Indigenous Filmmakers Changing Canadian Cinema as Public Takes Notice

At the past two Toronto festivals, features from a new wave of Indigenous filmmakers — notably Jeff Barnaby’s “Blood Quantum,” Tracey Deer’s “Beans,” Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers’ “The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open” (co-directed with Kathleen Hepburn) —found acclaim and went on to connect with buyers and audiences beyond the borders of Canada.

Poised for similar traction, this year’s Toronto slate spotlights the past, present and future of Indigenous filmmaking across the festival’s public, industry and events programming. And just outside the festival frame, the Indigenous screen community is cued for non-stop action.

The Canadian government’s 2021 budget, unveiled in April, allocated $40.1 million over three years for the Indigenous Screen Office (ISO) to support screen-based content made by First Nations, Inuit and Métis creators — the largest investment in Indigenous screen sector since the launch of the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) in 1999. Founded in 2018, the ISO is now on a hiring blitz and preparing to open its application process, with investment expected to be channeled into two general areas: a platform-agnostic fund covering all stages of production and distribution, and a fund for sectoral development to build lasting infrastructure.

“There is increasing evidence there is a global audience for our stories,” ISO executive director Jesse Wente, a former film critic for CBC Radio and former director of film programs at TIFF Bell Lightbox, recently told Variety. “Audiences are media literate, there is less of an aversion to subtitles and more understanding that great stories, told very well, can come from all over and can work in any community.

“And it’s hard to escape the fact that the need for Indigenous stories to be told has become even more urgent than was apparent when the federal budget was set,” adds Wente, an Ojibwe member of Serpent River First Nation.

Wente refers to the First Nations-led discoveries in spring of hundreds of unmarked graves and remains of children at sites of former church-run residential schools; 130 operated in Canada from 1874 to the 1990s and took 150,000 Indigenous children from their families. The policy behind the schools was called cultural genocide in the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which was published in 2015.

“In 2021, Canada should understand at this point that the health of Indigenous people in our communities is fundamental to the health of Canada,” Wente says. “And with respect to the ISO, when communities that have to had the ability to build for themselves are able to do so, the benefits will go far beyond those specific communities.”

It’s hard to miss this hugely impactful touchstone of Canada’s colonial legacy in Danis Goulet’s dystopian drama “Night Raiders,” which stars Tailfeathers as a Cree mother who is taken in by a Cree-led vigilante group after her daughter is snatched by military occupiers and put in a mandatory state academy. Screening as a Gala, “Raiders” is a Canada- New Zealand co-production (Taika Waititi is an exec producer) and was picked up by Samuel Goldwyn after its Berlin bow.

“There was something about the freedom of genre filmmaking that I wanted, while still connecting to the social realist aesthetics of my earlier short films,” says Goulet. “And one of the central questions I explore is, what does it mean not only to survive but to thrive?

“In an Indigenous context, people are used to operating in survival mode— you’re locked down, one day at a time. Thriving is about realizing you’re deserving of more than survival mode. I want to reflect the importance of coming home and connecting to people that care, and part
of that was exploring the impacts of trauma, and how it also affects your ability to give and receive love.”

Bretten Hannam’s coming-of-ager “Wildhood,” which screens in Discovery, stars 2021 TIFF Rising Star Phillip Lewitski (“Utopia Falls”) as a two-spirit Mi’kmaw who escapes an abusive father and embarks on a revelatory road trip through Eastern Canada. During the trip he reconnects with his heritage. Michael Greyeyes (“Rutherford Falls”) plays a small role in the film.

“When I was growing up, I had to imagine these kinds of stories,” Hannam says. “There were few Indigenous characters, and they were often not played by Indigenous actors. And there were no Two Spirit, queer, or LGBTQ+ stories that I had access to growing up.

“Parts of ‘Wildhood’ are inspired by my own life, but there are moments and elements that come from friends, family, and community members — all with a twist of cinematic interpretation,” they say. “Working like this has to be done with care and mindfulness and open talk and collaboration with your community, and your creative team.”

The Wavelength program screens the prairie-set, fragmented family narrative “Ste-Ann,” the first feature of Manitoba-based Rhayne Vermette, who is a member of Cousin, a Turtle Island-spanning collective supporting Indigenous experimental-film artists.

In TIFF Docs, “Wochiigii lo: End of the Peace” tracks five years of protests and legal challenges to a money-losing hydro project on northern British Columbia’s Peace River. “I sought to document juxtapositions that exist within our country, and how those contradictions impact Indigenous lives,” says Haida filmmaker Heather Hatch.

Documentary matriarch Alanis Obomsawin, one of Canada’s most distinguished filmmakers, will be honored with a career-spanning retrospective series of 19 short and feature-length works, Celebrating Alanis, and will receive the Jeff Skoll Award in Impact Media Supported by Participant Media at the 2021 TIFF Tribute Awards.

“I remember seeing [Alanis] on ‘Sesame Street,’ and being stopped in my tracks as a Native kid, seeing this authentic person — a real Indigenous person, First Nations person, on TV,” recalls series curator Jason Ryle, former executive director of Toronto-based ImagineNative Film + Media Arts Festival.

“Many years later, at an Indigenous Futurism conference, I had a massive lightbulb moment after three days of watching panels on things like indigenous Hawaiian-made video games,” Ryle says. “The generation growing up in this century has access to Indigenous-made content in books, in films, on TV, and that is having a huge impact.

“It’s still so rare for us Indigenous people, and even non-indigenous, to see footage taken through an Indigenous lens,” says Ryle. The inclusion of some of Obomsawin’s earliest films, from the 1970s, that focus on children and are not as widely known, will be eye-opening to all viewers. “Seeing these films back-to-back in totality is like looking into an alternative universe, Ryles adds.

“There is a growing appetite, as we all consider a post-pandemic world, to figure out how we can live differently in the world. In Alanis’ films, the broader strokes are about valuing Indigenous cultures that are just now being looked to for solutions to
many problems.”

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Inuk filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk’s groundbreaking “Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner,” the first Canadian film to win the Camera d’Or at Cannes. Toronto will screen a recently digitally remastered version of “Fast Runner” and premiere Kunuk’s latest, “Angakusajaujuq — The Shaman’s Apprentice,” his first animated work.

Indigenous filmmaking organizations and programs from different parts of the globe unite at the virtual industry conference panel Narrative Sovereignty: Pathways to Partnership and Collaboration for Indigenous Productions, discussing collaborative ventures that are supporting Indigenous films. Moderated by Sundance Instit-ute’s director of the Indigenous Program Bird Runningwater, the panel includes Angela Bates (Screen Australia), Anne Lajla Utsi (Intl. Sámi Film Institute), Jesse Wente (Indigenous Screen Office), and Karen Te O Kahurangi Waaka (New Zealand Film Commission).

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