmother (played by Métis elder Dolorès Gosselin) jokes, “There’s nothing scarier than a nun!” The line has taken on a particularly heavy significance in the wake of the past year’s discoveries of Indigenous children’s unmarked graves at the sites of several former Church-run residential schools across the country, despite having been written long before the news had broken. The light tone of the grandmother’s comment also speaks to Vermette’s desire, as she says, “to address some past things, but not dwell on them…it was my way of sort of like, having it there as a symbol, and then moving on and moving beyond it.”

But Vermette and, by extension, Ste. Anne underscore that the Métis experience is not just one of dislocation and loss – it’s one of kinship, of community, of unbreakable ties between family, both biological and chosen. “Ste. Anne is a film about reconnecting, and it actually legit was,” she says with a laugh. “I was so strongly connected to the Vermettes before, but I think that [now] we are even more bonded.” 

On set, though Vermette is credited as director, she says that roles were fluid and non-hierarchical – there were multiple cinematographers, for example, and everyone was paid the same amount. Her crew, comprised almost entirely of Indigenous women, also became family in a way. “I always wanted a sister, and it’s like, through Ste. Anne I have so many sisters now,” she says. 

For Vermette, the choice to work with family and close friends, wasn’t a secondary consideration but an integral part of the production process, and therefore of the film itself.

“Every film is about its making, I think, and that’s especially true of Ste. Anne.”

Ste. Anne is now available to stream on The Criterion Channel.