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Indigenous Film: Where’s the Love?

Films depicting Indigenous people and their stories have been released quite frequently in the last five years. Movies such as The Grizzlies (2018), Indian Horse (2017), Rhymes for Young Ghouls (2013) and Wind River (2014) show an inside look to the lives of Native Americans. The topics of these films cover the aftermath of colonization and residential schools, mental health problems, and lost cultural ties while living in contemporary times. However, they also show how traditions and language use and community ties have evolved and survived.

Introduction to Indigenous Film

The movie The Grizzlies premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2018. Directed by Miranda de Pencier, the drama/sports film takes place in 2004 in Nunavut, Canada. It depicts the lives of the youth in a community during a suicide epidemic. A teacher moves to the small community of Kuglutuk, Nunavut and teaches his students the game of lacrosse and essentially gives the youth a reason to live. The movie deals with a very heavy topic but has a powerful storyline.

The drama movie Indian Horse (2017), directed by Stephen Campanelli, also premiered at TIFF. The film was based on Richard Wagamese’s novel Indian Horse. The movie shows the harsh reality of the effects of residential school, however, it ends with the character finding his path to healing.

Rhymes for Young Ghouls was released in 2013 and directed by Jeff Barnaby. It is another drama film based around a residential school system in the 1970s. The film follows the character Aila’s heist and revenge on the Indian agent who runs the residential school on the reserve. While this film takes a softer glance into the residential schools of Canada, it still has a powerful storyline with a modern influence and strong artistic themes.

Wind River was released in 2017. The drama/mystery film stars Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen and focuses on the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women issue. This film shows a conservation officer (Renner) and FBI agent (Olsen) teaming up to solve the murder of an eighteen years old woman on a reserve in Wyoming. Director Taylor Sheridan has said he released the film to raise awareness on the MMIW issue across North America.

These movies and many others are being released and riding the recent wave of Indigenous recognition and acknowledgment. The four films mentioned above all received a lot of positive feedback and reception from audiences. Here is a breakdown of ratings, reviews, and box office sales of these four movies:

 Indian HorseThe GrizzliesWind RiverRhymes for Young Ghouls
IMDb7.2/10 (954 votes)7.7/10 (509 votes)7.7/10 (179,124votes)6.5/10 (1,008 votes)
Rotten Tomatoes%90 (239 ratings)%99 (99 ratings)%90 (29, 182 ratings)%76 (454 ratings)
Box Office$2 million$518, 361$45 million$1,549
Figure 1: Breaking down reviews, votes and box office sales.

The ratings from IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes are similar, but box office sales and the number of people who have rated these films vary greatly. Wind River commemorates the MMIW movement at the end of the film and shows the life of an Indigenous family affected by the murder of their daughter, however, it stars two big Hollywood actors. Whereas, Rhymes for Young Ghouls was Jeff Barnaby’s debut feature film and did not feature actors of the same stature.  

Why are the films that don’t feature Hollywood actors and directors not as prominent in popular culture? These four films all have similar storylines and the strong theme of Indigenous societal issues. But why does such an important part of North American history not receive a wider audience base and bigger recognition?

The Context for the Importance of Indigenous Film in Popular Culture

With events such as the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement, Indigenous land/water/cultural recognition and the Truth and Reconciliation report, this fast-paced trend of Indigenous storytelling in film is at its peak. There have been countless movies released telling Indigenous stories, but for the last five years, there has been a huge wave of Indigenously made films, as well as films depicting the lives of Indigenous peoples.

Indigenous journalist Duncan McCue for CBC sat down with some of Canada’s leading Indigenous film directors for an interview in June of 2018. He interviewed director Lisa Jackson, producer/director Alethea Arnaquq-Baril and director Jesse Wente to discuss this wave of Indigenous films. They discussed the indigenous influence on their films, barriers they face, the importance of narrative sovereignty and human connections within films.

McCue asked Lisa Jackson about the importance of an authentic indigenous narrative in film culture. She referred to the opportunity to create films that have, “more complex representations of our culture, more complex representations of the journey that we’re on as a Canada moving towards a reconciled future”.

McCue also asked the film directors about the fact that Indigenous films are often expected to make political statements and not just entertainment. Director Jesse Wente explains, “There are real pressing issues in our communities that require that Canada sees us as human if they’re ever going to be addressed. Art is one pathway to create those human connections … Maybe that can contribute to solving those long-term — and finding a new Canada that tells different stories about itself and the people that live here.”

These three directors all come to a similar conclusion in this 2018 interview. That these films are an important step to breaking down cultural barriers between Indigenous people and the rest of Canada, offering a learning experience for the non-Indigenous population.

Indigenous films are on the right path toward aiding in a reconciled relationship between these two populations of Canada and it appears that it will only be a matter of time before people realize the importance and value in such films and areas of popular culture.

How is Canada Helping Indigenous Film?

An article featured in The Walrus from July 2018 titled How Indigenous Filmmakers are changing Contemporary Cinema, written by former editor Alexander Tesar discusses these changing perspectives about Canada’s history and the value of Indigenous voices and stories in film culture. Tesar refers to Indigenous filmmakers as a group that is set to grow even more with the support of Canada’s role in supporting Indigenous films.

The Canadian government has begun to make Indigenous films a priority and created the Indigenous Screen Office in the summer of 2017, which Jesse Wente is the director of. Alexander Tesar’s article explains that the Screen Office is “a collaboration between multiple agencies and partners, including APTN, the NFB, Telefilm Canada, and Vice Studio Canada, that is meant to develop Indigenous screen-based content.” This Office addresses the absence of Indigenous voices and stories in film.

The article explains that the Canadian film narrative has focused on settler culture while often romanticizing Indigenous cultures and stories. Jesse Wente goes on to explain that the history of Indigenous portrayal in films has “emphasized the mythical pre-contact practices of a people who had largely modernized.” Moreover, those narrative styles have heavily influenced film audiences and Indigenous communities. Tesar goes on to explain that this influence affects how indigenous people see themselves and how non-indigenous people see and understand them.

A beneficial addition to this article in The Walrus is that Alexander Tesar not only discusses Canadian Indigenous people but also the Indigenous people of Australia and New Zealand. He explains that the Indigenous film culture in Australia and New Zealand has had a lot of support from funding agencies and films have been able to overcome financial barriers. Something that Canada was lacking before the introduction of the Indigenous Screen Office.

Therefore, Canadian Indigenous film culture is receiving more support from agencies, filmmakers, and the government to overcome obstacles and barriers to tell Indigenous stories. There is still the question of why these films are not more prominent in popular culture.

Nonetheless, Canadian film culture is on the right path toward ensuring that Indigenous film cultures are supported and made more available to audiences and filmmakers. An article out of Vogue discusses the Indigenous film and media festival, ImagineNative. The festival takes place every October in Toronto, Canada. The author, Christian Allaire refers to the festival as the native version of the Toronto International Film Festival.

The festival is an important step in making Indigenous films more readily available to popular culture and film audiences. The festival only accepts works made by Indigenous artists but allows Indigenous creators to create and submit projects that cover any type of material such as films, web series, and artwork.

The festival director Jason Ryle hopes that ImagineNative will challenge the stereotypes of Indigenous films and encourage filmmakers to submit their stories, to share their voices and to break through the idea that Indigenous film is only a genre and a world full of diverse stories.

Counterargument: Neil Postman’s Concept of Disinformation

It is extremely important that Indigenous film culture breaks through stereotypes, financial barriers and gain a more prominent place in popular culture. Not only do these types of movies tell Indigenous stories, but they also tell Canada’s history.

Nonetheless, a counterargument to Indigenous films becoming more prominent in popular culture could be that there is too much emotion in these narratives. That these types of media display the horrors and challenges too accurately. There could also be an argument made that Indigenous films are already prominent enough. However, the topic of this paper is: Why does such an important part of North American history displayed in a film not receive a wider audience base and bigger recognition?

Neil Postman would argue that because of the medium of these stories, they are offering disinformation about Indigenous stories. The fact that these stories are being told through movies and as a form of entertainment, the information they are providing may be “misleading… information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads away from knowing” (Postman 2005, 107). To some extent yes, a film can only show so much about Indigenous people’s lives. And these films deal with the heavier and darker issues such as abuse, addictions, suicide, murder and other hard-to-watch-topics.

That can be true. The movies have very emotional endings or harrowing scenes throughout the film. The Grizzlies show three suicides throughout the film. Indian Horse shows the dark relationship between Saul Indian Horse and the residential school employees. Rhymes for Young Ghouls deals with the main character losing her mother to suicide, her father to prison and her uncle to alcoholism. Wind River deals with the homicide of a young Indigenous girl.

These drama films could make meek audience members uncomfortable or weary to watch. They are difficult to view; however, they are a necessary part of telling Canada’s history and Indigenous people’s stories. They show the reality of the contemporary lives and challenges people face after a rough past.

Concluding Remarks: “Art gets people to care” -Alain de Botton

The rebuttal to this counter-argument would fall around the lines of what Alain de Botton argued: that the media and the news only offer one reality among so many different versions. Indigenous films, particularly the four discussed, take advantage of the artful techniques in filmmaking to show different realities about their histories, customs, and traditions.

The way de Botton discusses the need to have more artistic writing and photography in the news to renew interest in foreign places has been done by Indigenous filmmakers. They offer an inside and accredited view into the world of the Indigenous population of Canada. They offer their own realities and let them influence the authenticity of the film.

Film director Jesse Wente reiterates that artful techniques open pathways to human connections in the CBC interview with Duncan McCue. Artistic approaches to storytelling, whether that be in the news or film, enhances the connection people have to the characters and settings and plot. Artistic storytelling also aids in what director Lisa Jackson referred to when she spoke about the importance of “more complex representations of our culture…”. An excellent example is revealed within the four films discussed. Although The Grizzlies, Indian Horse, Rhymes for Young Ghouls and Wind River all deal with heavy topics, they offer a beautiful view of the traditions and language use and community ties that have evolved and survived.

There is a character in the film The Grizzlies who is kept out of school by his grandparents so that he can learn their traditions, language and help his family hunt seals and fish. His grandparents speak only Inuktitut and maintain an impeccably traditional Innuit lifestyle, they are even hesitant to let him join the school’s lacrosse team. Indian Horse starts when Saul is a young boy with his family as they canoe to their traditional hunting lands to escape the Indian officers who want to take Saul into residential schools. The opening scene sheds light on the precious relationship between Saul and his grandmother who speaks only Ojibwe to him. The end also shows Saul coming to terms with his past in a traditional way.

Rhymes for Young Ghouls shows another grandmother and granddaughter moment between the main character Aila and an older woman. The film also features a scene that shows the importance of storytelling and passing down lessons through stories. Wind River shows the traditional healing process that the Indigenous parents go through when they begin to accept what happened to their daughter.

Ultimately, the arguments made by Alain de Botton about a more artistic approach to World News can apply to other mediums. As de Botton cites George Eliot, art extends sympathies and amplifies experiences. Films, much like the news, can “facilitate imaginative contact, practical assistance and mutual understanding between us and other populations” (de Botton 2005, 86). An indigenous film can help viewers understand what it is like to be an Indigenous person in Canada today.

They can also assist in understanding what needs to be done for total reconciliation and complete reconnection between non-Indigenous and Indigenous people. Another important argument made by de Botton concerning the news can also apply to storytelling in films: “art is a therapeutic medium that helps guide, exhort and console its audiences, assisting them in evolving into better versions of themselves” (de Botton 2005, 236). Artistic techniques will not only help Indigenous people heal and begin to better understand themselves, but it will aid in the path toward resolution. Indigenous films do not tell only one reality that only impacts one group of people, it is also telling the story and history of all of Canada and should be held with higher prestige within popular and film culture.

Peace & Love

By Cheyanna Dyck

My name is Cheyanna Lorraine and I am an Indigenous journalism student.

I love to write, cook, paint and everything thing about summer! Join me on my chaotic and beautiful adventure of navigating through life.

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