February 04, 2023

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INDIGENOUS FILM: A YEAR IN REVIEW

INDIGENOUS FILM: A YEAR IN REVIEW

Despite the ongoing pandemic, Indigenous film had a strong outing. We started out with insightful documentaries during the Hot Docs International Film Festival that explored Black and Indigenous relations in One of Ours, and Anishinaabe journalist Tanya Tagala reflected on her truth-telling book Seven Fallen Feathers in Spirit to Soar. Leading up to the Toronto International Film Festival, all Indian Country were mostly excited to see Danis Goulet’s Taika Waititi backed film, Night Raiders, but the film that really stole my heart away was Wildhood from Brett Hannam. Here are MUSKRAT Magazine’s top film picks for 2021.

MASTERFUL WRITING AND ACTING: WILDHOOD

Reflecting back on watching Wildhood, the words endearing, beautiful, sad and fun come to mind. It’s a sincere coming-of-age story from Brett Hannam (Mi’kmaq) in his second feature film outing. Wildhood centres on Link’s (Phillip Lewitski) journey, as he searches for his mother whom he thought was dead. After fleeing from his abusive father with his endearing stepbrother Travis (Avery Winters-Antony), he has a chance encounter with Pasmay (Joshua Odjick), a two-spirited M’ikmaw youth on the pow wow trail. The opening scenes were a little intense, but it was important to show the trauma that both Link and Travis grew up with and why they chose to get out. I find that Hannam expertly balances out this story with sweet, beautiful moments. They don’t just focus on the trauma of what it’s like to live in poverty and oppression, they show that despite the fact that life can be shitty, we are blessed with uplifting moments in between.

Hannam’s script is genius and I loved how they fleshed out all the characters, no matter how minor of the role. Link’s encounter with a trans character in a convenience store is both chaotic and raw. The actor who brought them to life made a strong impression and made that scene stand out in a film packed with many compelling moments. We get to see Link explore and grow into his identity as a two-spirited person learning about his Mi’kmaq heritage. Pasmay is portrayed as strong, quiet and caring – subverting all those toxic, stoic Indigenous stereotypes. Their journey flows seamlessly and all the characters have their quirks, negative traits, and something to add to the story. The acting was superb and natural. Phillip Lewitski can go from subtle to intense one scene after another. I hope to see more of him in future projects. To be honest, I hope to see more of all the cast in the future – Odjick, Winters-Antony included. Most of all I hope we get to be graced with more films from Hannam in the future.

A MUST FOR CANADIANS TO WATCH: WOCHIIGII LO: END OF THE PEACE

There are hundreds of cases in court demanding recognition of Aboriginal Treaty Rights in Canada alone. In Wochiigii lo: End of the Peace, Heather Hatch (Haida) follows Indigenous activists Diane Abel and Chief Roland Wilson from West Moberly First Nation as they lead the fight to stop the construction of Site C Hydro Dam. She details the political controversies surrounding the project including former B.C Premier Christy Clark’s connection to the men in power seeking to get it built. Clark has close ties to the Bennet family. Former B.C Premier W.A.C Bennet supported and greenlit the first dam on the Peace River by West Moberly First Nation. His son Bill Bennet was the first to want to build the Site C Hydro Dam but was denied by the B.C Utilities Commission – and rightfully so. According to journalist Sarah Cox, after much research with energy experts and scientists, the project was deemed unnecessary and that B.C has an overabundance of hydro energy available for decades to come. The United Nations even declared that Site C Hydro Dam infringes on the rights of Indigenous people.

It’s important to watch documentaries made by Indigenous people about Indigenous issues because Indigenous filmmakers show our strength, resilience and how our humour ties into both. In the past White documentarians would portray Indigenous people as helpless victims. Despite all the political backstabbing and the struggle for recognition of Aboriginal Treaty Rights we are uplifting, hopeful, and know we will persevere. This is the most important documentary Canadians need to watch leading up to the final trial on whether Site C infringes on Aboriginal Treaty Rights in 2023 before the dam’s reservoir is filled.

Film still from Wochiigii:lo End of the Peace | Image credit: tiff.net

MOST HIGH-PROFILE FILM: NIGHT RAIDERS FROM DANIS GOULET

The success of Night Raiders has been a long time coming for Cree Métis film director Danis Goulet. Night Raiders is set in 2043. After a post-war North America, Niska, played by Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, joins a band of vigilantes to save her daughter, Waseese played by Brooklyn Letexier-Hart, from the ruling military occupation after having to surrender her to “the ruling class” to save her life.

Night Raiders made its international debut at the Berlinale Film Festival in February to critical acclaim with critics praising its social commentary. “What I wanted to portray in the film was this very Canadian brand of genocide, which is one that says we are going to attempt to eradicate Indigenous people without calling it warfare. We’re gonna do it in ways that appear benevolent and helpful,” said Goulet. Later in the year, it was honoured with a gala presentation at the Toronto International Film Festival as she won this year’s Emerging Talent Award. Critics and filmgoers noted its metaphor on residential schools in an especially hard year that Indigenous people and Canadians grappled with the recovery of numerous mass graves beside these residential schools. So far, the film has a 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and the widest theatrical opening for an Indigenous Canadian filmmaker. “I saw the list of 80 theatres that the film is going to,” explained Goulet. “I just got really emotional yesterday because it felt like it was the culmination of this dream that I’d had for so many years to see our stories as Indigenous people given larger platforms.”

HONORABLE MENTION: HONOUR TO MURRAY SINCLAIR 

Honour to Murray Sinclair cuts between a speech he made regarding the effects that residential schools had on the hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children who attended them with footage of testimony from residential school survivors, creating a short piece that honours them in an impactful way. “I would tell you that every word he said was important. It’s hard to part with any of the words. He is such an important person in our lives. You learn just by watching this film. So much history. Every word teaches you something. It’s incredible.” said Obomsawin when I spoke with her over the phone about the film. “To see all those people who are part of it, who have gone through that terrible experience of the residential schools. It’s so sad, but it’s also very beautiful to hear directly how they feel and what they went through.”

This year was a big year for Obomsawin at TIFF as she was honoured herself with the Jeff Skoll Award in Impact Media. She is known for creating insightful and educational documentaries that raise awareness of Indigenous issues from the lens of an Indigenous director. “Celebrating Alanis” was a special screening programme that TIFF dedicated to screening some of most important work over the past five decades.

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About The Author

Erica Commanda

Born in Toronto, Erica Commanda (Algonquin/Ojibwe) grew up in the small community of Pikwakanagan. From there she moved across Canada living in Ottawa, Vancouver and now Toronto, working in the bar/hospitality industry, mastering the art of listening to stories from her regulars while slinging and spilling drinks (at them or to them). And now through a series of random decisions and events in life she is on a journey discovering and mastering her own knack for storytelling as Associate Editor for MUSKRAT Magazine.

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