Film has come a long way from the black-and-white portrayal of cowboys and Indians in the early days of Hollywood, when “Indians” – aboriginals – did not fare well in battle, or in how they were portrayed onscreen.
But the industry has not come far enough. Great inequalities remain: How many films tell aboriginal stories? Can boast an aboriginal director? Or central aboriginal characters – or characters who just happen to be aboriginal?
“I experience it myself as a First Nations actress,” says Roseanne Supernault, a Métis of the Cree tribe, whose recent work includes the TV series Blackstone and the film Rhymes for Young Ghouls, which this week made the Toronto International Film Festival’s Top 10 Canadian films of 2013 list. “The opportunity to even book a gig, and a big gig, are few and far between at times.”
It’s changing, she says – there’s more colour-blind casting for lead roles instead of merely for the best-friend-of-the-lead roles. But why sit around and wait for the casting call when you can help bring about the change yourself?
Earlier this year, when things were quiet, Ms. Supernault, 24, did something she’s thought about for a long time. Inspired by stories about residential schools her father and grandmother – a residential school survivor – had told her, she wrote her first short film script, Hope.
Based on that script, Ms. Supernault was one of four emerging filmmakers selected for the inaugural Aboriginal Filmmaker Fellowship at the Whistler Film Festival, where mentors such as Lorne Cardinal (Corner Gas) and Marie Clements (Unnatural & Accidental) offer guidance to get those scripts made into films.
The program opened Friday with a traditional welcome at the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre, followed by the screening of five short films that demonstrate the possibilities. A packed house roared with laughter through Zoe Leigh Hopkins’s Mohawk Midnight Runners – in which three First Nations men take up running in the nude as a way to honour their blond-haired, blue-eyed white friend who has killed himself; and wept through director Shane Belcourt’s A Common Experience, writer Yvette Nolan’s elegy for her mother, a residential school survivor.
In these films, aboriginals are portrayed as warriors – contemporary and post-apocalyptic; buddies, cops, mothers, daughters – in other words, they take on a wide range of roles reflecting real life. At the core of the fellowship is the belief that if more First Nations people are making films, this could be the norm.
“The time is right for this push, and this type of initiative should be happening,” says Elizabeth Yake, a Saltspring Island-based producer of films such as Everything’s Gone Green and It’s All Gone Pete Tong, who brought the idea to the WFF.
Ms. Yake, who is not aboriginal, felt the fellowship was a way to help the festival solidify its niche, and also help aboriginal filmmakers – for whom storytelling is such an important part of their culture – tell those stories on film.
Ms. Yake (who is currently co-producing a docudrama based on John Vaillant’s award-winning book The Golden Spruce) also saw an opportunity to make a connection with Sundance, and reached out to N. Bird Runningwater, director of the Native American and Indigenous Program at the Sundance Institute.
Mr. Runningwater, who grew up on the Mescalero Apache reservation in New Mexico, joined Sundance 13 years ago, intent on helping native American filmmakers “take those leaps and bounds and ideally perforate that ceiling, which seems to be preventing us from existing in popular culture.” He says the U.S. has lagged behind other countries – including Canada – in terms of aboriginal representation on screen. With his work at Sundance, he has helped change that. A number of projects that have been through his lab have gone on to premiere at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, including the documentary Miss Navajo in 2007 and, just announced this week for Sundance 2014, Drunktown’s Finest.
After being contacted about the proposed fellowship, Mr. Runningwater visited Whistler during last year’s festival and agreed it was a good place for such an initiative. “I went to the [Squamish] Lil’wat Cultural Centre and realized that’s aboriginal land there and I thought, wow this is such a magic and unique place and space; it would be really great to see if we could do some kind of workshop [there].”
On Friday, Mr. Runningwater was back at the centre, facilitating the program with Ms. Yake.
“In terms of aboriginal and native filmmakers, we have a storytelling tradition that’s so much older than film or any form of media,” he says. “And I think the convergence of the two could create something that could really inspire the world.”
Ms. Supernault demonstrates excitement at the prospect, and, yes, hope. “In the industry that I work in, I don’t mean to speak negatively about it, it’s the truth, though, that there are a lot of hurdles to jump over and walls to break through,” she says. “But that time is coming. It’s happening right now.”