On Tuesday morning, the Toronto International Film Festival revealed the first wave of selections for its 43rd annual edition. Among the expected mix of Oscar bait (Damien Chazelle’s First Man, starring Ryan Gosling) and celebrity-heavy crowd-pleasers (Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born, with Lady Gaga), one film has the potential to generate enough discussion and debate to rival any Hollywood drama: Through Black Spruce.
The Canadian production boasts a high-profile creative team, with director Don McKellar (Last Night), screenwriter Barbara Samuels (the CBC’s North of 60), a producing team that includes Robert Lantos (The Sweet Hereafter) and a cast featuring veteran performers Graham Greene and Tantoo Cardinal. Set in Moosonee, Ont., the story focuses on a fractured Cree family and pivots on the history of abuse endured by the country’s Indigenous people.
Yet the film will arrive at TIFF weighted with controversy. For starters, the movie is an adaptation of the 2008 novel by Joseph Boyden, who’s been at the centre of a high-profile debate about cultural appropriation. In 2016, APTN National News published an article that questioned Boyden’s “shape-shifting Indigenous identity,” allegations that have followed the novelist and were explored in a Globe and Mail investigation this past summer. Meanwhile, like last year’s contentious TIFF selection Indian Horse, Through Black Spruce is an Indigenous-focused story directed by a non-Indigenous filmmaker.
“We’re at a particular moment in the evolution of Canadian culture and Canadian cinema, in particular, and films like Through Black Spruce allow us to get great Indigenous actors on the big screen,” says Cameron Bailey, TIFF’s artistic director and co-head. “The issue of who is making these stories remains something that people will continue to discuss, as they should.”
Along with Lantos and Samuels, Tina Keeper is one of the film’s producers, having optioned Boyden’s novel in 2012. The Cree filmmaker and actress, best known for her starring role on Samuels’s North of 60, says that her team’s adaptation is not about appropriation, but instead “collaboration.”
“At the time [of preparing the film], there was such a small arena of people you could go to for Indigenous directors and writers. Now, the system is committed to developing that. But at the time, if you mentioned a name, they were definitely already on a project,” Keeper says. “The other option was to go with someone like Barbara, someone I’ve worked with and trusted in the past, and Don, who has always been someone I’ve wanted to work with. … This was a story from my region, a story of women in my family, and I felt very in control of the creative direction. And I appreciated my team.”
Keeper notes that Boyden was not involved with the adaptation and let the material rest with her and Samuels. The author has seen the film, according to Keeper, and when the producers eventually plan for a local Moosonee screening, Boyden “will be there for sure.” (Boyden did not respond to a request for comment from The Globe.) But Keeper added that she doesn’t feel the need to debate or defend the author’s ancestry.
"I think that the pickup by the media on his identity was kind of an insult of colonization. Last year, why weren't we covering in our national news the horror of the Cindy Gladue case, or the amazing work Senator [Murray] Sinclair is doing?" she says. "I know that APTN came out with the story. But I believe that he is Indigenous, and I don't believe it's my role in any way to be a gatekeeper for Indigeneity."
Edmund Metatawabin, the former chief of the Fort Albany First Nation in Ontario, echoes Keeper’s sentiments. The memoirist (Up Ghost River: A Chief’s Journey Through the Turbulent Waters of Native History) is a noted critic of Boyden’s work, yet agreed to appear in a small role in Through Black Spruce.
“I think if we work together on a project that we believe in, it’s more important to look at the story than say, ‘He wasn’t standing straight,’ or something like that. Those are minor details, the story is more important,” Metatawbin says. “I’ve talked with Joseph, and he has certain responsibilities. … But I wouldn’t take anything from him. He did a good job.”
Vancouver’s Tanaya Beatty stars in Through Black Spruce as Annie, whose quest to find her missing sister allows the story to explore themes of Indigenous identity both on and off the reserve. The Indigenous actor feels that the production is a necessary and overdue response to the film industry’s history of misrepresenting an entire culture’s narrative.
“It felt in and of itself like reconciling in some ways, and I don’t say that lightly,” says Beatty, who’s appeared on the CBC’s Arctic Air and NBC’s The Night Shift. “I’ve seen so many Indigenous stories and traumas talked about in a way that is fetishizing them or told from the perspective of a white person. This was not that.”
“I totally understand the frustration,” she adds. “My mom was part of the Sixties Scoop. These stories are everything to me, and I think this film was made in a good way.”
Still, Keeper is anticipating the inevitable.
“Do I think there’s going to be a backlash? Yeah. And they have a right to say something,” she says. “It’s been a bit of a battleground, and we have to take ground where we can. To me, this doesn’t diminish the film and the impact the film is going to have.”
The 43rd edition of the Toronto International Film Festival runs Sept. 6 to 16.