We’re living in the midst of a new movement in international cinema: the Indigenous New Wave. Unlike past movements, such as French New Wave or New Korean Cinema, this wave isn’t limited to one national cinema. It’s a global movement empowering indigenous artists to tell their stories and reshape cinema in their image.
The term “Indigenous New Wave” was coined by Jesse Wente (director of Film Programming at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and pop culture critic for CBC’s Metro Morning), in an effort to explain the global coalescing of indigenous artists finding new means of expression in cinema over the past decade-and-a-half. We spoke to Wente and Daniel Northway-Frank (manager of Festival Initiatives and Programmer at imagineNATIVE) to help us understand the history of Indigenous New Wave and what it holds for the future.
First things first: what is Indigenous New Wave? Northway-Frank describes it as “a new interest in the style that indigenous filmmakers are putting into moving images.” He says that it’s indigenous filmmakers “picking up and honouring the past work that’s been made and forging in new directions beyond stereotypical notions of indigenous ways of expression.” For the majority of cinematic history, indigenous people were relegated to the margins. If an indigenous character appeared in a film, it was mostly as a stereotypical supporting character, and typically in films of the Western genre. Indigenous artists had no control over their cinematic depictions, while the vast majority of actors playing them weren’t even indigenous. Finally, in the ’60s and ’70s, indigenous artists took up cameras for the first time and began reclaiming depictions of their people on screen.
The Indigenous New Wave is what followed. The successors to the indigenous cinematic pioneers began reshaping cinematic storytelling to better reflect indigenous history and traditions. All New Waves in film are a reaction to traditional cinematic sensibilities. Wente points out that just as “the French New Wave was artists reacting to traditional French cinema, the Indigenous New Wave is indigenous artists reacting to Western cinema as a whole. It’s a matter of indigenous artists all across the globe regaining control of their cinematic image and moving the vocabulary of cinema forward.” Northway-Frank also emphasizes, “the New Wave is the process of making a film — not just what’s on screen, but the way it’s made,” with the focus on the fact that the artist driving the film is indigenous.
For the majority of cinematic history, indigenous people were relegated to the margins. If an indigenous character appeared in a film, it was mostly as a stereotypical supporting character. Indigenous artists had no control over their cinematic depictions, while the vast majority of actors playing them weren’t even indigenous.
It’s important to note that there were key indigenous films prior to the Indigenous New Wave. Wente explains that works like Lee Tamahori’s Once Were Warriors, Chris Eyre’s Smoke Signals and the films of Tracey Moffatt are all important precursors to the Indigenous New Wave, laying the foundation for the cinematic movement to come. “You see a history of indigenous cinema that has allowed a new generation of filmmakers to look back on that tradition and to sort of grow with that tradition,” Wente says. However, Zacharias Kunuk’s Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001) is “really ground zero,” according to Wente. “It’s important to understand the works that preceded it and there’s a lot of history that allowed that film to happen. But that movie has been tremendously influential in the cinema we’ve seen produced by indigenous artists ever since.”
Being the first indigenous epic by an indigenous filmmaker, Atanarjuat opened up the cinematic possibilities for indigenous filmmakers. Its artistic and commercial success showed that international audiences were interested in material aimed squarely at indigenous viewers. The film was a grandly celebrated artistic statement of indigenous storytelling. Also coinciding with Atanarjuat was the rise of digital filmmaking, which democratized film production equipment and put cameras into the hands of more indigenous artists than ever before. Daniel Northway-Frank believes that digital cinema is complementary to the oral indigenous storytelling in a way that celluloid or written literature isn’t. He references the words of poet/activist Duke Redbird, who has worked with imagineNATIVE in the past, saying that Redbird believes “film is a European way of looking at things and video is indigenous, because the image is always evolving and moving. Video is inherently indigenous.”
However, unlike Atanarjuat, the majority of films in the Indigenous New Wave are more focused on telling contemporary stories than historical epics. Wente posits, “that’s largely because a lot of those filmmakers making fiction films had seen their people, or elements of, portrayed by others over the course of a 100 years of cinema history.” Indigenous filmmakers in the New Wave seek to correct the errors of these depictions and show indigenous life as it exists now in the contemporary climate. As well, they build upon the cinema of their forbearers. This New Wave is happening all over the world, not just in one country or continent.
“It’s a global movement,” Wente continues. “Indigenous cinema, unlike other national cinemas — if we want to group it in there — isn’t actually bound by traditional borders, because it grew rather organically all over the globe, all about the same time and all the artists very much have very similar concerns and they’re doing very similar things. Things like film festivals, where they actually gathered and saw each other’s work, fed that cycle. You see a global indigenous cinema movement stretching all the way back to the ’70s, but now encompassing the New Wave that’s happening not just in Canada and not just in the States, but all over the world.”
Being the first indigenous epic by an indigenous filmmaker, Atanarjuat opened up the cinematic possibilities for indigenous filmmakers. Its artistic and commercial success showed that international audiences were interested in material aimed squarely at indigenous viewers.
In Canada, a film like Jeff Barnaby’s Rhymes for Young Ghouls is a key example of Indigenous New Wave. The film follows a teenage girl growing up on a Mi’kmaq reserve in the ’70s, dealing drugs with her uncle to make ends meet and avoiding the manipulations of the abusive Indian agent who seeks to throw her in residential school. Not only does the film shed light upon the barbarity of the residential school system and Colonial Canada’s systemic mistreatment of indigenous people, but it offers a look at indigenous self-identity in the midst of an oppressive over-culture. Northway-Frank states, “Jeff Barnaby is a visionary. The whole film is a unique perspective and image of his opinions on his culture and its place in the post-Colonial world.” The film personifies key elements of the Indigenous New Wave: indigenous self-expression about indigenous contemporary life.
However, not all Indigenous New Wave films are necessarily as political as Rhymes for Young Ghouls or as fixated on self-examination. Modern indigenous life takes many forms, and the films of the Indigenous New Wave reflect this diversity. Works as varied as Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah (Australia) and Taika Waititi’s Boy (New Zealand) belong in the movement. Waititi’s 2010 film, for instance, was a breakthrough for indigenous cinema, becoming the highest grossing film ever in New Zealand and an independent hit worldwide. The film is a coming-of-age tale about a young Maori boy growing up in a coastal town in New Zealand in 1984. While not as fixated on indigenous identity as Rhymes for Young Ghouls, Boy nevertheless embodies the vision of the Indigenous New Wave.
Films of the Indigenous New Wave don’t so much conform to traditional filmmaking modes as remake them to reflect traditional indigenous storytelling. Wente explains that with the Indigenous New Wave, “you begin to adapt traditional cinema language to indigenous storytelling. You stop adapting indigenous stories to cinematic language; you do the reverse.” Sterlin Harjo’s Mekko is a prime example of this sort of adaptation in the current filmmaking environment. It premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year and was the opening night film at imagineNATIVE 2015. According to Wente, Mekko “is very much a great exemplar of what we’re talking about; it’s a contemporary-set story made in Tulsa, amongst the homeless community. There are many non-professional actors involved in the production. It uses traditional indigenous storytelling and myths in the film; it speaks the traditional language.”
While cinematic New Waves historically take over traditional filmmaking, becoming absorbed by the establishment, it remains to be seen whether the Indigenous New Wave will follow a similar course.
The festival environment is increasingly important to the Indigenous New Wave. Not only does it give these filmmakers the opportunity to view and learn from each other’s work, but it brings these films to a wider audience. ImagineNATIVE has been screening indigenous films and media for 16 years, highlighting works from across the globe for diverse Toronto audiences. Northway-Frank also points out that this year’s Berlin International Film Festival had a marketplace for indigenous film, “creating a market for a new niche area of contemporary cinema that people are just beginning to understand.”
What this broadening exposure for the Indigenous New Wave will lead to is a normalization of indigenous depictions of life on screen. While cinematic New Waves historically take over traditional filmmaking, becoming absorbed by the establishment, it remains to be seen whether the Indigenous New Wave will follow a similar course. Jesse Wente instead says, “We’re seeing another generation of filmmakers begin to emerge who are embracing more of the genre history of cinema and beginning to look beyond history and contemporary ideas, and are a little bit more future-thinking. They are positioning the stories in a different way.” He goes on to say that “we’re seeing artists who have not only grown up on indigenous cinema, but have also grown up on Blade Runner. They’re just as informed by Star Wars and all those sorts of things as they are the history of indigenous cinema.”
Indigenous filmmakers are going to push out of the niche of indigenous filmmaking and bring their unique voices to mainstream cinema as a whole. An example of this is Taika Waititi having reportedly signed on to direct Thor: Ragnarok, another in a landslide of Marvel blockbusters, due out in 2017. However, Wente is careful to clarify that this expansion isn’t Indigenous New Wave. “It’s pushing more into engaging with that type of representation and ideas on screen. The New Wave informs that and helped us get there, but that’s something different — a different stage for indigenous cinema.”
Daniel Northway-Frank also emphasizes the changing mediums of indigenous cinematic expression, pointing out the expansion into collective filmmaking, virtual reality and animation, such as the work of Amanda Strong, whose short, Mia, played at 2015’s TIFF. “I feel like animation is really becoming quite the outlet for indigenous artistic expression. Even if it’s somebody retelling an oral tradition or myth, it can be told so well through animation to really get the nuances you’re trying to evoke through a verbal story.” As well, he sees indigenous cinema continuing to push boundaries and broaden horizons. Like African American or LGBTQ cinema before it, indigenous cinema is continuing to normalize. The Indigenous New Wave is helping to make indigenous stories “more tactile, universal and appealing — something anyone can connect with,” Northway-Frank states.
The end result of the Indigenous New Wave might be “a more populist stage for Indigenous cinema, which, quite frankly, would be a first,” Jesse Wente says. Not to mention, an exciting first at that.