Tag Archives: ImagineNative Film Fest

Angelique’s Isle

Sault Saint Marie, 1845: a trading post. A beautiful young Ojibway woman named Angelique (Julia Jones) marries a French-Canadian voyageur named Charlie (Charlie Carrick). The newlyweds sign up to work at a camp during the copper rush and set sail for Lake Superior’s Isle Royale in search of a more prosperous future. Fortunately or unfortunately, they’re a little too successful. They find a whole boulder’s worth of copper, only it’s too big to take back on their little barge. The company men leave Angelique and Charlie behind to ‘guard’ their find. Two weeks, they’re told, though Angelique is reluctant – that boulder has sacred carvings on it, and she knows it shouldn’t be removed.

Alone on the island, Angelique is haunted by nightmares of residential school and her life before. She and Charlie tough it out with minimal food and dwindling hope, but as you might have guessed, those Detroit folk were not exactly honourable. Weeks turn into months. The no longer wait for a boat, they wait to die – of starvation or cold is the only question.

As she waits for death to claim her, surrounded by the undeniable beauty but also savagery of the land, she is visited by the spirits of her ancestors and her inner demons. Angelique isn’t the only one to be visited. It’s going to be a long winter for everyone involved.

Directors Marie-Hélène Cousineau and Michelle Derosier obviously have a feel for and a respect for the land. A Canadian winter can take your breath away both literally and figuratively. As this particular winter drags on (and all Canadian winters feel about 16 months too long), Angelique will have to rely on traditional ways to ensure her survival, and her spirituality to guide her. Cousineau and Derosier have chosen well with Jones as their heroine; Angelique is strong and fierce. She is worthy of our attention.

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Marks of Mana

According to Samoan legend, two goddesses intended to give tattoos, traditionally called “tatau”, to the Samoan women, but on their long swim to Samoa from Fiji the goddesses got confused and gave tattoos to men instead.  Marks of Mana offers a look at a number of women who are now reclaiming the art of tatau for themselves as well as for the memories of their ancestors, and reporting these tattooing ceremonies as being a life-changing experience.marks of mana

This documentary begins in Samoa, naturally, as we meet a female chief and her family of seven (grown) children.  One of her five daughters is about to get her malu, which is a thigh tattoo only for women that is both a coming-of-age moment and a ceremonial recognition and affirmation of a woman’s connection to her ancestry.  Meeting this family emphasizes the historical standing of women to Samoa’s indigenous people, as equals and leaders rather than as less than men.  Similar longstanding “progressive” attitudes are on display at other South Pacific locations as well, such as Papua New Guinea, as it’s a consistent theme that women’s tattoos signify their knowledge and power within their societies.

Of course, the power that women traditionally possessed in those societies was suppressed, stymied and rejected by the island’s colonizers, who saw no problem with imposing their backwards, misogynistic cultures on the Samoans.  The absurdity of that transaction and the colonizers’ arrogance in forcing their values on the Samoans and others is subtly displayed by this film in each of its segments, and nicely displaces the false narrative that colonizers were welcomed by the colonized because they improved the colonized societies with their intrusion.

The version of Marks of Mana shown to me was unfinished (the main omissions were subtitles and one segment out of five).  Having seen the work in progress, I am eager to see the finished product because what has been created so far is a valuable, enlightening and uplifting look at the ceremonial aspect of Polynesian tattoos and the healing power of reclaiming one’s cultural traditions.

Marks of Mana is screening as part of Toronto’s ImagineNATIVE Film & Media Arts Festival on October 19, 2018 at 11 a.m. at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

After The Apology

The stolen generations. That’s what they call the many, many Aboriginal children who were taken out of their homes and put into care outside their families and community. Ten years ago, the government issued an apology for its past transgressions and Aboriginal peoples were gratified for the acknowledgement of their pain and suffering but it didn’t take long to recognize the apology as a hollow one. ‘Sorry’ means you don’t do it again.  But they did. In fact, in the following years, the number of Aboriginal kids apprehended by the system nearly doubled. And even though their own policies in the care and protection act supposedly prevent this, Aboriginal children are 10 times more like than non-Aboriginals to be taken away from their parents, and 70% are removed entirely from their communities.

When I read the movie’s synopsis, I assumed this film was Canadian. It is not. It is Australian. But their story is our story. We have these issues here too.

MV5BM2YyY2EwNTgtNjg2YS00NDk1LWFhZDctYmQ5MWVlMTg0MzVhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTAxNTY0MjI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1509,1000_AL_Aboriginal people have been through a lot, historically, and still. Snatching children from out of their homes is among the most destructive of them. It breaks down their culture, their language, their family ties. It robs them of identity.

In most cases of family and children services, children are removed because of domestic violence, mental illness, and drug/alcohol abuse. It’s hard to argue against those judgments, though individual situations vary. In the case of Aboriginal children, the reason most often cited is ‘neglect’ and that’s a harder one to address. Often this label of neglect is assessed by middle-class white ladies who don’t understand the culture or can’t see beyond the poverty. The cupboards aren’t well stocked but the children are not hungry. There may not be a crib in the house, but the baby is loved and cared for according to the family’s values. The system  is racist. Plain and simple. Its many inadequacies are illustrated (sometimes literally) by the stories in this documentary.

Director Larissa Behrendt focuses on four grandmothers in particular who are taking on the system on behalf of their communities. It’s a brilliant approach that personalizes the cause and leaves us with a bit of hope. It’s a look toward the future, but one informed by the mistakes of the past, which we cannot afford to ignore. This documentary insures we do not.

 

 

 

Kayak to Klemtu

Teenagers. They think they know it all, don’t they? They have this unbearable self-righteousness. They can take a motorboat to testify about the dangers posed by oil tankers and not feel a little hypocritical, not even a bit.  The big picture is missed. Kayak to Klemtu, Zoe Hopkins’ first feature, finds itself in the same quandary.  Various problems arise, the characters deal with them as they come, and then the scene shifts to the next problem, without ever engaging with anything of significance.

I wished throughout that I got to know the characters. Too often, characters would appear solely to serve the plot or provide a moral question of some sort, and then disappear once they had set up that segment of the film.  Discussions that would seem to be important often didn’t end up happening, whether it was the reason why the teenagers’ parents left Klemtu in favour of Vancouver, or why a mother and son never asked each other how they felt during their husband/father’s battle with cancer.

Those missing details pile quite high by the end of the film. By focusing so heavily on a crusade for environmental protection, Kayak to Klemtu misses the bigger picture. Paradoxically, the “bigger picture” here was one small family in mourning, looking for ways to cope with the loss of a loved one. Their journey takes a back seat to the film’s anti-pipeline, pro-conservation message, and it should have been the other way around.

With so many beautiful shots of the northern British Columbia coastline to be found in Kayak to Klemtu, the conservation message would not have been lost if the characters had been driving the film instead.   If anything, the message would have been more impactful, as the onscreen journey through B.C.’s coastal waters argues more effectively in favour of conservation than a monologue ever could.

Mankiller

Wilma Mankiller: you may not know her name, but you should.  She was the first woman elected Chief of the Cherokee nation but her story is more complex than any list of her achievements would imply.

Born to a Cherokee father and European mother, she was raised with  sense of her culture but was influenced by a lot of things. She married young but continued her studies, and upon leaving her husband (with 2 small children in tow), Mankiller underwent a cultural and political awakening that led her down the path that would cast her as a role model and inspiration to her people, and to women. But she started out in an entry level position, only wanting to “help her people.”

Mankiller-DocumentaryThis documentary is not particularly imaginative when it comes to film making; it is straight forward, with few tricks up its sleeves. But Mankiller is a compelling subject, and a documentary shedding light on her story is important when it is omitted from so many history books. When Mankiller was first elected chief in 1985, it was to a male-dominant political structure that she broke into with patience and tact. She persevered, secure in the knowledge that the traditional Cherokee way was a more gender-balanced approach. She overcame a lot of obstacles in order to improve the lives of her people, and many believed her work with the federal government might have led to a national political career had her own health not stood in the way.

Mankiller has a legacy worth notice. If the story-telling by director Valerie Red-Horse Mohl is a little bland, Mankiller’s message of empowerment and equality still resonates.

A film like this can be difficult to get off the ground, and a Kickstarter campaign was necessary to secure the least bit of funding. Luckily, the “First Lady of Sci-Fi” Gale Anne Hurd was on board as a producer. Her career was launched when she produced and co-wrote The Terminator but followed up with Aliens, The Abyss, Armageddon, The Incredible Hulk, Dick, and more. Today she’s the executive producer of The Walking Dead, which means she had lots of famous friends to call upon for lucrative Kickstarter rewards. Creator Robert Kirkman signed comic books; composer Bear McCreary contributed copies of the score; the costumer Eulyn Womble designed special tshirts; Norman Reedus volunteered a custom voicemail message; Hershel himself, Scott Wilson, offered up a spaghetti dinner; showrunner Scott Gimple signed scripts. I think it’s really special when people come together to back a project like this. And I think it’s a credit to Mankiller’s memory that this documentary came together under the supervision of two strong and capable women. You can see this film when it screens at the ImagiNative film festival, Saturday October 21st at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Shorts: ImagineNative Film Festival

God’s Acre

You hear the squelching of his boots before you register much else. An older godsacre_02Aboriginal man is paying his respects at a rustic grave. The mud takes hold of his boots, lets go only reluctantly. He plods back to his humble shack, and sets to work counting stores. His traps are empty. Nothing grows. A way of life very likely already threatened is now near extinction with floods inching ever closer.

Two Mounties shows up to serve him a final evacuation notice; he’s the last hold out. “Even the animals knew enough to get out of here,” they tell him, and though he knows this to be true, he is unable to leave. With less than 15 minutes running time, we can only guess at this man’s bond to the land, why it means so much to him, why he feels so tied to his home that he puts himself in peril just to stay. Likewise we can only guess at what life in the city would be like for him, a man who still finds dinner in a trap he laid in woods he knows like the back of his hand; a man who signs his name with an X.

With very little dialogue, Lorne Cardinal masters the character and gives him dignity as he wrestles with a life-changing decision, with only hinted-at spiritual repercussions. First-time director Kelton Stepanowich shot God’s Acre in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, and manages some striking imagery within his limited budget. The sound mixing is perhaps not what it should be but this is clearly a film maker with something to say about Aboriginal identity, and his is one of many voices that needs to be heard.

Dig It If You Can

This film by Kyle Bell serves as an introductory piece to Native American artist, Steven Paul Judd. Judd is a mostly self-taught man, whether it be film, Photoshop, even writing for television. The need to create drives him but his Native (Kiowa-Choctaw) ancestry is what inspires him.

spj3Growing up on a reservation, Judd had limited exposure to outside influences like film and television, and what little he did see never reflected his own image. Today he creates the kind of images that would have comforted his younger self in a style blending pop culture and Native art that’s all his own. Banksy-esque, even Warhol-esque, his art is at once familiar and thought-provoking. His bold, “indigenized” pieces, overtly or covertly political, give people pause. But more than that, they offer his people representation, a chance to see their own culture and identity as a direct influence on the popular culture of today.

Director Kyle Bell (himself Thlopthlocco/Creek) takes a cool approach to the film’s subject, never quite achieving intimacy, unafraid to use up 2 of the film’s economic 20 minutes keeping Judd at a remove. But he accomplishes what he sets out to do: he gives voice to a subversive Indian artist, and thus gives voice to an entire people.

7 Minutes

Marie’s walk home from her campus library is almost exactly 7 minutes. After being aggressively harassed one night, she can no longer help noticing just how vulnerable a young Native woman in Saskatoon can be. Her experience of reporting the incident, to the seemingly uninterested local police, only makes her feel less safe.

7 Minutes, the 7-minute documentary short from Tasha Hubbard, recreates 7min.pngMarie’s experience through a re-enactment narrated using Marie’s own words.

I’m not always a fan of re-enactments in documentaries. Like most people, for example, I was captivated by 2008’s Oscar-winner Man on Wire, but could have done without the fake footage. The recreation of Marie’s walk home, however, serves 7 Minutes quite nicely. First, it spares its subject, who is already brave enough to tell her story, from having to appear onscreen. Second, it is artfully shot, edited and, though I would have rather they tone down the spooky music, does an excellent job building tension. Lastly, it gives us the chance to imagine what it must have been like for her on that very scary night.

As a film, 7 Minutes turns out not to be long enough; Hubbard is very effective at covering the night in question in great and harrowing detail. Marie’s summary in the film’s final minutes about her experience with the police and her conclusions about violence towards First Nations women feel rushed. As a result the film feels like a short segment of an important and thought-provoking feature-length documentary.

Mannahatta

Films like Mannahatta are always tough to watch as a white male. They serve as a reminder that what’s mine has come at someone else’s expense. Manhattan is the classic example of that, a chunk of land “bought” for nothing where the tiniest square of land is now worth millions of dollars, from high-end department stores to small neighbourhood pizzerias.

mannahatta_fb6a8815_movMannahatta focuses on one of those Manhattan pizzerias. The film maintains a tight focus in order to convey its message, and that is a wise choice. Mannahatta is a small story of a new employee at the pizzeria who is haunted by a man that no one else sees. At first he is confused and annoyed by this ghost but eventually he listens to and understands him. It’s a cooperative awakening and we see that a joint effort is required to truly bury the horrors of the past.

The biggest problems are best dealt with by breaking them down into smaller, manageable bits. Mannahatta takes that approach and it succeeds in its endeavour. It is thought-provoking without being preachy, and its message is both obvious and worthy of repetition. We are all in this together, and while we cannot change the past, we can move forward together if we are guided by compassion and empathy. One step at a time.

 

 

Check out Cinema Axis for more coverage from the ImagineNative film festival.

 

 

Born To Dance

The ImagineNative Film Festival celebrates Canadian and international Indigenous filmmakers and artistic expressions. Tammy Davis is the film maker in question today. Of Maori descent, he identifies with Ngati Rangi and Atihaunui a Paparangi. The Maoris are the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand. They have a rich mythology, a knack for horticulture, a strong sense of warrior culture, and yes, a generous history with the performing arts.

Fitting then that Davis makes his feature-length directorial debut with Born 12620_00_wide_key_jpgTo Dance. The premise of Born To Dance is an overfamiliar coming of age tale. Tu is a young man born to dance. His disapproving father forbids it. Tu is perhaps a couple of years older than we’re used to in this role because instead of being threatened with military school, he’s threatened with the military, full stop. If Tu doesn’t get his act together during the summer post-high school graduation, the army awaits him. It occurs to me as I write this that Born To Dance might be Queen of Katwe in disguise, only replace the chess with hip hop, and the slums of Uganda for low-income housing in Auckland.

Where Born To Dance distinguishes itself, much like Queen of Katwe, is with its culture and setting. Tu is notably from the “wrong side of the tracks”, whether or not there are actual tracks in southern Auckland. Tu is played by first-time actor\championship dancer Tia-Taharoa Maipi, himself a young Maori man who danced his way out of a small town not unlike the character arc we see in the film. He helps give the film a flavour of authenticity. Compared to a well-off rival dance crew from the North Shore, Tu explains that “Dance is what they do; dance is who we are.”

In the expected dance-off at the end, where the two rival crews inevitably face 1233100_born-to-danceoff, director Davis gives the performers time and space to really show off their talent. This is a dance movie after all, and the moves are there to prove it. Choreographed by the legendary Parris Goebel, Born To Dance is the real deal. The movie’s smaller budget means there aren’t a lot of wires or camera tricks at play, just real dancers doing their thing. P-Money provides a stellar soundtrack with tracks that embody kiwi culture.

Like most of you, I’m familiar with New Zealand film because of Taika Waititi’s insane comedies, and the fringey-funny horrors the country is known for. Born to Dance presents another side of what New Zealand has to offer, and I’d like to see more like it, only next time without the insufferably clichéd bits. Just sayin.

 

 

This post first appeared at Cinema Axis.