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.

Canadian films have a lot to say about climate change

Climate change, endangered species and Canadian wildlife — these films have it all

By Devon Harvey

On April 22nd, Earth Day is celebrated worldwide. The purpose of this day should be to reflect on how our way of life impacts the planet. What better way to do it than spending the day watching Canadian productions about issues facing the planet and the natural world?

The following films are all either linked to Canada’s wildlife and ecosystem, or directed or produced by Canadians. Each of these films has something to say about nature and what’s happening to the planet, urging people to listen.

2012

This film focuses heavily on climate change and takes place primarily in the natural lands of British Columbia. Directed by Roland Emmerich, 2012 brings attention to how the earth is being altered as a cause of climate change and what could theoretically occur to the planet if negative climate change continues.

In 2018, the BBC News reported that if countries do not act on climate change, temperatures may rise by 4.5 C by the year 2100. A temperature rise of more than 1.5 C could be detrimental to the planet according to researchers. That’s why it’s more important now than ever to take this issue seriously.

2012 is a film meant to scare us into action. Canadians even more so as it is filmed primarily in our home country and shows exactly what could happen to Canada’s land.

Sharkwater

Directed and produced by Canadian filmmaker Rob Stewart, this film focuses on sharks and bringing attention to their nonviolent nature. The documentary details how due to hunting, shark finning and illegal killing for their meat, 90 per cent of the shark population has been killed.

According to Oceana EU, sharks play an important role in ecosystems by maintaining the population of species they feed on and indicating the health of the ocean itself. If sharks were removed from the ecosystem larger predatory fish would grow in numbers and eat all of the herbivore fish. This would make the ecosystem dominated by algae and alter the ability of the reef to survive.

By showing the nonviolent nature of these animals, Stewart brings attention to the dying population of sharks and how detrimental their extinction would be to the ecosystem. Stopping the hunting and poaching of sharks is important in the maintaining of the earth’s natural spaces.

Wild Canada

Produced and directed by Jeff and Sue Turner, Wild Canada is a CBC mini series focusing on profiling Canada’s natural environment. Using high-definition videos, the film brings attention to the state that Canadian wildlife is in.

In terms of Canadian natural spaces, according to The Canadian Encyclopedia habitat fragmentation is one of the biggest threats to national parks. This means that species within the parks may not survive in the long run unless various conservation measures are taken.

When talking about climate change and the alteration of nature it may be difficult to associate those changes directly with one’s homeland. This mini series offers insight into the natural world of Canada and the struggles surrounding it.

Anthropocene: The Human Epoch

This film was directed by an all Canadian team: Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier. Baichwal and de Pencier also produced the film.

The film showcases the effects that humans have on the natural world. This includes: seawalls in China, the largest terrestrial machines from Germany, the devastation of Great Barrier Reef in Australia and much more.

National Geographic reported a 2016 study that found that three-quarters of the earth’s surface is under pressure from humans and their activity. Anthropocene: The Human Epoch offers insight into the effects that human activity has on the planet and visually documents what is happening to the Earth’s natural spaces.

This film is set to inform the global population into conservation action.

North of Superior

Directed and produced by Canadian filmmaker Graeme Ferguson, this film focuses on the northern lands of Ontario. The film follows the changes of the seasons in Canada and a devastating forest fire.

According to Natural Resources Canada over 8000 fires occur every year and they burn an average of 2.1 million hectares. Even though wildfires play a role in shaping ecosystems they are still deadly and can be harmful to the natural world, animals and humans alike.

An article from National Geographic recognizes that natural occurring wildfires are integral to ecosystems. They return nutrients to the land, act as a disinfectant and allow sunlight to reach forest floors. However, man made fires do not work in the same fashion.

North of Superior illustrates that the beauty of Canada exists all year round and informs the public that natural wildfires can be beneficial to ecosystems, it is the man made fires that are harmful.

Keep these Canadian films, documentaries and the issues they tackle in mind and on your watch list as Earth Day approaches.

The Oscars 2019: Canadians dominate the best short film category

By Devon Harvey

The Academy Awards are back on Feb. 24 and this year Canadians are dominating the short film categories. Bao, Weekends, and Animal Behaviour are some of the short films that are contesting to take home the gold.

Usually a majority of the awards are filled with American nominees, but this year Canadians are taking over. Filmmakers Domee Shi, Trevor Jimenez and David Fine are being praised in the film industry for having their work up for notable awards.

Canadians are nominated in the live action short film category and animated short film category.

For best live action short film

Jeremy Comte is nominated for Fauve, a short film set in a mine that details how two young boys go from playing seemingly innocent power games and having fun to being pitted against their surroundings with Mother Nature as their only witness.

Marianne Farley is nominated for Marguerite. This film tells the story of Marguerite (Béatrice Picard), an elderly woman who develops an unusual friendship with her caretaker Rachel (Sandrine Bisson). Through this friendship, Marguerite is able to confront her longing that she had hidden away and was able to make peace with her past.

In the animated category for best short film

David Fine and Alison Snowden are nominated for Animal Behaviour, this short film follows a group of animals through a group therapy session as they all attempt to come to terms and deal with the negative behaviours that come to them naturally.

A scene from  Animal Behaviour,  directed by   Canadians Alison Snowden and David Fine. (Courtesy  Animal Behaviour Trailer  via TIFF Trailers on YouTube)

A scene from Animal Behaviour, directed by Canadians Alison Snowden and David Fine. (Courtesy Animal Behaviour Trailer via TIFF Trailers on YouTube)

Domee Shi is nominated for Bao, a story about a Chinese mother who is experiencing empty nest syndrome because her son left home. She is given a second chance when one of her handmade dumplings comes to life. The story follows the mother through raising the dumpling as she did with her son. This film shows a mother’s love for her child through all stages of their lives.

In an interview with journalist Tracy Brown from the Los Angeles Times, Domee Shi spoke at great length about her short film Bao:

“My inspiration mainly came from my own life. Growing up I was that overprotected little dumpling for my Chinese mom. I was an only child living in Toronto with my parents, and they’ve always kind of watched over me and made sure I was safe — kept me really, really close. And I just wanted to explore that relationship between an overprotective parent and their child with a dumpling as a metaphor, as weird as that sounds,” said Shi.

When Brown asked Shi about the choice not to include dialogue in the animated short Shi said, “by taking dialogue out you’re really pushing and challenging yourself to tell the story with all the acting and emotion and actions of the characters...so your story could be understood by people of all ages and all backgrounds and all cultures.”

A scene from the short film  Bao,  directed by Domee Shi. (Courtesy  Cinema for Kids  via YouTube)

A scene from the short film Bao, directed by Domee Shi. (Courtesy Cinema for Kids via YouTube)

When Pixar picked up the Asian-Canadian short Shi explained that despite Bao was such a culturally specific film, overprotective parents learning how  to let go of their children and food bringing families together are universal themes with which people all over the world could identify.

Trevor Jimenez is nominated for Weekends, an animated short film that follows a young boy as he moves between his recently divorced parents’ homes. It couples dreamlike moments with the reality of a broken up family and home. The details of the reality of divorce and moving between parents’ houses and lives are portrayed through the eyes of a child.

I met and interviewed Trevor 12 days before the Oscars over Skype, he explained to me that the day he found out his film Weekends was nominated, his wife and him woke up really early, “The day of, was insane... it was our anniversary that day too...I almost felt like shock, like I couldn’t believe it”.   

When he finished the film just over a year ago Jimenez said, “I had friends who told me ‘Oh this is going to get nominated,’ and I never believed them...To have it do what it’s doing now is crazy.”

Jimenez said that every time he watches the film it’s different. “[it] depends on the crowd and how people react and the questions that come after. It’s always sort of shifting...I think the whole experience has shifted how I view it...For it to be validated in this way is a huge confine boost...It almost feels like a weird science experiment. It’s like oh the experiment kinda worked, like that’s how it feels. People connect with it and that’s kind of special,” Jimenez said about his short film.

When I asked him how being Canadian has affected his experience as a nominee Jimenez said, “I’m really happy that there are other Canadians, I’m very proud to be Canadian. Everyone is just really happy to be there whether or not you share that kind of nationality or not,” adding that all of the nominees are rooting for each other.

The 91st Oscars air live across the country Feb. 24th at 8 p.m. E.T.