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Joe Buffalo, an Indigenous skateboard legend and residential school survivor, is the subject of a short documentary premiering at the virtual SXSW Film Festival.Courtesy of SXSW Festival

There is a curious link between cinema, skateboarding and social issues. Perhaps because filmmaking and skating are built around commitment, creativity and a progressive, bucking-the-system mentality. If that sounds like a too-dreamy observation, look at the number of excellent skate-centric films released over the past few years: Skate Kitchen, which explored contemporary feminism; the documentary Minding the Gap, focused on systemic racism; and Mid90s, whose coming-of-age drama mined themes of domestic trauma and economic dislocation.

To add to this growing subgenre is Joe Buffalo, a new short documentary from Syrian-Canadian filmmaker Amar Chebib. Following the title character, an Indigenous skateboarding star, actor and residential school survivor, Chebib’s film acts as both a loving tribute to skating and a stark lesson on a chapter of history many Canadians have either forgotten about or remained ignorant of.

Ahead of the film’s world premiere at this week’s virtual South By Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival, Chebib, Buffalo and producer Hayley Morin spoke from Vancouver with The Globe and Mail about the film’s genesis and purpose.

Amar, you’ve known Joe for years. How did the relationship begin?

Amar Chebib: We met back in Montreal in 2005, through skateboarding. But then I left to go to film school in Vancouver, and only got back in touch in 2019. I had heard Joe turned pro, which is when I also discovered his background, of having gone to one of the last residential schools in Canada.

Joe Buffalo: It happened so organically. But I had difficulties trusting people. I had just gotten discovered for acting [in 2016′s Hello, Destroyer], and I was navigating my way through that. Building trust with a filmmaker was a big step.

Chebib: Because of Joe’s background in acting, there was an opportunity to make a more stylized film than usual: a genre-bender that mixed documentary and narrative, all while making a skateboarding film. I wanted something that was appealing to those who might not ordinarily watch a documentary about a residential school survivor. Young teens aren’t going on the NFB to watch films made 20 years ago. We mostly think that residential schools are a thing of the distant past, but the last schools weren’t closed until the nineties.

How difficult was it to open up about those experiences for you, Joe?

Buffalo: It was physically and mentally exhausting. I can only go for about an hour before I’m spent. It’s so tender to me, and just being freshly sober on top of sharing that stuff with Amar ... But if I could just talk about it as a sign of hope and healing, then you just apply yourself in those steps toward healing.

You attended St. Mary’s Salesian in Edmonton from 1988 through ’89, then Lebret Residential School in Saskatchewan from 1990 until ’92. I don’t think many Canadians realize residential schools were still operating in the ’90s.

Buffalo: Canada has done a good job of revising the history books to cover its dark colonial past. By being part of a skateboarding company called Colonialism Skateboards, and with the non-profit Nations Skate Youth, the whole focus is to educate the masses on what really took place in Canada. There are moments when the triggers are heavy. I’ve had to develop a whole other vocabulary around discussing the trauma.

When we’re talking about short films, there is a problem in gaining awareness. Why premiere at SXSW instead of on the Canadian festival circuit?

Hayley Morin: A big issue we ran into in the Canadian market is the fact that Amar is a non-Indigenous director and we’re telling an Indigenous story. Although our lead talent is Indigenous, and Joe co-wrote the film, and the entire story is Indigenous, and I’m Indigenous, it still wasn’t enough in the Canadian market’s eyes to give it the exposure that we think it deserves. We’ve been combatting that and finding ways around it. In America, it’s a bit more open, and we’re grateful for that because we just want to get people to see the film. The priority is Joe’s story.

Joe, were you concerned about the issue of who gets to tell whose stories?

Buffalo: Nah. I had seen the work Amar had done previously, and because we’d already been homies, I saw him as a friend who approached me. It happened so organically, and I didn’t feel any pressure at all, no.

Is there a concern about a short film, premiering virtually, will get lost in the crowd?

Morin: We’re in talks with more festivals, but our main priority is getting a release with online partners.

Chebib: The vast majority of people are going to see this film online, and that’s where the short form has an advantage. You can reach a massive audience that way. But I hope that people are inspired by Joe’s story, and inspired to learn more about the legacy of residential schools. And maybe start skateboarding, too.

Joe Buffalo premieres at SXSW starting March 16, and will be available to view for Canadian festival pass-holders.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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