At this year’s ImagineNATIVE Film & Media Arts Festival, I had the privilege of having a film I directed screened in Toronto. The event ran from Oct. 19-23, and showed part of the Fresh Takes program, which showcased works from new filmmakers like my film, Indian Giver.
Indigenous films screened everyday at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. There were workshops for writers, directors and producers and plenty of opportunities for networking.
For a prairie boy who’s never been past Saskatoon, the festival was an eye-opening experience. To be surrounded by Indigenous content made by Indigenous filmmakers made me feel like I was in some sort of Indigenous Hollywood.
Why Indigenous Hollywood matters
Indigenous people have been featured in films since the dawn of cinema. Some of Thomas Edison’s early work featured Pueblo people performing a ceremonial dance.
But because Indigenous people have no say in how they’re portrayed, many problems have come to the surface as a result. A few of these are:
- Indigenous stories told from a “white gaze”.
- Historically, most films were westerns that kept Indigenous people in time capsules, reinforcing negative stereotypes.
- Indigenous people in films were rarely cast as leads, let alone directors.
- Indigenous people were largely portrayed as prairie people, effectively blinding viewers to their distinct ethnic group.
For a thorough analysis of how Indigenous people have been portrayed in film, see this academic article on the issue.
Tools and technology opening up the space
With the advent of the internet and other technology, Indigenous people are taking control of their stories, coordinating, gathering and collaborating like never before. And at ImagineNATIVE, this is one such place where these creative minds can meld.
I saw transcendence awakened in the atmosphere, coming from the various Indigenous languages, cultures and methods of storytelling converging together.
The Indigenous storytellers at the festival came from every corner of North America. There were Anishinaabe, Cree, Ojibway, Mohawk, Metis, Navajo, Yaqui and three lone Blackfoots (myself, my girlfriend and Cowboy Smithx).
There were also many international Indigenous films from the Sami, Maori and Inuk.
The Inuk of Greenland even had their very own feature program of films that ran daily.
To help capture memories of this phenomenal gathering, I caught up with three movers and shakers in Indigenous Hollywood: a comedian podcaster, an award-winning documentarian and a former child star.
Ryan McMahon is somewhat of an Indigenous renaissance man. He writes for the Globe and Mail, VICE, CBC, and APTN among others. On top of that, he’s a comedian who’s had CBC comedy specials.
When he’s not writing or doing comedy, McMahon is podcasting for the Red Man Laughing show or launching new enterprises like the Makoons Media Group, a digital media platform created to share Indigenous stories worldwide.
McMahon sees unique opportunities when it comes to sharing Indigenous stories.
“For so long, it’s been cowboys and Indians, and the Indians always died. Hollywood has been built on dead Indian bodies,” says McMahon. “Now [that] we have these media tools, we have to make sure we aren’t perpetuating that dead Indian myth.”
According to McMahon there is humanity in dramatic films that show the plight of Indigenous people’s realities including alcoholism, drug dependency or gang violence. However, he believes these still perpetuate the idea that “all Indians die.”
“I want these media tools to raise our youth and community up to empower, to dream and reimagine life. So we could make space for ourselves to go in that direction. We have to see ourselves as valued, loved and cherished because we are.”
McMahon sees this happening when Indigenous people use their intuitive spirit to share their stories.
“We have a responsibility to live through spirit and speak through spirit. We are a spiritual culture and that’s what informs the stories we tell.”
McMahon believes ImagineNATIVE is crucial to that conversation because the films shown at the festival are spirited stories.
Alex Lazarowich is a director and producer. Originally from northern Alberta, her heritage is a mix of Cree and Ukrainian. Lazarowich’s film, Cree Code Talker, won best short documentary at ImagineNATIVE.
Getting her start in the industry at the young age of 13, Lazarowich has witnessed the industry transform when it comes to conversations around diversity.
“What Indigenous identity means in Canada has changed so quickly and so fast, and it’s amazing,” says Lazarowich. “Now we could have stories about Indigenous people in modern day society. The films don’t have to be about us battling cowboys in the 1800s.”
Lazarowich sees this shift in diversity impacting many Indigenous youth.
“Our youth can see us in modern society because the biggest shame of colonization and the way history is taught is that natives aren’t allowed to live in modern times and always relegated to the past. That’s a lie.”
Like McMahon, Lazarowich says Indigenous people need to be in charge of how they are portrayed in films.
Originally from Maskwacis First Nation but raised in Los Angeles, 30-year-old Cody Lightning has over 25 years of experience in the film industry.
You might recognize the former childhood star from the iconic Indigenous film Smoke Signals, where he played the rebellious and troubled Little Victor.
Telling contemporary Indigenous stories is a priority for Lightning, but he also thinks Indigenous stories from the past should be respected — a lesson he learned from his elders.
“An elder once said ‘when I teach you something, I want you to put your own spin on it and share it with your children,’ and our stories evolve in that way.”
Through filmmaking and media, Lightning says Indigenous people have the power to do that in a more effective way.
“It’s important to use the tools we have in this day and age.”
A personal reflection
This is a crucial time to be an Indigenous filmmaker or storyteller. With ever-evolving technologies, filmmaking and media are more accessible than they’ve ever been.
“I want these media tools to raise our youth and community up to empower, to dream and reimagine life." -Ryan McMahon
It’s also a critical time. Our traditional knowledge holders who lived through true oral traditions are now our aging grandparents and it’s their grandchildren that are responsible for the convergence of Indigenous oral traditions and modern day storytelling, and one way to preserve their history is through these modern media tools.
It’s a huge responsibility, but one I embrace everyday with every story told.
Previous generations of storytellers, politicians and knowledge keepers have fought to open doors. It’s up to our generation to step through.
- By Trevor Solway