On the surface, Vancouver writer-director Sophie Jarvis’s film Until Branches Bend is not about Indigenous issues. To a casual observer, it revolves around a pregnant white cannery worker named Robin, played by Grace Glowicki, who’s looking after her sister.
Early on, a controversy erupts in the unnamed fruit-growing region when Robin discovers what appears to be an invasive species inside a peach. The town is called Montague and it relies on the orchards for its economic livelihood.
But there is a deeper Indigenous undercurrent seeping through the storyline. In a Zoom call with Pancouver, Jarvis says that the original title was Invasions because this theme runs through her cinematic psychological drama in three key respects.
“In one way, of course, it’s obvious with the bug,” Jarvis says. “Another way is more personal, like with Robin’s unwanted pregnancy. And the other way is with the colonial history of Canada and North America.”
Her script weaves these threads together, sometimes in subtle ways. Musqueam actor Quelemia Sparrow plays Isabelle, the wife of Robin’s boss, Dennis (Lochlyn Munro). Dennis is reluctant to shut down operations over a single bug just as peaches are being harvested.
“Everyone is actually trying to do what they think is best,” Jarvis explains. “Dennis’s job is to protect the growers and to protect the season, which is short because peaches are really only in season for a few weeks every summer. So, anything that throws that off has really bad effects.”
Meanwhile, Robin is coping with the pregnancy and taking care of her sister, Laney (Alexandra Roberts), while trying to be a responsible citizen.
Until Branches Bend earns CSA nominations
All of this is happening in the midst of a furor over an insect.
“We worked with a bug called the darkling beetle, which is fairly common,” the writer-director reveals. “But we also had a concept artist design the markings we put on the shell. Then our visual-effects team would place those on the bug itself in post [production].”
Jarvis points out that the visual-effects team took tremendous care in this area. According to her, this bug needed to be memorable because it was a critically important component of the film.
In this regard, their efforts paid off. Landon Bootsma, Dexter Davey, Ashley Hampton, Milton Muller, and Dmitry Vinnik were all nominated for a 2023 Canadian Screen Award for achievement in visual effects.
In addition, Jarvis scored Until Branches Bend a second Canadian Screen Award nomination for her original screenplay. The winners will be announced on CBC TV on April 16.
The Swiss-Canadian co-production also won the award for best B.C. film at the 2022 Vancouver International Film Festival. Until Branches Bend will be screened at the VIFF Centre in Vancouver, starting on Friday (March 24). Jarvis will speak at screenings on the first two days of its run.
This is Jarvis’s first feature film as a director, but she’s no newcomer to the industry. She also worked as a production designer on The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, which addressed urban Indigenous issues.
Set in Vancouver, the multiple-award-winning film was co-directed and co-written by Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn.
They returned as story editors on Until Branches Bend, which was produced by The Body Remembers producer Tyler Hagan. He’s of Michif and Canadian ancestry.
Watch a clip from Until Branches Bend.
Indigenizing the script
For The Body Remembers, Fort Nelson and Saulteau First Nations in Treaty 8 territory member Sarah Robinson offered insights into Indigenous issues to the cast and crew.
“She did a wonderful, amazing job,” Hagan says. “It was tailored to the project and tailored to the subject matter.”
Sadly, Robinson died at the age of 35 in 2021 after a battle with cancer.
For Until Branches Bend, Hagan and Jarvis initially sought input from IndigenEYEZ program director Kelly Terbasket, who grew up on Similkameen territory.
“We got to a certain point with the script where it’s a story about this woman, Robin, and her sister at its core,” Hagan says. “But we knew that this world doesn’t exist without Indigenous people. And to just ignore that element of the community in the story would have been such a huge erasure.”
So they set about incorporating Indigenous aspects, adding another element of tension to the story.
“We were lucky to have Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn both as story editors on the script,” Hagan emphasizes.
Jarvis praises Terbasket for offering valuable perspective on the impact of monoculture-based agricultural practices.
“A lot of my questions for her were the same as they were for everyone: what would be the impact on you or your community if this were to actually happen,” Jarvis recalls. “And the one thing that Kelly said that really stuck out with me is the impact wouldn’t be too huge.”
That’s because she felt that invasion of a bug, as described in the script, might actually give the land a chance to return to its original state before the settlers arrived.
“My understanding, from what Kelly told me, is there’s not a lot of people in her community who actually benefit directly from the industry,” Jarvis adds.
Investing in the cast and crew
Hagan echoes that point, declaring that Terbasket was quite blunt about how little her people received from monoculture-based agriculture in the region..
After seeking Terbasket’s advice, the filmmakers then invited Skayu Louis from the Syilx Okanagan Nation to speak to the cast and crew. Louis was joined by his uncle, Cewelna, to share their perspectives on the impact of monoculture.
Hagan acknowledges that there’s a cost to doing workshops like this just as a film is about to be made. But he adds that there are also tremendous benefits.
“One of the ideas behind doing this kind of stuff is trying to position ourselves and the work we do in the film industry as being less extractive,” he states.
In addition, Hagan says, this is an investment in the crew and cast’s general knowledge. And that can pay dividends down the road on future film projects.
“The most impressive thing with doing these [workshops] was that the crew and the cast—and the people that are in attendance—engage in it,” Hagan says. “It’s not just like a ‘Sit down and eat your vegetables’ thing. Everybody is asking questions.”
Until Branches Bend will be screened at the VIFF Centre in Vancouver, starting on Friday (March 24). For more information and to buy tickets, visit the website. Follow Pancouver editor Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.