When most people think of Indians in movies, the usual image is of bare-chested braves, feathers in their headbands, riding on horseback and dying at a disproportionate rate to the cowboys or homesteaders they are attacking. No wonder, as Cree director Neil Diamond points out in his new film about Indians in the movies, even most Indian kids prefer to play the cowboys.
Diamond's documentary, Reel Injun, which opens the 10th annual ImagineNATIVE Film Festival in Toronto, offers a survey of those images and the shifting perceptions of native people over the decades. The film (produced with help from the National Film Board) takes a trip through the United States and interviews academics, comedians, critics and celebrities including Clint Eastwood, Robbie Robertson, Adam Beach and Sacheen Littlefeather.
Otherwise, the ImagineNATIVE festival is determinedly diverse in its focus, with a half-dozen shorts programs, new media and films from New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines and North America.
There are even a couple of films about some helpful white men. James Houston: The Most Interesting Group of People You Could Ever Meet is an homage directed by Houston's son, Halifax-based filmmaker John, to the late author and artist who was a key figure in the worldwide success of Inuit art.
Filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin ( Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance) offers a portrait of a McGill religious-studies professor in Professor Norman Cornett: "Since When do We Divorce the Right Answer from an Honest Answer?" She makes the case for Cornett as an inspirational teacher who was fired for caring too much, though there's a hole in the story. Cornett says he doesn't know why he was fired, and McGill officials won't tell, so we're left with the impression, but not the proof, of an injustice.
First-time filmmaker Sara Roque's documentary Six Miles Deep, about Six Nations women in the 2006 confrontation in Caledonia, is also more about advocacy than investigation, though it provides insight into how the women see their historic role.
Fictional films include Stone Bros., Richard Frankland's shaggy Australian comedy about Aboriginal cousins on a chaotic road trip. Racism is treated lightly here, in a story filled with musicians, cross-dressers, doltish law officers and the consumption of 187 marijuana joints.
Two dramas at the festival hail from different worlds but share the Sundance Film Festival imprimatur: Director Armagan Ballantyne's The Strength of Water (which was developed at Sundance) comes from a similar world as the Maori community depicted in Whale Rider (2002). After her accidental death, a young girl's spirit continues to hang around until her twin brother can accept his loss.
From Oklahoma comes Sterlin Harjo's Barking Water, which had its premiere at Sundance earlier this year. This minimalist road drama follows the journey of a terminally ill native man (Richard Ray Whitman) and his old lover (Casey Camp-Horinek) on a journey to make amends with his estranged daughter. The script is as lean as bleached bones on the roadside, but both actors' faces suggest a lot about distances travelled and wrong turns taken along the way.
ImagineNATIVE Film Festival runs from Oct. 14-18 at Toronto's Bloor Cinema, Al Green Theatre, Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Royal Cinema. Tickets may be purchased online at http://www.imaginenative.org or at the Festival box office at 2 Carlton St. (416-967-1528).