Creating the conditions that allow film production to thrive on a national level is paramount to establishing the voices of creative, innovative artists within that nation. These mechanisms serve to advance a national cinematic identity, as well as give greater visibility to stories and people that would otherwise go unseen. These are the opportunities and obstacles that Indigenous films and filmmakers currently face. While Indigenous filmmakers are able to put their identities and ideas on screen they’re prevented from establishing cinema that is entrenched in Canadian cinematic culture.
The pathways to funding Indigenous films are constantly in flux, lacking stability. This severely limits the rate of indigenous filmmaking in Canada. A 2013 study conducted by the Ontario Media Development Corporation attempted to define and establish ways indigenous films have been financed in the past, while exploring avenues for further improvement in both methods and rate of production.
The study identifies Telefilm Canada as one of the primary bodies of feature film production in Canada. Responsible for funding an average of 62 feature films per year between 2008 and 2012, Telefilm has established itself in Canada through the volume and quality of films it produces. However, of these 60-plus efforts, the report indicated that only one on average was an Aboriginal feature film. This accounts for 1.61-percent of feature films made during that period.
Telefilm also commissioned the Featuring Aboriginal Stories Program in 2008, in an attempt to address the inequity of funding available to aboriginal filmmakers. The pilot program was eventually abandoned in 2011, and the 35 projects developed were left in limbo. One such venture was Adam Garnet Jones’s screenplay, Wild Medicine, which subsequently won the Jim Burt Screenwriting Prize at the 2013 Writers Guild of Canada Screenwriting Awards. The film has yet to enter production.
The pathways to funding Indigenous films are constantly in flux, lacking stability. This severely limits the rate of indigenous filmmaking in Canada.
Telefilm (realizing the lack of aboriginal-specific Federal funding for features) added an aboriginal component to their Micro-Budget Production Program, which officially launched following the OMDC Report in October 2013. The following year, in Telefilm’s 2014/2015 Micro-Budget Production Program, three of the 15 finalists were aboriginal directors, including Adam Garnet Jones, Sonia Boileau and Mark Ennis. In a sign of the program’s success, Jones’s Fire Song and Boileau’s Le Dep screened at 2015’s imagineNATIVE, while Mark Ennis’s The Road of Iniquity is slated for release in 2016.
Beyond Telefilm Canada, other federal funding agencies, including the National Film Board and the Canada Council for the Arts, provide the bulk of incentives for filmmakers. However, federal programs are not the only means of supporting Aboriginal films in Canada. Bursaries are made available by imagineNATIVE, and the Canadian Film Centre, which produced Jeff Barnaby’s Rhymes for Young Ghouls (2013), continues to grow and impact the Canadian film industry.
Through continued attempts to galvanize the indigenous filmmaking culture, these tangible examples are indications of success in specific and targeted programs for indigenous feature film production. The obstacles, however, persist, with the possibility of engaging broader audiences minimized. “Systemic barriers are real, when it comes to feature filmmaking,” says Cree-Metis filmmaker Danis Goulet. Goulet contends that while bodies of funding are available for indigenous filmmakers there needs to be increased openness from individuals in positions able to grant funding, with the “will to support new and alternate voices.” In lieu of this, Goulet contends that indigenous filmmaking is centered not just on practice, but also ideology.
Heavily involved in programming and creating opportunities for indigenous filmmakers via imagineNATIVE, Goulet notes: “When we are looking at our projects, we are not just looking at them from a craft perspective, but also a culture perspective: am I telling this story with integrity because of the politics of representation, which all of us as indigenous filmmakers have to contend with?” Goulet indicates that indigenous filmmakers are inherently political as a result of a Canadian cultural context.
This gap between the political and social pertinence of indigenous issues and the lack of funding to explore said issues on screen are debilitating when considering the national cinematic identity Canada strives to cultivate. In failing to give voice to, and break down barriers for, aboriginal artists, funding bodies are fostering a cinema of exclusivity, as opposed to inclusivity.
The indigenous filmmaking community is strongly united in their efforts to create and sustain the best conditions for production. As indigenous filmmakers exhibit camaraderie, the potential for a more inclusive financing future becomes attainable.
The organization Communications MDR conducted a similar study to the OMDC, entitled The Aboriginal Screen-Based Production Sector. The report called for a national summit to take place in 2014, in the hopes of “developing a policy framework for independent, Aboriginal, screen-based production.” This summit failed to take place, but in making concerted, uniform efforts there can be greater possibilities for aboriginal films.
This model is a sustainable approach to regular funding for indigenous projects, as increases in similar programming become possible due to the success of these initiatives. The indigenous filmmaking community is strongly united in their efforts to create and sustain the best conditions for production. As indigenous filmmakers exhibit camaraderie, the potential for a more inclusive financing future becomes attainable. “All unified in a singular purpose. There is such a power in that, and imagineNATIVE is a hub that makes this happen,” says Goulet.
Canada can further look to examples set by New Zealand and Australia, where models of film financing and production allow indigenous cinema to thrive. This is due in large part to the integration of indigenous and non-indigenous filmmakers. As stated by former chief executive officer of the New Zealand Film Commission Graeme Mason: “Support for Maori film is in the founding principles of the Film Commission; it is almost enshrined as a concept. It is a guiding principle and priority; we report on it every year.” The commission was responsible for producing 27 features, from 2009 to 2013 — five of which were written, directed and/or produced by indigenous artists. This constitutes 18.5-percent of the Commission’s total production in that time — a reflection of the indigenous population of New Zealand, which reaches roughly 14.5-percent.
Considering the rampant number and success of indigenous films in countries such as Australia and New Zealand, efforts in Canada belie the reality that it is possible to cultivate an iconic and visible culture of indigenous films that would inevitably have a larger impact on Canadian and International cine