Behind the screen: Indigenous filmmakers fight for better representation

By Bree Duwyn

Indigenous representation in North American films have included a long and devastating history of stereotyping and generalization.

Misrepresentation is typically portrayed in many Western films. In these films, Indigenous people have been wrongfully portrayed and described as drunk, violent, savage and exotic.

For example, Disney classics such as Pocahontas and Peter Pan have displayed Indigenous people as spiritual beings with little to no knowledge, showcasing a less complex perspective of Indigenous life.

These two films depict the two main stereotypes that Indigenous people are typically portrayed as in films: the “Native Warrior” and the “Indian Princess.” The “Indian Princess,” as seen in Pocahontas, details a young Indigenous woman as weak and mild — a damsel in distress.

The “Native Warrior”, as seen in Peter Pan, is the generalized term used in film to describe Indigenous people as dangerous, savage and uncivilized. In addition, their physical appearances depict stereotypical red skin and long black hair donned with a feather. Their hair covers their eyes, giving them no true face or identity.

A scene from  Peter Pan  where a young Indigenous woman, Tiger Lily, is held captive by Captain Hook and rescued by Peter Pan. (Via  YouTube )

A scene from Peter Pan where a young Indigenous woman, Tiger Lily, is held captive by Captain Hook and rescued by Peter Pan. (Via YouTube)

Stereotypical terminology is also used within the film. An Indigenous woman is seen calling Wendy a “squaw” which is a derogatory term for an Indigenous woman. “Injun” is also used, especially throughout the song What Made the Red Man Red?,  which is a demeaning term for Indigenous people. This is in reference to the stereotype of Indigenous people learning all the ways of life from the European settler society.

The Lone Ranger (2013), a more recent adaptation of the characters of John Reid and his Indigenous friend Tonto, sparked controversy when it was first released.

Johnny Depp was casted as Tonto, which angered some Indigenous people and groups, who considered this casting to be racist.

Similar to the characters in Peter Pan, Tonto is the film industry’s stereotypical “Native Warrior” who communicates with animals and speaks broken English, among other things. This is an example of generalizing and stereotyping within the industry.

Misrepresentation of Indigenous people can result in false knowledge and misunderstanding of their lifestyle as a whole. For this reason, the efforts of Indigenous directors and producers put into bringing an end to the misrepresentation is very important.  This is not only to create more accurate films that portray the Indigenous community properly, but to create a shift in the relationship between societies.

Indigenous directors on the portrayal of Indigenous people in the Canadian film industry

Indigenous filmmakers, Caroline Monnet and Gwaai Edenshaw, share their perspectives on the portrayal of Indigenous people in the Canadian film industry.

They have the same hope for the roles of Indigenous people to be be more modernized, day-to-day roles instead of the limitations Indigenous actors and actresses have often been faced throughout film history.

Indigenous actors/actresses “should be allowed to play superheros, mothers, daughters, doctors, or any other common roles that is not necessarily culture specific,” said Monnet in an email interview.

Caroline Monnet

Photo courtesy    coco.monnet    via Instagram

Photo courtesy coco.monnet via Instagram

Caroline Monnet is an award winning Algonquin-French filmmaker and visual artist specializing in installation and printmaking from Outaouais, Quebec and now lives in Montréal.  

Monnet’s work has been exhibited in various film festivals including the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and Clermont-Ferrand vidéformes in France.

Monnet is well known for films such as Ikwe, Emptying the Tank and The Seven Last Words.

Inspired by other female Indigenous filmmakers in Canada such as Danis Goulet, Helen Haig-Brown, Alethea Arnaquq-Baril and Lisa Jackson, Monnet wanted to “be apart of that same energy” that these filmmakers had created.

These filmmakers were telling important stories without fear of directing and producing, according to Monnet and she was inspired by this.

Through her films, Monnet hopes to “convey an emotional experience with insights into Indigenous struggles and reality. I want my films to remain accessible to a large audience while keeping artistic integrity and vision,” said Monnet.

She also hopes that with her work, audiences can be submerged in the experience so they have a better understanding of Indigenous realities, identities and communities.

“Films for me have to be a multi-sensorial experience where images and sound collide in order to inform, inspire and challenge audiences,” said Monnet.

Monnet explains how she has been working towards breaking the stereotypes of Indigenous representation in film. She finds it her job to flip the script and create positive images of Indigenous people on screen.

“Challenge what is being put out there and go against the redundancy of what is presented in the media. There are so many different ways to express indigeneity and most often medias only choose one perspective,” said Monnet.

To her, it is very important that Indigenous filmmakers are given the opportunities to breathe life into their films.

“It is a necessity in the Canadian film industry because today we are still lacking that diversity and still too often Indigenous stories are being told by non-Indigenous perspectives and filmmakers,” said Monnet.

Monnet believes this can often lead to the romanticization or stigmatization of Indigenous representation within film.

As a filmmaker, Monnet aspires to successfully direct her very first feature this upcoming fall.

“I hope to have the strength, dedication and clear vision to bring my project forward. I hope to contribute to indigenous cinema and Canadian cinema overall. I hope that this film can touch international audiences and reach far beyond the indigenous community it is putting on screen and that a story that happens on a native reserve can become a universal story of humanity,” said Monnet.

Gwaai Edenshaw

Gwaai Edenshaw (second from left) and family.  Photo courtesy    gwaai    via Instagram

Gwaai Edenshaw (second from left) and family. Photo courtesy gwaai via Instagram

Gwaai Edenshaw is a Haida artist and filmmaker from Haida Gwaii, British Columbia.

Edenshaw apprenticed under the late artist Bill Reid beginning at the age of 16 and holds a jewelry and art design diploma from Vancouver Community College. His art exhibits in galleries nationwide, as well as Seattle, Washington and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Edenshaw primarily works in wood carving and jewelry making, however, in 2017 began the project of SG̲aawaay Ḵ'uuna (Edge of the Knife) with co-director, Helen Haig-Brown.

Edge of the Knife is the first Haida language feature film based on the traditional Haida story of Gaagiixid the “wild man”, who loses his hold on reality in the forest before returning to his community in a healing ceremony.

The film premiered at TIFF in 2018 and won various awards such as Best Canadian Film and Best British Columbia Film at the Vancouver International Film Festival.

In addition, the film won Best Director and Best Actor from the Vancouver Film Critics Circle, an organization that promotes Canadian films and the British Columbia Film and Television Industry.

Edge of the Knife also received the Sun Jury Award at the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts festival.

Edenshaw is a founding member of Q’altsi’da Kaa, the Haida storytelling group that promotes the Haida language as it has approximately 20 speakers on the islands.

The film proved to be an excellent opportunity to share and promote the Haida language and was also filmed on Haida Gwaii.

The process of Edge of the Knife began with Edenshaw and his brother, Jaalen, writing the script, along with Graham Richard and Leonie Sandercock.

“Our goals were around storytelling, probably like any other movie. Our guiding light was that we were making the movie for our people. So, in terms of the hometown audience, we didn’t want anyone to feel patronized or anything of the sort, that they would feel like this was their movie,” said Edenshaw.

Edenshaw also described the film as a story of facing mental health issues, addiction, etc.

It is about recognizing the hard points that an individual can experience in their lifetime, and being there for them in their time of need, according to Edenshaw.

“When someone is the hardest to be around but that is their time when they need us the most,” said Edenshaw. “That is a piece of the story that we are telling.”

The inspiration behind Edge of the Knife was the notion to create a piece of art that would involve the Haida language and conjure excitement around the language, according to Edenshaw.

“We wanted to have something, in terms of our language goals, that they could be part of an immersive experience,” said Edenshaw.

The script began in English as Edenshaw and his co-writers consulted with Elders and other knowledgeable people of the Haida language in order to transform the script.

The final translation stage consisted of a group of people coming together to make sure the dialects were communicating with one another, according to Edenshaw.

Edenshaw fondly recalled the moment when the team came together to make the translations agree. Two translators, Diane Brown and Delores Churchill, originally expressed nervousness heading into this process.

“They felt like they wouldn’t understand the other person, worrying they might not get along. In the end, they wound up having a great time together and really being able to help each other even in their separate dialects,” said Edenshaw.

Edenshaw had explained the process of translation as a moment of joy and found it important for himself to be a part of that experience.

The production of Edge of the Knife was a labour of trust and the sharing of knowledge through culture and language — a unique opportunity to share with the world a language that is not well-known.

Efforts towards the revitalization of Indigenous languages are ongoing and there are many people who have dedicated their lives to this process, according to Edenshaw.

“With this film we can offer another tool for learning,” said Edenshaw in relation to expanding the film in a second edit to include more opportunities to further learn the Haida language.

“Our people should be doing whatever we can to learn our language and make language common place and a part of our lives here on Haida Gwaii. It provides one more incentive for young people to learn language. They can learn the language because it can help them to land a role in future films because we’ll always be doing these movies in Haida,” said Edenshaw.

The film industry has made steps towards demonstrating a more accurate Indigenous representation. However, Indigenous voices need to continue to be heard and valued in the process of the creation of these films in order to produce real and genuine Indigenous portrayals on the screen.