I was around 13-years-old when Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) came out. The three-hour Inuit epic complemented my dad’s obscure taste in films; he decided to take his two teenaged sons to the movies for some Canadian cultural enrichment. Thinking “a movie’s a movie,” my brother and I acceded.
I hated Atanarjuat. My pubescent, bored self squirmed and slouched for 172 minutes of Inuits sitting in the snow. Now, years later as I watch Atanarjuat again, rapt, I laugh that my attitude has flipped over the years; Atanarjuat is a world-class movie.
As the first film to screen in TIFF Bell Lightbox’s exhaustive First Peoples Cinema: 1500 Nations, One Tradition programme, Atanarjuat may be an imposing ambassador to the uninitiated. Its stark colour palette, long takes and focus on the minutiae of traditional Inuit social relations demand trust from its audience that it will take them somewhere. If you’re not ready – or you’re a 13-year-old more interested in shoot-em-ups – Atanarjuat indeed seems to go nowhere. But going nowhere, in this case, is not synonymous with bad — in a certain sense, it’s a major theme in First Peoples Cinema.
Where do you go as an Aboriginal filmmaker? What do you do with an art form which has been instrumental in compromising your identity? My first memories of aboriginals come from cowboy and Indian clichÃ©s in cartoons and movies. It took years for me to get a realistic sense of North American Indigenous identity and tradition. In Canada, Indigenous culture sometimes feels almost invisible beyond the odd coin design or airport totem pole.
And how do you make sense of using modern storytelling to express anxieties about threatened traditions? Throughout the First Peoples programme, films vary widely in their relationship to mainstream movie conventions. Some films, like Shane Belcourt’s Tkaronto, follow a fairly mainstream pattern of character development, tension and resolution. Others, such as Busong, from the Philippines, resist familiar structures. The argument for the latter might go: how can we use the same narrative strategies as the cultures which threaten to erase us? Can’t our tale be told as we see fit?
Tkaronto leans towards the mainstream. The film follows two modern Indigenous North Americans: Jolene, a gorgeous Anishinaabe artist from L.A. and Ray, a self-deprecating MÃ©tis writer from Vancouver. Both characters feel urban and contemporary; Ray is mixed (half-MÃ©tis), looks more or less caucasian and Jolene has hints of the valley girl in her accent. Their story, set in Toronto, has an indie feel, incorporates traffic noise, cityscapes and other splashes of realism. While both Ray and Jolene have evolved with the times, they look back with anxiety. The question seems to be: how can one be modern without forgetting one’s roots? Jolene worries that she doesn’t know how to pray, while Ray’s outward whiteness provoke feelings of shame and confusion. For a story like this, narrative arcs and all that mainstream business make sense.
The aforementioned Busong, by Filipino filmmaker Auraeus Solito, tries another strategy: allegory, elusiveness, experiment. Solito comes from the Palawan tribe and Busong is billed as the first film shot in the Palawan language. Nothing like Tkaronto (really, the juxtaposition itself is a stretch), Busong allows a loose concept of character and plot.The film uses strange images and mini-stories instead of a traditional narrative; a Palawan fisherman and his son being forced off the beach by a cantankerous old white man and two gun-toting thugs; a woman slowly dying of something like leprosy; urban Filipinos laughing when a Palawan confusedly uses a door handle for the first time; the rotting woman, cured, sprouting butterflies out of her healing sores. These scenes are sequenced poetically and it becomes apparent that Solito is looking to communicate a cultural memory and feeling rather than a more literal story. (Should you feel skeptical, note that Solito is a bit of a Cannes darling.)
TIFF’s First Peoples programme has 27 feature film screenings. There will be all kinds of films which depict varied, unique and important cultures. Tkaronto and Busong represent two extremes (Atanarjuat sits somewhere in the middle), but I suspect that every film screened will have some particular style or formal choices which surprise. At points I wondered what Filipino, Canadian and New Zealand indigenous people have in common — is this programme one huge generalization? But film may be the best way to look at the world’s Indigenous peoples together. What other medium can so successfully integrate the new and the old, and strive to be universal?
TIFF’s First Peoples Cinema: 1500 Nations, One Tradition programme runs June 21 – August 11. 2012. For more information, visit their website.
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