Still from Even in the Silence | Image source: Montreal First Peoples Festival
“Indigenous people are used as pawns in a way to tell stories that are exploitative. Regarding culture, and our identity; It’s important to have as many Indigenous filmmakers telling our own stories.” says Jonathan Elliott, a Tuscarora filmmaker from Six Nations. “No stories about us, without us. That is the driving factor in the responsibility inherent in being artists, especially an Indigenous one.”
Elliott is an emerging cinematographer and director who makes Indigenous films from an Indigenous lens. This year three of his films screened at the 2019 Montreal First People’s Festival. Each film touches on different issues pertaining to Indigenous people: cultural reclamation through healing and self love, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and the continual separation of Indigenous children from their communities. Despite being from an Indigenous community himself, Elliott stresses the importance of research and collaboration as integral parts of the filmmaking process that went into each of the films.
Even in the Silence won Best Canadian Short Film Prize at the Montreal First Peoples Festival this year. It is a beautifully edited short film that has a poignant soundtrack which emotionally conveys the healing journey the main character must go on after a tragic incident she is responsible for. “On a very conceptual level I treated In the Silence as an experimental music video. I found the rhythm at the same time we were working on the music,” explained Elliott. “My composer, Jamar Powell who goes by Sutra, has a great sense of musicality knowing how to tell the story musically in a way, not just to supplement what you are seeing visually, but enhance it and make it that much better.” The tragedy is slowly revealed through cuts between times of contentment with the main character and her lover; how her drinking problem affected their relationship; and then snowballs into the incident itself. Music played such an integral role in the film, the couples strong bond is established in a short amount of time, making the incident more heart wrenching and her healing journey bitter sweet.
In Her Water Drum Elliott explores the relationship between a mother and her son, David after her daughter, Kira has gone missing. Touching on the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls issue, Her Water Drum explores sensitive subject matter that affects many Indigenous communities. “Throughout the writing process I had input from a lot of Indigenous women to really make sure the topic was talked about in a respectful way with the intention that I wanted to deliver the film,” said Elliott. Having an Indigenous person take the lead on giving insight through the telling of this story avoids the negative romanticizing and stereotypes that often come along when settlers try to tackle issues like this. Collaboration is also key when telling stories on subjects that have affected Indigenous people negatively. “The main character is a mother who is dealing with everything: her son, her situation as a single mother,” Elliott says when talking about the filming process; “Our lead actress Nadia George is an Indigenous woman and mother; she had a lot of input into the script as well. It was a huge collaboration to make sure the representation was as good as it could be.”
In Taken Home, we follow the journey of two Mohawk foster children Tom and Claire, who are living with settler foster parents. Both are coping with being apprehended from their community in immensely different ways. Tom is silently abiding, and Claire is more rebellious and outspoken. The young actors give strong performances throughout the film depicting what it feels like to be outsiders and what its like to depend on each other for strength. Taken Home shows the negative effects of being relocated outside of their community. Elliott explains, “I reached out to social workers from Six Nations and met with youth to talk about their experiences in the foster care system. The research was essential in shaping the story; it was something that I couldn’t have made any of those films without. I wanted to make sure that anyone who watched it, who had similar experiences, could say that this was done with respect, with the right intention.”