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Michelle Latimer does not want you to walk away from her films thinking that you’re suddenly now on her side. That you are an ally. That, after an investment of 90 minutes, you can congratulate yourself on understanding everything that she is trying to say, everything that her Métis/Algonquin culture is trying to say.
“I don’t want people to suddenly go, ‘Oh, I’m so educated now.’ I want people to feel, ‘I didn’t know about that’ or ‘I need to examine that,’” the director says. “I want them to take the onus upon themselves to do something, whether that’s educate themselves or activate themselves.”
Michelle Latimer wants you to do the work. Because she has already done hers.
This week, the Toronto-based Latimer will accomplish something only a handful of filmmakers have managed before, and all without the unique challenges of a worldwide pandemic – she will premiere not one but two highly anticipated productions at the Toronto International Film Festival, which is proceeding in a hybrid format including virtual, drive-in and in-cinema screenings.
The first, Inconvenient Indian, is a feature-length documentary that takes as inspiration Thomas King’s acclaimed 2012 book The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America and propels it forward in substance and aesthetic. The result is a hugely ambitious, delightfully experimental cinematic dissection of the cultural colonization of Indigenous people. The second project, the new CBC series Trickster, is similarly ambitious and has the distinct potential to change the way television is made in this country. Adapting the work of another celebrated Canadian writer, this time Eden Robinson, Latimer’s series about a hard-luck Indigenous teen dealing with problems both familial and supernatural redefines what a homegrown TV series can be: fantastical, sexy, dangerous. Combined, the two productions deliver a gut punch of ambition and artistry to the domestic entertainment industry.
Even though the timing is purely accidental.
“I would never have predicted the timing of this. TV series can take years to develop, so I didn’t realize how fast it would all happen,” says Latimer, enjoying a half-sunny, half-rainy day in a Toronto park in late August. “We finished principal photography on Inconvenient Indian two weeks before starting prep on Trickster. I was going full-stop, to the point where my editor, Katie Chipperfield, was editing Inconvenient Indian one day while I was working on delivering her an episode of Trickster three days later. I’m going to take a break soon, I promise.”
But before she can do that, there is more work to be done. Like this very interview, one of a dozen or so that Latimer has cycled through in the past few days, each session requiring her to patiently explain herself to the overwhelmingly white contingent of Canadian arts journalists who can only begin to imagine the histories and sensibilities that inform her artistic vision.
“There’s one point in the film where you see a beaded Iroquois Confederacy belt, and if you didn’t grow up with that, then you’re not going to recognize it. But we are,” Latimer says. “There are little nuggets like that throughout. But you might watch it and say, ‘Oh, what is that?’ Well, find out on your own. I’m not interested in feeding people information.”
Also of disinterest to Latimer is taking the time to cater to an industry suddenly passionate about “diversity,” as though the importance of hearing and representing an array of voices materialized out of thin air this past spring.
“I’m seeing some action on that front, but I also recognize that a lot of the legwork is falling on the shoulders of artists. Everyone wants diversity, and now everyone is looking around for diverse artists to make that happen. But it’s hard to do all that work on top of making your own art, you know?” she says. “Sometimes honestly I’m jealous that there are people who get to make their art for art’s sake. I’m now asked to be on all these panels for diversity, but that’s time and focus away from the central thing that I want to do.”
What Latimer would instead like to see – what needs to be done to make any of the many entertainment industry promises worth anything – is control. More diverse creators and showrunners, certainly, but also creators and showrunners who have copyright and ownership. “Not,” she clarifies, “just a bunch of emerging mentorship programs. We’re at that place now where lots of Indigenous people are behind the camera making work that’s globally recognized. We’re ready for that next phase.”
Not that mentorship didn’t play a key role in Latimer’s own career. After getting her start in the industry as a performer (Moose TV, Paradise Falls, Blackstone), Latimer moved to the other side of the camera, directing short films (2010′s Choke), which gave way to feature-length documentaries (2013′s Alias), which led to episodic television (Little Dog, Burden of Truth) and her highly acclaimed eight-part Viceland series Rise, which examined the 2016 Standing Rock occupation protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. Each project became a reality thanks to myriad emerging-artist programs (the LIFT/ImagineNATIVE Mentorship, Astral Media Mentorship Award, the Field of Vision Fellowship, the Sundance Institute Screenwriting Lab). Which is why Latimer is now paying it forward. And paying a price.
On Trickster, Latimer and her producers employed a “two-pronged” representation approach. First, they employed Indigenous crew wherever possible, across departments. Second, the team ensured there were intensive internships for budding Indigenous filmmakers, which were paid – and whose costs came out of the series’s production budget.
“It would be nice to see other support for these programs. Because a non-Indigenous program, like some cop show, they just get to put all their money into the show. We took a quarter of a million dollars and put it into training programs, which is money that’s then off the screen,” Latimer says. “This support shouldn’t be on the shoulders of producers.”
It is that sense of commitment and responsibility, though, that drives Latimer’s approach to filmmaking. Rise works so well because Latimer was on the ground, in the thick of Standing Rock, for nine months – a “traumatic” marathon of “armed guards and snipers and helicopters.” Inconvenient Indian is so engaging because Latimer doesn’t just transfer King’s ideas to another medium – she takes the time to re-imagine them.
“This is an incredibly dense book about an enormous stretch of history, so I was interested in making sure that there was a visual language and style that was going to elevate the material. And Michelle is extremely talented in terms of that visual approach – that complete cinema view,” says Jesse Wente, one of Inconvenient Indian’s producers. “One of my goals on the film was to show, don’t tell. A lot of docs are very straight-ahead, with titles on the screen, talking heads. But that wasn’t my interest here or Michelle’s. She creates something that doesn’t play to typical documentary expectations.”
Trickster, meanwhile, explodes off the screen because it deliberately studies the conventions of traditional series drama before tossing the rules out for something fresh and thrilling.
“I hope it’s the beginning of more of this kind of storytelling, because the CBC has never adapted an Indigenous book with an Indigenous team. It’s the national broadcaster, so that’s shocking,” Latimer says. “I didn’t originally think that they were even a good fit, because if you’ve read Eden’s book, it’s drugs and swearing and substance abuse and, well, they’re not going to like this. But I have to give them credit; they trusted us. I hope there’s power given to more creators – the power to have a real voice. I’m happy to take notes and be collaborative, but I don’t want to be a puppet for someone’s social agenda.”
And though Latimer wishes that most audiences at TIFF could have been able to watch her film, and her cinematically inclined series, on the big screen – “It kills me a little knowing people will watch over their tinny iPad speakers” – a double programming hit is also a genuine dream come true.
“I used to work in the festival box office, back in the College Park days, and I did it because I’d get the passes to see the films. To have two projects there 20 years later, it’s surreal,” she says. “If you’d have said to me back then that I would have had films at TIFF, my response would’ve been, ‘Oh, shut up.’”
But Michelle Latimer was willing to do the work. Will Canadian audiences do the same?
Inconvenient Indian premieres at TIFF Sept. 12 at 4:45 p.m. at the Lightbox. Additional screenings take place Sept. 12, 5:15 p.m., Lightbox; Sept. 13, 6 p.m., Bell Digital Cinema; Sept. 17, 5 p.m., Lightbox, and during the Vancouver International Film Festival (Sept. 24 through Oct. 7). Trickster premieres Sept. 15 at 12:30 p.m. at the Lightbox, with an additional screening Sept. 16, 6 p.m., Bell Digital Cinema, before premiering on CBC on Oct. 7 at 9 p.m. ET (tiff.net).