Issue: November 2015 - Indigenous Filmmaking

The Indigenous New Wave: a populist stage of Indigenous cinema

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...

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The global appeal of Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner

In January of 2015, the Toronto International Film Festival held its decennial poll to determine Canada’s All Time Top Ten films. TIFF polled filmmakers, critics and academics to come up with consensus choices, and the result was a bit of a surprise to the uninitiated. Instead of Claude Jutra’s Mon Oncle Antoine topping the list, as it had done since the poll’s inception in 1984, Zacharias Kunuk’s Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner took its place as the best Canadian film. It was likely the first time an Indigenous film topped a national cinema poll — a landmark in international cinema. The reasons Atanarjuat topped the poll are both obvious to those who have seen the film, as well as indicative of a larger moment in world cinema as a whole. It’s simply a superb effort, but also one that shares a vision of indigenous culture, crafted by, and for, indigenous people, in a way never before done. Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner is an adaptation of a traditional Inuit myth, following the hunter Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq) and his epic quest to restore peace to a community divided by evil spirits and romantic rivalries. In the decade-and-a-half since its release, it’s become something of an institution. The film was a major hit when it was first released as well; it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2001, winning the Caméra d’Or...

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Resistance and resilience: a talk with Alanis Obomsawin

Alanis Obomsawin has just returned to Toronto from Chile at 5:30 this morning. It’s now 11:30 am, and she shows hardly a shred of jet lag or lethargy. She’s returning from a festival in Chile where all of her documentaries were screened to appreciative audiences, most of them screening more than once due to demand. On this brisk Saturday afternoon in early fall, the Abenaki filmmaker is swinging through Toronto to give a talk to the Indigenous Bar Association about the power and purpose of documentary filmmaking. After her brief sojourn in Toronto is completed, she’s immediately going back to work on her latest filmmaking project. At the age of 83, I don’t know where she finds the time and energy to do it. Obomsawin, a one-time singer and model turned political activist and filmmaker, is the definition of a national treasure. She’s a tireless crusader and vital filmmaker in documenting the histories and plights of First Nations people in Canada. Her groundbreaking, but often very straightforward journalistic work has rightfully captured national and global attention. A mainstay of the National Film Board, Obomsawin has turned out some of the most visible and widely recognized documentaries in this country’s history. When asked about her feelings on being the most recognized indigenous filmmaker in Canada, she humbly chuckles that it’s probably only her age that contributes to that. “Well, I’m...

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By the people, for the people: Aboriginal youth discuss their portrayal in cinema

One thing our society is very often guilty of is ignoring the voices of the people whose opinion should matter most. We seem to think that if our intentions are good, it doesn’t matter if people are offended, because we didn’t mean for it to happen. This is a devastatingly problematic habit we fall into as a society, because we’re so afraid of being the bad guy that we fail to realize that sometimes being a mensch means owning up to our mistakes and working on making amends, rather than coming up with excuses. That’s partially why for this article, I decided to speak to some Toronto Native American youth to solicit their opinion on the portrayals of Indigenous peoples in mainstream movies. Not surprisingly, the Native youth aren’t so thrilled about the way their people are portrayed in film, old and new alike. “I feel like a lot of movies with Aboriginals involved in them aren’t portrayed as best as they could be,” 18-year-old Kaillin says. “I think Hollywood should do more research than they do and educate themselves, instead of following this certain routine they have set for Aboriginals.” “I have always disliked and felt disgusted with the portrayals of indigenous people in mainstream media, from film to televised series,” says 15-year-old Nyame. “These films are a tool to further divide and ‘other’ indigenous peoples. ‘Othering’ is...

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Beyond badass: the anatomy of the female action hero

In her introduction to TIFF’s 2015 fall series, Beyond Badass: Female Action Heroes, programmer Kiva Reardon states that the films she’s programmed “test the limits of feminism, but they also inspire us to think of women’s roles on screen and [in] society.” Seeing these female-driven action films placed side-by-side highlights the fight these women face to be taken seriously. Even more so, the Beyond Badass series draws attention to how far that battle has come, and how much further it still has to go. The female form has been a fixation of cinema since its beginnings and the body central to the action film. Examining the films within the Beyond Badass series brings to light that these women, no matter how awesome they appear, are still subjected to the same treatment on screen as other women in popular cinema. The objectification of the human body is a central tenet of the action genre. The hero’s body is presented as an awesome machine, one capable of achieving superhuman feats, whether it’s the physical ability to take out a room of 100-plus men or the technical aptitude to shoot a man in the head from 100 yards away. These films are full of training montages of the hero building his hard body, fine-tuning the awesome machine he inhabits. Even when the action sequences remove the human element and focus on car...

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Indigenous Short Films: Forging a Cinematic Culture

In a medium dominated by the feature film format, short filmmaking retains a singular ability to express and strengthen unique, nuanced creative voices. This is true for any number of current and aspiring filmmakers, but has become especially apparent in Canada’s indigenous filmmaking community. Unbound by constraints of technology and finances, the short film reflects the artists’ ability to create and dictate their passion and vision. A glance at the 2015 imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival reveals a concerted effort to create a space for the many short films produced each year to find an audience, including programmes such as HOME FIRES: CANADIAN SHORTS, Welcome to Country: Shorts Programme, Next of Kin Shorts Programme and #selfie #stories Youth Shorts, among others. The volume of shorts is not only tied to the inherent popularity and ease of production associated with the format, but also the desire within the indigenous filmmaking community to express a personal and political identity via a medium that allows for such displays to thrive. This expression is in part aided by film-funding bodies in Canada, where the barriers that prevent the production of indigenous feature films aren’t as debilitating. Increasing short film production initiatives was regarded in a 2013 report conducted by the Ontario Media Development Corporation as an effective means of continually bringing indigenous voices to film, paving the way for a potential future...

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What is an Indigenous film?

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...

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