Screened at the 2022 Native Cinema Showcase, Caroline Monnet’s Bootlegger offers a unique look at the struggles of a marginalized group.
The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian has begun their annual Native Cinema Showcase. Movies from many indigenous tribes worldwide are screened for free online, each one showcasing a different culture and a unique perspective of the life of native people groups in the modern world. The first movie screened on the list is Bootlegger, a film out of Canada set on an Algonquin reservation in Quebec.
Bootlegger follows the story of Mani (Devery Jacobs), a student from the Algonquin nation who wishes to reintegrate with their society upon her return from college. However, she finds herself caught in a legal battle over the sale of alcohol on the reservation, which is due for a referendum in the next election. Bootlegger Laura (Brigitte Poupart), uses her gains to fund her own home, knowing the legality of the business could mean she is driven out of town. Both sides have legitimate reasons to pass their claim into law, so the drama between these two women is set alongside the backdrop of the vote.
What carries the movie is the drama between the two leads. Both are caught between two worlds, with Mani balancing her native life with her life as a graduate student and Laura balancing being an illegal trader with her role as a devoted wife and mother. Mani is still at odds with Laura after Laura’s daughter is killed in a fire. This leads the two down different paths as they discuss the best method for which the tribe should be governed. Should they stick to their old ways or embrace modern Canada by allowing the sale of alcohol? Either way, someone will lose their livelihood. Devery Jacobs and Brigitte Poupart’s performances sell the movie, and viewers can see both sides through them.
The cinematography of the movie (Nicolas Canniccioni) shows the environment of Quebec with breathtaking awe and beauty. Landscape shots and sunrises are breathtaking, showing the natural beauty and isolation of the reservation. Monnet started as a natural photographer, and it shows here. Each frame looks like a painting and she does a great job capturing the environment in which this film takes place.
Bootlegger ’s greatest strength is within its use of language to show a social divide. The Canadian broadcast media and outsiders to the reservation speak English, Laura and her family speak French, while Mani and her tribe speak Algonquin. This dynamic seems to show Quebec is a place where three worlds collide. They may be under Canadian governance, but they live their own lives in a separate locale. Quebec is known for having many separatist movements of their own, so Mani’s tribe is torn based on its mere geography. The alcohol ban was enacted decades ago by dated governments and under the provision of Quebec rather than the national law.
However, in spite of these strengths, the movie’s conclusions may feel a bit disappointing. Mani and Laura do not come to a full agreement, and Mani’s character arc is never quite resolved. The film does not even show the results of the referendum, cutting off right at the vote. In the end, Monnet seems to want viewers to come up with their own conclusions, and draw their own ideas based on what they saw. There is no right or wrong answer, but based on the movie, you may take sympathy with one person or the other.
While it’s not a transgressive or groundbreaking look at this culture, Bootlegger is still a well directed and well acted movie discussing an often overlooked demographic. Many of the issues posed in the film are left unanswered, but at least it calls attention to those struggles and is a solid depiction of Native American life. This movie is worth watching as an educational piece, for exploring the cultures of northern Quebec and seeing how contemporary society treats these people. Perhaps the answers to the movie’s hanging questions are best answered by the viewer.
Bootlegger is available to watch on demand on November 18–25 as part of the National Museum of the American Indian’s 2022 Native Cinema Showcase.