While there is much to learn from leading documentary artists and professionals –I was also reminded of how little the industry knows about the Aboriginal community.
Written by: Spirit of Birth Director, Rebeka Tabobondung & Producer, Michelle St. John
The 2014 Hot Docs Festival was packed full of opportunities to learn about the art and industry of documentary filmmaking from world’s leading artists and professionals. As an emerging Director in the National Screen Institutes Aboriginal Documentary Training Program, making a short doc about the revitalization of traditional birth knowledge called Spirit of Birth, Hot Docs provided an introduction and venue to meet and schmooze with commissioning editors, local politicians, artists, and technicians.
The opening night gala screening of The Internet’s Own Boy, The Story of Aaron Swartz, was an inspiring starting point as a documentary filmmaker, passionate about using technology and the Internet to create space for sharing Indigenous stories. Questioning who owns and controls the stories and knowledge I share, as a filmmaker who documents traditional knowledge is important. Mainstream producers need to own copyright in order to be able to have the “right” to “exploit” the work which is a condition of funding, however the knowledge is not always theirs to own. Traditional Indigenous knowledge is collectively held knowledge to be used for the benefit of the community – a completely different paradigm than the accepted form. It raises issues around “Traditional Knowledge” and what many scholars and artists call “Indigenous Copyright” and it extends to the sharing of profits derived from the “exploitation” of the work. Sadly and naively Aaron Swartz was consumed by the character assassination and demonization the U.S. government perpetrated; threatening to convict him of a long list of charges and branding him a ‘felon’. The idea of being convicted for his activism in protecting the accessibility of universal knowledge was too much for him to bear yet in this is a reality that most Indigenous peoples readily accept with honour, knowing this is to be expected when challenging dominant power structures.
Hot Docs provided a venue for me to meet award-wining cinematographer Sarah Thomas at the Canon EOS workshop. Sarah blew me away by her versatility and dedication as a documentary cinematographer able to travel the world, beautifully documenting vital stories in tight, awkward situations while maintaining integrity and sensitivity to her often vulnerable subjects. I hope to work with Sarah as our principal Director of Photography in Spirit of Birth.
While there is much to learn from leading documentary artists and professionals –I was also reminded of how little the industry knows about the Aboriginal community. In conversations with industry programmers and executives, I was shocked by their freely shared stereotypes of Aboriginal people. One Canadian programmer told me that Mayor Rob Ford only attends events in the Aboriginal and Black communities so he can get drugs. A commissioner for a popular science show expressed that Indigenous knowledge does not fit well within a science show. When describing an Aboriginal documentary about the tobacco trade, another programmer exclaimed, “It’s a trade that gets these people off of social assistance.” This year, there was not one single film programmed by Hot Docs that was either directed or produced by an Indigenous person in North America. This has not been the case in the past and if there was one that slipped through the cracks, none of us were aware and no outreach to the Aboriginal community took place. There was however one exceptional documentary, The Malagasy Way about the cultural resilience of Malagasy Peoples in Madagascar that was produced and directed by Malagasy Filmmaker, Lova Nantenaina. In spite of the increasing numbers of Indigenous filmmakers, our stories continue to be told through the eyes of ‘the other’. Is that such a bad thing? Surely all people have the right to tell stories! However, if we are to challenge negative stereotyping and really learn about one another, Indigenous documentary filmmakers must have space to tell their stories. And if they are meaningfully included, Indigenous participation and relationship building will evolve.
Chi Miigwetch (Big Thanks) to the National Screen Institute for facilitating this valuable training and exchange!
Editor of MUSKRAT Magazine, Rebeka Tabobondung is a community documentary filmmaker, poet and Indigenous knowledge researcher. Rebeka is an M.A. graduate in Sociology & Equity Studies in Education. Her documentary work has screened at festivals across Canada and internationally, while her written works have been published in numerous journals and anthologies throughout North America. In 2008, Rebeka was the Festival Director of the imagineNATIVE film & Media Arts Festival and was also the former Director of the Centre for Women and Trans People at the University of Toronto. Rebeka’s latest research and film work documents traditional birth knowledge from Wasauksing First Nation where she is also a member. She is the co-founder of MAAIINGAN Productions and Research Coordinator of the Indigenous Knowledge Network for Infant, Child, and Family Health at St. Michael’s Hospital.
Michelle St. John is a two-time Gemini Award winning actor, singer, playwright and producer. Performance credits include: Where the Spirit Lives, Smoke Signals, Northern Exposure, The Business of Fancydancing and Every Emotion Costs. As former Co-Managing Artistic Director of Turtle Gals Performance Ensemble, she co-created and co-produced the award winning – The Scrubbing Project, the Dora nominated The Triple Truth with Jani Lauzon and Monique Mojica and The Only Good Indian…. with Falen Johnson and Cheri Maracle. For two years, Michelle served as host and producer of Red Tales, a weekly Native literary show for Aboriginal Voices Radio. She is also Co-Artistic Director of Red Diva Projects with playwright and director Marie Clements. Red Diva Projects has produced The Road Forward and Prison Chronicles and co-produced Tombs of the Vanishing Indian with Native Earth Performing Arts and The Edward Curtis Project in association with The National Arts Centre and The Great Canadian Theatre Company. Michelle is a producing partner in Dr. E Entertainment, creating media content about Aboriginal health featuring Dr. Evan Adams and is also co-owner of Frog Girl Films. She has produced four short films, and is pre-production for her first feature documentary, filming in the summer of 2014.