Waterhen Lake, Saskatchewan is not Hollywood.
Waterhen Lake is Cree filmmaker Rueben Martell's home when he's not in Saskatoon, a four hour drive and the nearest big city. Far removed from the vacuous culture of Los Angeles, this First Nation reserve is the inspiration for the character-driven chronicles Rueben writes and, with a little cash and a lot of determination, will soon bring to the screen. Kick-you-in-the gut stories thoroughly aboriginal but universally true.
Rueben is the quintessential film guy; he loves movies—watching the bad with the good, talking about scenes and actors and directors, quoting his favorite lines; hell, he even owns a video store on the reserve. He loves filming movies and creating movies and writing movies. He is also one of those rare individuals who are at once enthusiastic, articulate and artistic without a hint of affectation. He uses the word "honest" and "real" a lot in conversation, but not like a salesman who has you reaching for your wallet.
"If there's one thing I want to get across in my films," Rueben says, "it's to write something as honest as possible. I want to show natives as they really are…that we don't behave like stereotypes."
His first feature film, A Life Less Empty, is a raw portrayal of how a legacy of abuse and abandonment chart a course of resilience and ultimately, survival. Rarely will you find a drama that portrays a man who both cheats and beats his woman as having redeeming qualities; not glorifying the behavior, but showing how it is that a guy could keep his girl and the loyalty of his best buddy while descending into a darker nature. The interaction between the characters of Simon and Ian is painful but caring, "I want everyone to see the honesty between them," he says. Conversely, he has created the female romantic character, Karen, as more ethereal—which is exactly how he intended her to be.
"I wrote Karen as the 'perfect woman,'" he laughs. "I mean, she's every man's dream. This woman doesn't exist, she's unattainable. Beautiful, supportive…never judgmental."
(You're right, Rueben. No such woman DOES exist.)
Whereas it would be accurate to describe A Life Less Empty as a love story, it's mostly about a guy who has endured way too much; who thinks himself as a loser; but in the end prevails. Which begs the next question. Is this story, which is so personal in its depictions, autobiographical in any way?
"People I know have come up to me and said (about Simon,) this is you, isn't it? The way he talks, the way he acts. There's a line in the script when Simon is asked why everyone comes to him with their problems and he says 'probably because when people think you're fucked up, you have answers.' I didn't intentionally write it that way, but it's hard to separate it out when you write something so real to you."
Filming A Life Less Empty began last summer starring well-known Native actors Nathaniel Arcand, Dakota House and Tinsel Korey. Then the money ran out before production could be completed. Lest you think this roadblock has dissuaded this dogged young filmmaker, think again. Rueben is even more enthused as he plans to re-shoot the movie from the beginning with a new director of photography and the commitment of his entire cast to reprise their roles. Which he's confident will be soon, as he's nearing his financial goal enabling his cast and crew of 32 to once again work the cameras, rehearse their lines and design the sets.
"I've got the support of so many people," he says. "Nathaniel (Arcand) is behind this project all the way. He's telling me 'let's get this done.' Everybody's telling me it's got to happen, and it will." Moreover, he adds, "We're going to do this right so by next year I can go to Sundance and see if they'll pick it up there."
How this movie-obsessed kid from Waterhen developed the ability to become a serious filmmaker is classic Horatio Alger. He got himself a job as a salesman, then reporter, for the teen Native magazine RezX. From there, he was hired by Big Soul Productions, the film company started by Jennifer Podemski and Laura Milliken, working first as a production assistant on their APTN Canadian television program, Moccasin Flats and later becoming the series assistant director. That was when he became hooked. He could do this; he could write and make films that tell real stories about real people that are—here's that word again—honest.
"I wake up in the middle of the night with these great ideas, sometimes I think about it for awhile, then I start writing… I've got several stories right now, and I even have ideas on who I'd like to cast them with."
He has plenty of scripts and concepts and stories in varying degrees of development. Next up after A Life Less Empty is the true-life drama of an aboriginal teen, Neil Stonechild, whose suspicious death in 1990 is alleged to have been at the hands of Saskatoon police. The case is still controversial to this day, personifying the institutional racism against Canadian natives. Another, in a totally different turn, is a comedy called Treaty Money, with the hopes of recruiting actors Gary Farmer and August Schellenberg as the leads. Meanwhile, he plans to write a book, and keep on making movies, seeing movies, and talking about movies.
One thing, though, Rueben never wants, is move to Hollywood, become Hollywood or think Hollywood. He abhors the insipid and ruthless environment that swallows people whole; the desperation to canonize youth and excess and beauty to the point of pathos. Which isn't real. Which isn't honest. He's unapologetically proud of who he is and where's he's from; a dad of two preschool-aged sons who makes the eight-hour roundtrip drive from Saskatoon to Waterhen on weekends to help his mom run a youth camp. The role model (yes, Rueben, you really are a role model) who has developed, through the local university, a filmmaking class for aboriginal teens he facilitates with actor Arcand.
Most of all, Rueben Martell is a filmmaker. A good filmmaker who intends on becoming a great filmmaker. It doesn't get any more honest and real than that.