Short films rise to a challenging question
Five filmmakers give their thoughts on the subject of decolonization in a provocative CBC series
The setting is an Asian noodle shop in small-town Saskatchewan. The year: 2037. The patrons are slurping away on "psychedelic polydimensional comfort food," such as the lo-mein that promises to collapse the diner's third dimension or the chicken-broth ramen that will send him eight to 10 nanoseconds into the future.
It's a wacky sci-fi scenario and satire of exotic molecular cuisine that hardly suggests this animated film is going to address colonialism or Canada's relationship with the First Nations. Still, Marco's Oriental Noodles is a three-minute response by Toronto animator Howie Shia to a tough political question: How do we decolonize?
It was singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie who, early in 2017 at outset of the Canada 150 hoopla that offended many Indigenous people, counselled everyone to "Keep calm and decolonize." But what exactly does that mean? After centuries of contact, can you really tease apart the threads of settler and Indigenous culture?
The CBC put Ojibwe film programmer and critic Jesse Wente on the case, asking him to produce a series of short films under the title Keep Calm and Decolonize. Shia's piece is one of five brief but provocative thoughts on the subject that will go online Nov. 27 and also air on CBC TV Dec. 3.
"I was looking for a variety of viewpoints, interpretations of what decolonization could mean or might look like," Wente explains in an interview. "So often it is associated with Indigenous self-determination, but we all suffer from colonization."
Filmmaker Yung Chang makes that point in his short, Brave Overseas: The title is the poignant meaning of his Chinese name, and the film features old home movies from his Oshawa, Ont., childhood as he describes how he gradually discovered that this place where he thought he belonged considered him an outsider. Back in China, they knew the truth: It would take courage to live overseas.
Veteran National Film Board of Canada documentarian Alanis Obomsawin also tells a story about belonging in her mini-doc, Walking is Medicine. It recounts the inspirational story of the Nishiyuu walkers, six young Cree men who recreated the long-distance treks of their ancestors as they walked 1,600 kilometres from their home in Northern Quebec to Ottawa in support of the Idle No More movement in 2013. In a mere five minutes, Obomsawin tells their story and places them in a breathtaking natural context with aerial shots of caribou herds, polar bears and sweeping landscapes. "I'm proud; I think it's the shortest film she has ever made," Wente says.
Amanda Strong's Flood is also a piece that directly addresses Indigenous experience in a piece of animation that shows a young woman in a canoe paddling into a stream of paper flowing from the desk of cramped figure in a judge's wig. The short combines the guiding figure of the Spider Woman from Indigenous legend with shadow puppets in the Asian tradition to beautiful effect. It's a delicate piece, but also perhaps the most overt representation of colonial power in the series.
"To me, decolonization has not been about a return to a way of life … No one is saying everybody has to give up their house and live in a longhouse," Wente says. "It's about understanding that colonialism has established structures that we all live under, that have inequity built into them."
The experimental filmmaker John Greyson exposes that in Pink: Diss, a piece of performance art that plays with the idea of pink – the colour that indicated British colonies on the map of the world. Riffing off everything from the pink triangle used by the Nazis to brand gays to the pink skin of people suffering from mercury poisoning, Greyson plays with the word he has been assigned. Punning on "colon" and "colonization," a pink queen played by black actor Alexander Chapman insists that his pupil (played by Mohawk artist and transgender activist Kiley May) punctuate various sentences about pink oppression.
And then there is Shia's noodle shop, a place where the hipsters are chowing down on noodles savoured for their exoticism but now long removed from the original dish that was appropriated; it's a place where the colonizers no longer recognize the thing they took in the first place.
"And where does that leave the colonizer?" Wente asks. "It seemed to be addressing Canada in the moment." Indeed, in the figure of Egan Emmett, the diner whose commitment to cosmopolitanism has somehow morphed into a daily bowl of noodles he no longer really wants, Shia seems to capture the settlers' dilemma, trapped in a society they can't see the way to change.
The solution? Well, political reform in Canada will only be driven by a change of Canadian attitudes, Wente figures: "For me, storytelling, our making movies like this, is important because it's going to take a cultural shift."
Keep Calm and Decolonize will be available at cbc.ca/watch on Nov. 27 and airs on CBC TV on Dec. 3 at 3 p.m. (3:30 p.m. NT).