The Canadian embassy in Berlin is a striking modern building on Leipziger Platz, constructed of some of the finest materials extracted from home, including Douglas fir and Manitoba limestone. Inside its elegant walls you’ll find envoys hard at work selling the idea of Canada to the largest economy in Europe. For the moment, though, you’ll also find something much more surprising: A pointed critique of Canada’s extraction economy and its debilitating effects on Indigenous communities.
NDN Survival Trilogy is a trio of short films by artist and performer Thirza Cuthand, currently showing as part of the 70th Berlin International Film Festival. On opening night, guests crowded into the Marshall McLuhan Salon of the botschaft, or embassy, to watch Cuthand’s witty, personal take on extraction capitalism, artistic complicity, the role of gas masks in protest and sex play, and just who, exactly, is going to be invited to colonize Mars. In her opening-night speech, Cuthand, who is of Plains Cree and Scottish descent, gave a shout-out to the Wet’suwet’en protesters, as the screens behind her showed a series of chemical refineries and open-pit mines.
The protesters have given her hope, she says when she returns to the embassy for an interview the next day. As a child in Saskatoon, she saw her uncle Brad Larocque on the nightly news when he was part of the Oka protest (that’s him standing nose-to-nose with a Canadian soldier in one of the defining images of the 1990 crisis). The same spirit is galvanizing Indigenous communities and their allies today, Cuthand says. “What we’re seeing in Canada is that there are multiple ways things could change at any moment. It’s a kind of joyful chaos that I’m relying on.”
As we sit and talk, we can hear her voice echoing from the next room, a voiceover from the film Extractions. A group of viewers sits in the room named after one of Canada’s most celebrated modern philosophers, having walked past the embassy’s waterfall and canoe to confront a less idealized version of Canada – one in which Indigenous children are disproportionately taken into care by the government and the legacy of colonialism leaves scars on the land and communities.
The films are deeply personal, rooted in Cuthand’s identity as a queer Indigenous person who lives with bipolar disorder. The work is also, at times, quite hilarious. In the mock-documentary Reclamation, a group of Indigenous people, played by Cuthand’s friends, lament the mess they’ve been left with after the rest of the planet has fled to Mars. “I hope they find their god up there,” one of them says, dryly.
That film, which was shot in Haida Gwaii and Saskatchewan, was inspired by Elon Musk’s grand plan to colonize Mars. “You hear that and you think, who is really going to Mars? It’s not going to be poor people. Probably not Indigenous people.”
Without humour, she says, “You just feel defeated and upset. It gives hope to people who are struggling. I’ve talked to people who say that the film gives them hope. It may seem like we’re going through an apocalypse, but maybe there’s something after that brings us back to a wholeness.’’
Hope is the bright thread that runs through all three films. In Extractions, Cuthand uses found footage of oil wells and ravaged landscapes to compare the extraction of natural resources to the extraction of Indigenous children from their homes and communities. But then, in the next scene, she’s injecting herself with fertility drugs – she wants to have a baby. It’s a way of reclaiming hope and self-determination.
At the same time, she wrestles with the idea of complicity. Also in Extractions, she travels through the “chemical valley” that enriches Southwestern Ontario, on her way to give a workshop … sponsored by a chemical company. And in the final video, Less Lethal Fetishes, she peers from behind a gas mask as she relates the story of a particular ethical dilemma. Last year, she was thrilled to be invited to show a film at the Whitney Biennial in New York – until word got out that the vice-chair of the Whitney Museum, Warren Kanders, owned a company that manufactured tear gas. Artists in the Biennial staged protests, and Cuthand was torn: Should she stay in the show and help her career, or pull out in accordance with her beliefs? Fortunately for her, Kanders resigned from the Whitney before she had to make a decision, and her film was shown.
“It was such a distressing time for me,” Cuthand says. “’Did I make enough of a statement? As an artist who deals with politics in my work, I wondered how much responsibility I bear in a situation like that.”
Cuthand’s films are showing as part of the Berlinale, which runs until March 1. After that, she’ll return to her home base in Toronto, where she’s working on her video game, A Bipolar Journey (level three features players in a group home fighting over a TV remote, and level four requires them to adjust their medication so they’re able to buy a hot dog) as well as working on a feature-film script about a queer Indigenous woman who can set fire to people and things with her mind. In other words, work that is funny and hopeful and political, all at once.
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