Redefining Indigenous cinema

Oftentimes, with Indigenous stories on screen, there is the burden of sliding in decades of context into a film. The effects of colonialism to current day systemic racism, and everything in-between, often seeps into films created and written by us. Indigenous filmmakers have to consider who their audience is – someone who inherently knows this history, or someone brand new, which shifts the approach. Must they explain XYZ in an organic way or will it drag out the story they came to tell?

All of these considerations make experimental storytelling like Rhayne Vermette’s Ste. Anne so thrilling. Indigenous storytelling often doesn’t have the space to breathe, wrestling with exposition or just exhausted from attempting to wrest our storytelling back from non-Indigenous hands.

In Vermette’s Ste. Anne, we have a premise – the return of Renée to her hometown of Ste. Anne, Manitoba after a four-year absence – but the land features more lovingly and clearly in the 80 minutes than Renée and her family. Dialogue – both improvised and scripted - is secondary to 16 mm shots of rippling water, tall swaying grasses, and a rich soundscape. It’s an impressionistic movie about a Métis family and their connections to the place. Ste. Anne isn’t uninviting, but it doesn’t want to give audiences the whole story. It wants to let you peek into the world of the aunties sharing stories around the kitchen table, their conversation wafting out to you in a nearby room.

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Also screening at imagineNATIVE was Faces, Displays and Other Imaginary Things, from Klamath, Modoc and Cherokee artist Woodrow Hunt. The short film takes viewers on a deceptively idyllic drive through the country, before it's jarringly disrupted by overlaid text outlining what the Civilian Conservation Corps was – a federal program that U.S. President Roosevelt set up that brought many Indigenous people into temporary camps to build dams, roads, truck and pack trails.

Hunt brings in a mini-screen within the frame, to show black-and-white archival footage from the U.S Department of the Interior of various Indigenous men feeding livestock and at work on a farm. Then the film remixes the last line of the newsreel audio, “rebuilding and developing lands” as the screen turns red. It is darkly comic, as the bouncy triumphant music overlaps the news reporter talking about how beneficial this program was to Indigenous peoples’ lives before shifting to a prolonged shot of flowing water shooting out of a dam that transitions back to current day.

Experimental Indigenous-films bring something evocative and new to the film space. And film festival jurors have taken notice. Ste Anne won the $10,000 Amplify Voices Award for Best Canadian Feature Film at TIFF, before arriving at imagineNATIVE. The Innovation in Storytelling Award at the imagineNATIVE festival recognized Greenland filmmaker Pilutaq Lundblad’s Puisi. The two-minute experimental short goes from the macro – overhead shots of icy land and a black body of water – to the micro, with a hunter on a boat staring down the scope of a rifle. It has bloody, colourful, jump cuts from the land and water, to the hunter, to the animal, to the plate.

Filmmaker Alexandra Lazarowich (Fast Horse) co-founded COUSIN in 2018, alongside Sky Hopinka, Adam Khalil and Adam Piron, to support Indigenous artists experimenting with form and genre.

“Our mission was to fund projects that maybe wouldn't get the opportunity to be funded, whether it was in the United States or in Canada, because it was too experimental, out of the lines of what organizations are looking for,” she says. 

One of those films that the non-profit has funded is Ste. Anne.

“[Rhayne] is really drawing outside of the lines of what Indigenous film is … [she’s] created something that's so unique and a story in a voice that really hasn't been shared with a wider audience.”

Lazarowich also applauds Vermette for tapping into the Native community and the film community that is in Winnipeg, Manitoba, which she says is huge, varied and talented.

She feels like Vermette is creating a legacy of films that aren’t the typical Indigenous stories that audiences are expecting.

“[Ste. Anne] sort of moves forward into this creative space of unique storytelling that I think for a long time has been a three-act structure, or a historical piece about native people,” she says. “It's figuring out what Native futurism looks like, which is a really interesting space to explore, like Night Raiders.  There’s some really exciting projects coming out in the next two years that will totally expand the idea of how Native people, including myself, see ourselves, and the ways that we tell stories, which is often circular and doesn't fit into a three-act structure.”

Kelly Boutsalis
Kelly Boutsalis is a Mohawk journalist from the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve. Now living in Toronto, she devotes the bulk of her work to highlighting Indigenous stories. Her words have appeared in The New York Times, The Walrus, The Narwhal and more.
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