This Wednesday, October 19th, marks the start of the 17th annual imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival, the largest presenter of indigenous films and multimedia content in the world. Emanating predominantly from the TIFF Bell Lightbox (following an opening night ceremony at The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema), the festival will screen dozens of feature and short films told mainly by aboriginal filmmakers and First Nations perspectives from around the world.
The list of dramatic feature films this year is deep and wide ranging, highlighting indigenous cultures from around the world in a variety of ways. Born to Dance (screening Thursday the 20th at 7:00 pm) is an eminently relatable story from New Zealand about a young man from an impoverished background finding an outlet in hip-hop dancing. Dance and choreography come up again in Australian filmmaker Stephen Page’s stunning Spear (Thursday at 9:30 pm), an artful examination of how tradition and modern culture strike and often uneasy balance. Inuk filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk delivers his first dramatic feature in a decade with Maliglutit (screening Friday at 6:30 after premiering in TIFF’s Platform programme last month), an updating of the classic western The Searchers set in 1913 Nunavut. And closing night film Bonfire (Sunday at 7:00 pm) comes from Russian filmmaker Dmitry Davidov and tells of a grieving father forced to answer to his family and community for a violent crime his son accidentally committed.
While most looks at the festival will tend to focus on the understandably laudatory film selections in dramatic categories, with something like imagineNATIVE it’s important to take a bigger look at its place in Canada’s filmmaking community. There are more than just films to be screened at imagineNATIVE, but larger stories to be told that will open viewers’ eyes to a world of new voices and experiences. With that in mind, here are five things to keep an eye on at this year’s festival.
The best way to document life on the margins of society is to show irrefutable proof of struggle, misunderstanding, hardship and injustice. imagineNATIVE has always excelled as a festival in this respect, and this year audiences have a chance to catch two noteworthy First Nations documentaries that have already sparked major discussions about the issues being raised in them.
This year’s opening night film Angry Inuk (screening Wednesday at 7:00 pm at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema prior to a theatrical run at the same theatre starting on October 28th) caused quite a stir and garnered massive acclaim among critics and audiences when it debuted earlier this year at Hot Docs, where it won the Audience Award. Filmmaker and proud Inuk Alethea Arnaquq-Baril outlines the difference between the openly condemned Newfoundland seal hunts and the subsistence hunting of First Nations communities who rely on the animal throughout the year for trade and survival. Baril walks a fine line to document how the seal trade is necessary to her people and the hypocrisy shown by many animal rights organizations looking for a full stop ban on the seal hunting that turn a blind eye to native plights because the image of a white man clubbing a baby seal will sell a lot of T-shirts, merchandise, and memberships. It’s impassioned and at times purposefully confrontational. It definitely lives up to the anger of its title, but it should spark a much needed debate on an issue that so many feel so passionately about. It might not change many minds one way or the other, but as a conversation starter it’s brilliant.
Then there’s veteran filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin’s epic, incendiary, comprehensive, and intensely focused look at how Canadian courts have unfairly stacked the deck and shown bias against indigenous children and grieving families in need of medical care and assistance, We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice (screening Saturday at 10am at TIFF Bell Lightbox). Much of the film unfolds in courtrooms and amid tribunals that are often delayed, drawn out, or cancelled without notice, but when they do happen, Obomsawin is there and her eye is unflinching. We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice has many dry moments, but rarely has a film like this to stand as a powerful, scholarly document of an ongoing legal battle. Its capacity for change if the right people see it will be immense. For decades, those seeking care for loved ones in need has been needlessly convoluted and broken, and hopefully this film and its subjects will be the ones to change things once and for all.
Beyond those already high profile and noteworthy films and a wealth of documentary shorts in various programs throughout the festival, there are plenty more true life stories from First Nation perspectives. Anishinaabe comedian Ryan McMahon questions the naming of streets following the Colonization Roads Act of 1872 in Michelle St. John’s documentary Colonization Road (Sunday at 10 am at TIFF Bell Lightbox). The Chilean documentary The Spirit of the Ancestors (Friday at 12:10 pm at Lightbox) looks at the impact colonization and the appropriation of cultural artifacts by museums has had on Rapa Nui (a.k.a. Easter Island). Sumé: The Sound of a Revolution (Thursday at 4:45 pm at Lightbox, and screening as part of a festival spotlight on Greenland) tells the story of the first rock band to ever record in the Greenlandic language. With such a wide range of experience and important discussions to be had around these films, imagineNATIVE remains one of the best festivals in the city for documentary films that demands to be seen.
A rising star
You might know Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs best as the star of Jeff Barnaby’s Rhymes for Young Girls or a recurring role on the TV series Mohawk Girls, or you might not know who the young actor and filmmaker is just yet. By the end of this year’s imagineNATIVE – where she has not one, but three projects screening – she’ll be at the front of everyone’s minds.
Jacobs stars in filmmaker Kristen Carthew’s drama The Sun at Midnight (Sunday the 23rd at 1:00 pm at TIFF Bell Lightbox) as Lia, a sixteen year old runaway who befriends a hunter after an attempt to live under arctic conditions with her estranged grandmother doesn’t work out. She pops up in a vital supporting role in Daniel Redenbach and Janine Windolph’s Saskatchewan set The Land of Rock and Gold (Thursday the 20th at 12:00 pm at Lightbox) as Andrea, the estranged, frustrated, and supportive best friend of a single Cree mother (played by newcomer Charity Bradfield) undergoing a major crisis following the disappearance of her boyfriend.
While both films showcase Jacobs as a bonafide movie star, she goes one step further at this year’s festival by making her directorial debut with the short film Stolen, screening alongside other female directed shorts in the Femme Totale programme (Saturday the 22nd at 2:30 pm at Lightbox). The story of a runaway teenager who has a fateful run in with a stranger who picks her up calls to light Canada’s troubling history of dealing with missing and exploited indigenous women.
But these are just the three projects that the multitalented and motivated Jacobs has at the festival this year. She’s appearing in almost half a dozen other projects in various stages of production. Now seems like the perfect time to get to know this talented young woman who still has plenty of great work to come.
Seasonally appropriate chills and fun
Who doesn’t like being spooked this time of year? Before you answer with the obvious response “people who don’t like being scared,” let me tell you about imagineNATIVE’s The Witching Hour programme, a series of spooky, boundary pushing, weird, or otherwise unnerving genre shorts programmed to run one minute before midnight on Friday the 21st at TIFF Bell Lightbox. Presented in association with Rue Morgue and The Blood in the Snow Festival, The Witching Hour has been around at the festival for a little while now and is growing into becoming a mainstay of the yearly event.
Hosted by imagineNATIVE vice chair and aboriginal arts advocate Andre Morriseau, The Witching Hour is comprised of ten shorts designed to make audiences laugh, scream, and squirm. As an added bonus, seven of the ten shorts in the programme are Canadian, including the delightfully sweded Star Wars – Trash Compactor Scene, which restages one of cinema’s most iconic moments in the Mohawk language, the chilling Watchout!, where a pair of predatory males are stalked by a mysterious, unseen force after leaving a party, and Cody Halcrow’s Remains, Human, in which a reporter and her cameraman get more than they bargain for during an interview gone awry.
You could see these shorts as just a light bit of entertainment, but you’d also be supporting a filmmaking community that still struggles to get their work seen on this large of a scale. It’s truly a win-win scenario for genre fans of all walks.
A spotlight on an entire industry
While a lot of ink is often and rightfully spilled on the feature and short film selection at imagineNATIVE, it’s important to note that when it comes to aboriginal filmmaking at a nuts and bolts level, the festival is a big deal. A more open and carefully selective way for First Nations voices to pitch and be heard instead of getting lost amid the noise of larger, all encompassing mega-festivals, imagineNATIVE allows for voices to be listened to in an environment where they don’t have to fight as hard to be noticed.
As with many festivals that blend screening films for the public with business, there are many mixers, breakfasts, networking events, and talks to be had about the state of the industry where like minded professionals often going through similar struggles can discuss ways to change a difficult, often broken system of financing and distribution for aboriginal productions. There are back to back live pitch competitions for dramatic and documentary shorts on Friday morning at the Lightbox, and those are often fun, formative, and informing experiences for those pitching and those watching along. There are panel discussions about the importance of marketing and how to avoid getting one’s project lost amid the current, cluttered digital world where anything and everything is available on demand at all times.
It’s important to keep these programmes in mind when talking not just about imagineNATIVE, but any festival where people with distinct and unique visions can talk about their projects in a safer setting free of a lot of the anxiety that comes with taking meetings at other major festivals. These kinds of panels and get-togethers are necessary to any filmmaking community, and imagineNATIVE works tirelessly every year to maintain a major industry component to the festival.
And it all ends with a free screening
To close out the festival, imagineNATIVE invites the public to help them celebrate the best of aboriginal filmmaking by offering a pair of free events over their final days. On Saturday night at 8 pm over at TIFF Bell Lightbox, members of the public can get tickets to the imagineNATIVE awards gala, where the festival will give out prizes in seventeen total categories. But for those who prefer to watch films rather than watch people talking about them, imagineNATIVE has you covered, too, with a special free screening of select award winners the following night at 9:15 pm at the Lightbox. You should check out something before the imagineNATIVE gives the best away for free, but it’s a great way to end one of the city’s most vital, long running festivals, and a way of not only giving back to the community, but assuring that some films will have the largest number of eyes on them as possible come the end of the week.
For a full list of festival programming, showtimes, tickets, directions, and more information, check out the imagineNATIVE website.