Women’s voices dominate film festival’s Indigenous program

Trick or Treaty?

Director: Alanis Obamsawin

My Legacy

Director: by Helen Haig-Brown

Bihttos (Rebel)

Director: Elle-Maija Tailfeathers

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

Four out of the five films comprising the first-ever Indigenous Film Program presented by the Victoria Film Festival this year were made by women. While highly unusual in the film industry as a whole, this eye-opening statistic is not surprising in the world of indigenous filmmaking, according to Michelle Latimer, curator of the Indigenous Program.

“About 60 percent of submissions to ImagiNATIVE Film Festival (in Toronto), the largest indigenous film festival in the world, are submissions by women,” Latimer said.

Latimer, an indigenous filmmaker in her own right, culled the five included in VFF’s program from 300-plus films she has seen through her work as a curator with other festivals. I managed to see two of the features plus one short.

The “master” – I use this term advisedly as Trick or Treaty? premiered as part of the Masters Program at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2014 – is Alanis Obamsawin. Obamsawin has been making films for the Canadian National Film Board since the 1960s and is currently working on her fiftieth film. I became a fan when I saw Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, which she made in 1993 about the Oka crisis.

Like Kanehsatake, Trick or Treaty? blends past and present in an effort to link history with current events and cause with effect. The treaty of the title is Treaty No. 9, also known as the “James Bay Treaty”, which was signed by Cree tribal leaders from Northern Ontario and Ojibways from Manitoba in 1905. A recent book, Treaty No. 9, by John S. Long, examined the journal of government commissioner Daniel George MacMartin and confirmed First Nations’ oral accounts of the Treaty’s contents. The film includes clips of the author discussing his findings with current First Nations leaders. MacMartin’s journal supports the contention that government negotiators misled tribal leaders by misrepresenting what was in the written document. Leaders signed based on those oral representations and didn’t discover the actual content – which deprived First Nations of land ownership and rights to natural resources — until a translation of the treaty was provided to them 25 years after the fact.

When the Canadian Government introduced Bills C-38 and C-45 in 2012 pursuant to the purported authority given by the treaty, First Nations resentment flared, leading to renewed activism. The film documents the hunger strike by Cree Chief Teresa Spence, the beginning of the Idle No More movement, and the 1,600 kilometre walk to the Canadian Parliament by then 16-year-old David Kawapit, who was joined along the way by a growing company of First Nations youth.

While Obamsawin’s film captures the anger of people deceived and cheated of their heritage and seeks to educate the general public, both The Legacy, directed by Helen Haig-Brown and Bitthos (Rebel), by Elle-Maija Tailfeathers, turn inward to reveal their own personal stories about the emotional “suppression” visited on them as a result of being raised by parents traumatized by government programs. Generations younger than the octogenarian Obamsawin, these directors focus their films on healing and forging a personal path for moving forward.

Haig-Brown, a Tsilhqot’in from the Cariboo-Chilcotin area, said at an audience Q&A after the showing of her film on Feb. 7 that she wanted to learn to put her “heart” into her films. In My Legacy, she does just that; one revealing scene shows her bare-breasted while a tiny flower bud superimposed over her heart grows to cover her chest with bloom — a metaphor for her growing capacity to feel love. My Legacy won the Alanis Obamsawin award for Best Feature Documentary at ImagiNATIVE Film Festival in 2014.

Tailfeathers, the progeny of a Blackfoot mother from Kainai First Nation and a Sami father from Norway who met at a World Council of Indigenous Peoples, recounts the story of her father’s chronic depression which eventually resulted in the dissolution of her parent’s marriage. The film documents her growing understanding and empathy for her father. Although this film focuses on healing, activism is in Tailfeathers’ genes. As a UBC graduate, she made Bloodland, a film about hydraulic fracturing on her reserve and promptly got arrested while taking part in a demonstration.

The last film in VFF’s Indigenous Program, Drunktown’s Finest, had its British Columbia premiere on Feb. 10 at the Vic Theatre. This film, first shown at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, received the Jury Award at Outfest L.A.

The Victoria Film Festival continues through Feb. 15.

Joy Fisher is a Victoria playwright. 

One thought on “Women’s voices dominate film festival’s Indigenous program

  1. Anna Andrews

    With insight in these reviews of three of the films in the 2014 ImagiNATIVE Film Festival, one wonders why only five of over 300 available films were included. Time and space were probably limited. My hunger for more is testament to Joy Fisher’s reviews.

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