By Danielle Vienneau

JJ (Jenna) Neepin is a First Nations writer and director based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. A member of the Fox Lake Cree Nation, Neepin has written,  directed and produced several short films alongside her sister/partner/producer  Justina Neepin with their company JJNeepinFilms INC. She’s directed several documentary television productions for APTN and was the associate producer on the CBC series TRICKSTER (Season 1).

Neepin has received numerous awards and fellowships for her work and  dedication to the television and film industry, including being selected as one of the 2021 Berlinale Film Festival Talent Lab participants and winner of the 2019  Women in the Director’s Chair (WIDC)/CBC Films Talent Development Award for her supernatural, crime drama feature script Luminous. Most recently, she was selected as one of only five participants for the Women in View, Five in Focus: Indigenous program—a professional development program that promotes and  elevates women-identifying writers and directors in Canada.

Neepin is a trailblazer—a true leader and advocate for the Indigenous film and media arts community. SAY Magazine was honoured to have had the opportunity to find out more about her life, projects and future goals.

SAY: How did you get into the film industry?

Neepin: A year after graduating from the University of Winnipeg’s filmmaking program, I found an Indigenous film placement program through Film Training Manitoba (FTM). I was placed on various shows, big and small, to learn how to be a production assistant. The first show I was a part of was APTN’s Cashing In in 2009. I went into Season Two of the show as the locations person, which is near the bottom of the film hierarchy. Then I applied for another program through FTM, in the camera training program, and went into Season Three of Cashing In as a camera department trainee, which was a step up. It was a great learning experience, and it’s also where I met my husband, who was a sound guy at the time.

I had a day job for a while, occasionally finding film work. It wasn’t until 2016 when I started to get busy with director work that I was finally able to quit my day job and live off of contract work.

SAY: Did you always want to be a director?

Neepin: Not exactly. I really wanted to be an actor, so I pursued theatre first. I switched my focus because an acting teacher once told me that the parts I would play would likely be “the best friend” and that was because they [casting directors, etc.] almost always cast the best friend as a minority role. I was told I was likely to only ever play the Indigenous part and maybe the Asian part. I was dumbfounded and discouraged, so I switched over to filmmaking. I was already doing it as a hobby, making music videos and mini-documentaries with my sister, so it all just clicked.

SAY: Congratulations on being selected for the Five in Focus: Indigenous program. How did you get involved, and what is the program all about?

Neepin: There was an application and a selection process, and I am really happy to have been selected. It’s a 10-week program meant to help writers and directors who are looking to take the next step in their careers. To be considered for this program, you need to have some working experience and you need to have a project in mind. My project is Luminous, which is in the script stage.

SAY: Can you tell me more about Luminous? How does Five in Focus play a part in making it a feature?

Neepin: Luminous is about a young Indigenous woman named Aura who has a supernatural gift to see and find missing people. When her childhood friend goes missing, it’s a race against the clock because it turns out that her friend has been kidnapped by a serial killer. Luminous is in its second draft, so at the end of this program, I am hoping to have completed a third and final script, and a solid pitch package. There are five of us in the program, each matched with an Indigenous female mentor who has made TV shows and/or feature films. I know how to make a feature, in theory, but I am hoping this experience will give me that last bit of insight I need and help guide me on the step-by-step process to making Luminous a feature film.

SAY: What is the inspiration behind Luminous?

Neepin: The inspiration came from my time on Taken, a true-crime docuseries about Canada’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). I found it really hard sitting in the interview chair, hearing all those stories and feeling helpless. Even though you are making a show to potentially help find people’s’ missing loved ones, you still feel really helpless. I wanted to write a story, not a superhero story, but a story about a real person from our community, our own people, who could find their own people, and I wanted to be able to write a semi-happy ending. I wanted to play on the supernatural—something that touches on spiritualism and is inspired by my culture.

SAY: What is your favourite or most meaningful project to date, and why?

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Neepin: It’s kind of a tie between Headdress and Bayline. In Headdress, I recreated my great-grandfather’s portrait to start a conversation on the cultural significance of the headdress and the responsibility a symbol like this carries. I come from a line of chiefs, of leaders. To me, the headdress is a symbol of leadership. It’s something earned.

Headdress got a lot of attention and premiered at the Hot Docs film festival in Toronto. People really started noticing us after that. But with Bayline, I feel I really got to know my parents better. This is where my sister and I joined my parents on a three-day camping trip back to the “Bayline” (Hudson Bay Railway between The Pas and Churchill in Manitoba) where my parents grew up. They would always tell us about the Bayline, but there was never any context to what they were talking about. We finally got out there, and they told us so many stories that couldn’t make it in the doc. I did notice that my parents would tell us stories when the camera wasn’t rolling, on purpose, and I realized they were not ready to share some of these stories publicly. I always felt Bayline could have been stronger, but it was done that way on purpose.

SAY: What are some of your future goals?

Neepin: I would really like to get into directing television—I would like that to be more my bread and butter. I also have two other feature scripts that are in their first drafts and sitting on the shelf, so once we make Luminous, I would like to further develop those. I would also like to grow our company and continue to coproduce on other people’s projects. A big goal that my sister and I have—because we have such a great Indigenous community here in Winnipeg—is if (and when) we get to make Luminous, we want as much Indigenous crew as possible.