Film “ownership” usually lies in the director’s hands, no matter how many people are involved in the creation. Pulp Fiction (1994) will always be “A Quentin Tarantino Film”; Malcolm X (1992) is forever “A Spike Lee Joint.” David Cronenberg’s 1986 film The Fly (based upon a story by a British writer) was co-written by Cronenberg and another American writer. However, because it was directed by a Canadian and received Canadian funding, it’s a Canadian film. Because of this intrinsic connection between director and film, we can also say that any film directed by an indigenous person is “an indigenous film.” But what does that exactly mean? What does an indigenous film look like and is it what one would think?
Among the social upheaval of the ’60s came the Challenge for Change program, a film project created by the National Film Board of Canada in 1967. This project aimed to use film in order to give “a voice to the voiceless,” including indigenous people. As part of this program, the Indian Film Crew was established and indigenous people began making films at the NFB. The Indian Film Crew produced several works, starting with These Are My People (1969) and The Ballad of Crowfoot (1969). In a letter from 1972, Challenge for Change’s director, George Stoney, elaborated why it was important for indigenous people to make films. “There was a strong feeling among the filmmakers at the NFB that the Board had been making too many films ‘about’ the Indian, all from the white man’s viewpoint. What would be the difference if Indians started making films themselves?”
The difference was that a previously silenced community had a way to express themselves. This spirit of revolution was not limited to Canada only; in the ’70s, indigenous activists in Australia began to use film to convey their political message and protest for their rights. According to the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, “indigenous self-representation and self-empowerment in the arts began with Bruce McGuiness — a forerunner in indigenous filmmaking — who made two films: Blackfire (1972) and A Time to Dream (1974).”
Among the social upheaval of the ’60s came the Challenge for Change program, a film project created by the National Film Board of Canada in 1967. This project aimed to use film in order to give “a voice to the voiceless,” including indigenous people.
Indigenous films deal with important moments in indigenous history without any whitewashing. They provide an indigenous perspective on stories that tend to be overlooked by history. The Other Side of the Ledger: An Indian View of the Hudson’s Bay Company (1972), directed by Martin Defalco and Willie Dunn, is one such example. The film examines what the filmmakers call “an incredible bargain made between Crown and Company — a bargain that we feel resulted in the misery, deprivation and exploitation of Canada’s indigenous people.” They’re referencing the history of Canada’s successful Hudson’s Bay Company, which, when told from the perspective of the indigenous people whose land was taken by the Company, is less cheerful than the company’s multi-coloured sweaters suggest. This film highlights the fact that the history of Canada has largely been written by white (usually male) voices that ignore indigenous issues.
Trick or Treaty (a 2014 documentary by Alanis Obomsawin) is another film that aims to convey the viewpoint of Indigenous people in relation to a historical event. The film looks at Treaty Nine (a 1905 agreement that surrendered the sovereign rights of First Nation people from northern Ontario). This film is noteworthy for not only providing a unique indigenous viewpoint on this treaty, but for being the first indigenous film to be included in the Toronto International Film Festival’s prestigious Masters Program.
Examining history is not the sole function of indigenous films — many scrutinize the conditions of these communities today. Tracey Deer has created several compelling documentaries on those present-day realities, including Mohawk Girls (2005) and Club Native (2008). In both films, Deer explores Mohawk identity, specifically from the female point of view, in order to move away from the misrepresentations of her culture typically found in the media.
In addition to representing issues that are crucial to Canadian indigenous people today, indigenous films can be gorgeous epics that elevate filmmaking to new artistic heights. At three hours, Zacharias Kunuk’s Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001) is a proper epic steeped in Inuit legend. It stands out from the other films mentioned because it was the first film to be produced entirely in Inuktitut. This Canadian film was Kunuk’s attempt to marry filmmaking with the oral tradition of Inuit storytelling. Kunuk succeeded, and the Toronto International Film Festival recently named it the greatest Canadian film of all time.
Examining history is not the sole function of indigenous films — many scrutinize the conditions of these communities today. Tracey Deer has created several compelling documentaries on those present-day realities. In her films, Deer explores Mohawk identity, specifically from the female point of view, in order to move away from the misrepresentations of her culture typically found in the media.
Many indigenous films have gone on to receive similar acclaim. It may not be as visually stunning as Kunuk’s film, but Lee Tamahori’s Once Were Warriors (1994) is another spectacular film, but in very different ways. Once Were Warriors is a bleak, violent exploration of the lives of a Maori family in New Zealand. Tamahori (who is half Maori) created a work that packs an emotional gut-punch, one that also ventures into other universal topics, such as poverty, alcoholism and domestic violence. The acting is so powerful that Roger Ebert said the actors “bring the Academy Awards into perspective.”
Tamahori is an extremely successful Indigenous filmmaker — so successful, in fact, that he’s gone on to direct several Hollywood blockbusters, including Mulholland Falls (1996), the Bond film Die Another Day (2002) and, unfortunately, XXX: State of the Union (2005). While his Hollywood blockbusters definitely don’t deal with indigenous issues or speak directly to his community, the fact that an indigenous filmmaker is directing these types of films shows how different the current industry is from the early days of the Challenge for Change program.
Indigenous directors are leaving their mark upon the contemporary film community, whether or not filmgoers even realize it. Take, for example, Maori director Taika Waititi’s hilarious 2014 film, What We Do in the Shadows. This horror-comedy mockumentary is required viewing for horror and comedy fans alike. The film is a collaboration between Waititi and Jemaine Clement, who is also Maori, building upon their previous effort, Flight of the Conchords. What We Do in the Shadows isn’t their first big-screen collaboration; they also worked together on the Waititi-directed Eagle vs. Shark (2007) — another quirky film created in a style proving to be uniquely Waititi’s. His films deal with universal themes, such as the desire to belong, love and our collective obsession with vampires. Plus, they’re really funny. Waititi’s next project is a big-budget entry into the Marvel Universe, Thor: Ragnarok (2017), starring Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston. With this and Tamahori’s success, we see that it’s possible for indigenous directors to leave their mark on mainstream Hollywood, while many are still creating pieces that speak specifically for, and to, Indigenous people.
To address the question posed at the beginning of this article: what does an indigenous film look like? It looks like any film created by a probing documentarian, intelligent filmmaker, horror-comedy aficionado or big-budget Hollywood director. Audiences are increasingly asking for diverse backgrounds, opinions and viewpoints in their movies, and allowing artistic control to rest in the hands of an indigenous person, whose community has historically been underrepresented or misrepresented in film, will only help change the white, Colonial-centric lens through which most film is made.