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A scene from Empire of Dirt.
A scene from Empire of Dirt.

TIFF’s native-Canadian features leave stereotypes in the dust Add to ...

When the Toronto International Film Festival decides, as it decided this year, to premiere not one, not two, but three full-length movies about Canada’s aboriginal peoples, it fairly screams to media types, “Attention must be paid!”

The question, of course, is, what kind of attention. In the real world (as opposed to the reel), Canada’s indigenous population has long complained that the scrutiny it’s received from mainstream media, when it receives any at all, has been piecemeal, lacking in context, long on generalizations and stereotypes (Cue the drum circle! Chief, put on the head-dress, whydoncha?) and crisis-driven. It’s a situation experienced, one supposes, by any minority – racial, religious, sexual or ethnic.

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So when one of the world’s foremost film fetes programs three native-themed pictures pretty much back-to-back – a documentary, Hi-Ho Mistahey!, by National Film Board veteran Alanis Obomsawin, and two dramatic features, Jeff Barnaby’s Rhymes for Young Ghouls and Empire of Dirt, directed by Peter Stebbings – there’s a near-automatic tendency among mainstream pundits, regardless of ideology, to try to clump (ghettoize?) them together for purposes of winkling out big meanings, common threads, comparisons and contrasts. That or chalking up the simultaneity to coincidence even as you’re nagged by the notion that, as Don DeLillo once observed, “coincidence is just a science waiting to be discovered.”

Thing is, there are connections. For instance, Barnaby, a Mi’kmaq from Quebec, recently told the Canadian Press that Obomsawin, an Abenaki from New Hampshire, but Quebec-raised, “is the reason that I’m a filmmaker.” Seeing one Obomsawin documentary in particular, 1984’s Incident at Restigouche, about a Quebec provincial police raid on the reserve where he was living, “really kicked off my film career in my brain.” Obomsawin, of course, is nothing if not political – her most famous film is titled Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance – and Barnaby certainly brings that sensibility to bear in his gritty, angry debut feature. Set on a Mi’kmaq reserve in 1976 (tellingly, just five years before the Restigouche raid Obomsawin documented), Rhymes for Young Ghouls casts the reserve as a festering colony occupied by cruel (white) administrators, its young people debased and abused by the priests of St. Dymphna’s residential school, the rest hobbled by poverty, violence and ridiculous rules, yet never entirely cowed. In the forefront of the resistance: Aila (Kawennahere Devery Jacobs) who, at 15, heads the reserve’s biggest drug crew.

If a film could be judged strictly by its title, you’d think Empire of Dirt a complement of sorts to Rhymes for Young Ghouls where the rough side is always dragging. In fact, Empire, conceived almost eight years ago by part-Cree writer Shannon Masters, is more Ghouls’ antipode. Set in present-day Ontario, its tale of three generations of aboriginal women (mother Jennifer Podemski, daughter Cara Gee, granddaughter Shay Eyre) certainly doesn’t shirk from dealing with a plethora of problems, social, historical and self-inflicted. But its tone is more respectful, earnest, hopeful even and less raw than that of Ghouls. Natives and whites get along, more or less; everyone seems to want to move forward or at least achieve some equilibrium. And while the legacy of residential schools is mentioned as contributing to the death of Gee’s father, it’s not dwelt upon. The past here is more a factor to acknowledge and deal with than a fate overdetermining present and future. If anything, Empire of Dirt’s animus seems informed by the empowerment ethos of Idle No More; Ghouls’s is hot-wired to the bitterness, black humour and still-resonant pain associated with residential schools, government apology or no.

Some may suggest that Empire of Dirt’s lack of intensity relative to Ghouls is the result of having a sensitive white male in the director’s chair. But the intention to tell a more broadly humanistic story was there long before Stebbings came aboard. As Podemski, who’s part Ojibwa and also one of Dirt’s three producers, recently told a Toronto newspaper, the travails of the movie’s long gestation convinced her and Masters that “we did not want to make an Indian movie. Everyone we gave the script to was asking for that, to be frank. More dream-catchers, more leather and feathers and all that shit I’ve been trying to escape.”

Both Rhymes for Young Ghouls and Empire of Dirt are distinguished by strong female leads, scarred and scared, to be sure, but proud, spunky and resourceful, too. For Barnaby, this is both corrective and a recognition of reality: “All the cinematic native heroes that I’ve encountered in my life up to this point,” the 36-year-old director has written, “have worn buckskin, have been men and were, more often than not, not actually native, [while] the real heroes I’ve encountered in my life, growing up on reserve, have been women – and every inch of them Indian.”

Recognition of female power also informs Obomsawin’s documentary Hi-Ho, Mistahey! which chronicles the larger aboriginal community’s struggle for quality education and educational equality and, more specifically, the campaign to build “a safe, comfy school” in Attawapiskat First Nation, in Northern Ontario, to replace one closed in 2000 as a result of toxic land contamination. The film is haunted by Shannen Koostachin who at 13 sparked the start of a nationally publicized “children’s crusade” to get Attawapiskat that new elementary school. The Cree-born Koostachin is easily the most charismatic figure in Hi-Ho Mistahey!, a gifted, persuasive speaker, emotionally engaging, talented, deeply investsed in her culture. Unfortunately, she died at 15 in a car accident in northeastern Ontario in 2010. Fortunately, as Obomsawin’s film shows, others have picked up her torch, coalescing in a broad-based movement known as Shannen’s Dream. Cinematically, however, Hi-Ho Mistahey! suffers from a lack of Koostachin. She’s to this film what Cara Gee is to Empire of Dirt and Devery Jacobs is to Young Ghouls – a heroine, in short – and when she’s not around, Obomsawin’s expansive documentary loses its snap.

Real life is like that; not every circumstance begets a saviour or figure of interest. Still, it seems real Indians are making reel Indians a lot more real.

TIFF screenings: Rhymes for Young Ghouls plays Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, Sept. 10, 2:45 p.m. Empire of Dirt has completed its TIFF screenings but is scheduled for commercial release Nov. 22. Hi-Ho Mistahey! plays Jackman Hall (AGO) Sept. 14, 6 p.m. (tiff.net).

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