Resilience on Screen – Contributions of First Nations, Inuit and Métis filmmakers

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In Canada, June 21 is National Indigenous Peoples Day. Across the country, communities hold events to celebrate Indigenous cultures and contributions. This HillNote showcases the work of First Nations, Inuit and Métis filmmakers and their initiatives to create Indigenous production companies, festivals and distribution networks.

Indigenous People and the Film Industry

Indigenous stories are passed down orally between generations and are linked to languages, cultures, and the land. Canadian policies – such as residential schools – that aimed to assimilate Indigenous people, and suppress their cultures and languages, affected Indigenous cultural expression.

Non-Indigenous filmmakers depicted harmful stereotypes and misrepresented Indigenous stories on screen. Hollywood westerns negatively depicted Native American characters who were sometimes played by Indigenous people. Films such as Pocahontas “dehumanized,” “hypersexualized,” and denied agency to Indigenous women and girls. These films shaped Canadian perceptions of Indigenous people and contributed to misunderstanding and discrimination.

Today, First Nations, Inuit and Métis filmmakers are highlighting the strength and resilience of their communities on their own terms. Indigenous films share critical perspectives, cultures and languages with the world while challenging stereotypes.

Contributions of Indigenous Filmmakers

In the 1960s, the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) funded the creation of Indigenous films by establishing a First Nations film crew and producing their films. Mi’kmaw filmmaker and folk singer Willie Dunn directed The Ballad of Crowfoot (1968), the first film released by the crew. The film is often referred to as Canada’s first music video. These are my people (1969), a film about the history of Indigenous-settler relations, was the first made entirely by a First Nations crew.

Image of Chief Crowfoot from the film The Ballad of Crowfoot

Image of Chief Crowfoot from the film The Ballad of Crowfoot. Source: National Film Board of Canada, Willie Dunn, The Ballad of Crowfoot.

First Nations, Inuit and Métis filmmakers made award-winning documentaries, feature films and short films exploring issues important to their communities:

Poster - Kanehsatake: 270 Years of ResistanceSource: National Film Board of Canada, Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance.

  • Finding Dawn (2006) is a documentary by Métis filmmaker Christine Welsh about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. It looks at the stories of three of these women (Ramona Wilson, Daleen Bosse and Dawn Cray) through interviews with family and friends.

An image from the documentary Finding Dawn

An image from the documentary Finding Dawn. Source: National Film Board of Canada, Christine Welsh.

  • Angry Inuk (2016) is a documentary by Inuk filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril about the economic and social impacts of the European Union’s ban on seal hunting for Inuit communities.

Poster - Angry Inuk

Source: National Film Board of Canada, Angry Inuk.

  • Fire Song (2015) is a feature film by two-spirit Cree/Métis/Danish filmmaker Adam Garnet Jones. It follows a two-spirit Anishinaabe teenager who, following the suicide of his sister, puts a move to the city on hold to take care of his family.

An image from Fire Song

An image from Fire Song. Source: Adam Garnet Jones, Fire Song.

Films featuring First Nations, Inuit and Métis languages and cultures:

Image from Atanarjuat the Fast Runner

Image from Atanarjuat the Fast Runner. Source: National Film Board of Canada, Atanarjuat the Fast Runner.

An image from Sgaawaay K'uuna (Edge of the Knife)

An image from Sgaawaay K’uuna (Edge of the Knife). Source: Isuma, Sgaawaay K’uuna (Edge of the Knife).

An image from Sgaawaay K'uuna (Edge of the Knife)

An image from Sgaawaay K’uuna (Edge of the Knife). Source: Isuma, Sgaawaay K’uuna (Edge of the Knife).

Indigenous filmmakers have expressed their creativity across many different genres, including horror films, to explore colonialism and the history of Indigenous-settler relations in Canada:

Indigenous filmmakers have used animation to share stories:

  • The Lodge (2014) is a stop-frame animated film by Métis filmmaker Terril Calder set in the Canadian wild. War bride Pearl Simpson wants to become Queen of the animals that live in her world but the Manitous have something else in mind.
  • Ukaliq and Kalla Go Fishing (2017) is an animated short film by Inuk director Nadia Mike about Ukaliq the Arctic hare and Kalla the lemming. On an ice-fishing trip, Kalla shares his knowledge with Ukaliq, who is unprepared for the hunt.

Indigenous Distribution, Production Companies and Festivals

Given the private sector’s goal of commercial success, funding often focusses on commercial release. This model does not consider other forms of distribution important to Indigenous filmmakers such as community screenings. To showcase their films, Indigenous people have created their own forms of distribution, production companies and festivals. They also developed protocols for working with Indigenous cultures, content and stories.

Indigenous-specific broadcasters, such as the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network and the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation feature First Nations, Inuit and Métis content.

Igloolik’s Isuma Productions was created in 1990 as the first independent Inuit production company. It produces community-based media, and also created IsumaTV, a multimedia platform showcasing Indigenous film from around the world.

Arnait Video Productions produces films by Inuit women. Indigenous-owned television and film production company Rezolution Pictures International has produced films such as Reel Injun, a documentary about the history of the depiction of First Nations in Hollywood films. Wookey films is a Franco-Métis production company that works on documentaries, and television series.

Indigenous peoples also run their own festivals, such as the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival, which is the world’s largest Indigenous film festival.

Supporting the Next Generation of Indigenous Filmmakers

Digital storytelling provides space for Indigenous youth to heal and share their stories and experiences. Wapikoni Mobile is a mobile studio that travels to Indigenous communities training youth in filmmaking and musical recording. Through a University of Victoria project that ended in 2012, Indigenous youth highlighted family and community members’ strategies to survive residential school through digital storytelling.

Indigenous people created institutes to train the next generation of filmmakers. In 2002 Cree filmmaker Shirley Cheechoo founded the Weengushk Film Institute, a film and television training centre for Indigenous youth. In 2012 Saulteaux actor Adam Beach founded the Adam Beach Film Institute to offer courses in filmmaking skills to Indigenous youth.

Following years of Indigenous advocacy, an Indigenous Screen Office was created in 2017 to support Indigenous screen-based storytellers. It provides information on programs offered by educational institutions, and a talent database to connect Indigenous creators with production companies, agencies and others. Through these and other initiatives, Indigenous people provide opportunities for a new generation of filmmakers to tell their stories on screen.

Further Reading

Marcia Nickerson, Supporting & Developing the Indigenous Screen‐based Media Industry in Canada: A Strategy, prepared for the Canada Media Fund, December 2016.

Marcia Nickerson, On-Screen Protocols & Pathways: A Media Production Guide to Working with First Nations, Métis and Inuit Communities, Cultures, Concepts and Stories, prepared for imagineNATIVE, 15 May 2019.

Danis Goulet and Kerry Swanson, Indigenous Feature Film Production in Canada:  A National and International Perspective, prepared for imagineNATIVE, October 2013.

National Film Board of Canada, Indigenous Cinema and Indigenous Filmmaking at the NFB: An Overview.

Author: Brittany Collier, Library of Parliament

Categories: Arts, culture and entertainment, Business, industry and trade, Indigenous affairs

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