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Film Toronto's First Peoples festival spotlights an indigenous new wave that's 'starting to crest'

Steve Loft and Jesse Wente are the co-curators of the First Peoples Cinema festival of film and art at the Bell Lightbox in Toronto.

Wampum belts have gone digital.

Scrolling across the walls of Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox is the video installation TwoRow II. Created by American Mohawk Alan Michelson, it consists of two video strips: one capturing the shoreline of Ontario's Grand River facing the Six Nations Reserve, the other the non-native side of the banks. The footage is tinted purple and white, like the rows of purple and white beads strung together in patterns creating the wampum belt – a raw, affecting effort to reflect the land treaties symbolized by traditional wampum belts.

The work is being shown at this summer's First Peoples festival, which features both film and a gallery show. It's also part of what programmer Jesse Wente describes as the "indigenous new wave," a wave "which is now starting to crest." This new wave marks an explosion in work about aboriginal issues – such as re-examinations of how traditional customs are portrayed and misportrayed by the media – created by first peoples around the world.

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It's been a long time coming in Canada. Aboriginal and indigenous art was largely ignored, says the festival's co-curator Steven Loft. But with the arrival of painter Norval Morrisseau in the 1960s and a generation of painters that came to be called the Indian Group of Seven, there was a slow recognition of new art which addressed the aboriginal experience, as lived by its creators.

It's been the same story with film, as indigenous directors have their own say. While the early 1920s saw ethnographic work such as Nanook of the North, native cinema has evolved into dramas such as Before Tomorrow, one of the most powerful Canadian films in recent years, and an intimate portrayal of indigenous themes.

This same progression has been going on in Australia, New Zealand, Samoa and the Philippines. Just as Canadian filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin started to make politically engaged documentaries, so did Merata Mita in New Zealand. They actually met when their films (Obomsawin's Incident at Restigouche and Mita's Bastion Point Day 507) screened on the festival circuit in the early 1980s, and they formed a lifelong friendship and creative collaboration, says Wente, "that really fostered the growth of indigenous documentaries."

The fruit of that growth will be on show at the First People's festival, including a 3-D digital collaboration by Félix Lajeunesse, Paul Raphaël and Zacharias Kunuk. There will also be screenings of the first native Samoan feature film, The Orator, as well as Busong, the first feature shot in the indigenous Palawan language of the Philippines, and a major retrospective of other indigenous cinema from Norman Cohn's Fast Runner Trilogy to Australian director Warwick Thornton's Samson and Delilah, which won the Camera d'Or at Cannes in 2009.

The films tackle everything from the hard reality of indigenous life to dreamlike mythology.

Similarly, while the media art on display can be sublimely serious, as with Michelson's scrolling video projection, there's also Kent Monkman's irreverent work, Two Kindred Spirits. The piece places mannequins of Tonto and the Lone Ranger in one log cabin, adjacent to their German indigenous counterparts Winnetou and Old Shatterhand . Some of them wear frilly aprons, with the Caucasian half of each couple lying in front of their native partners.

As Loft says, whatever the tone, this work challenges our notions of the aboriginal experience, as well as the aboriginal aesthetic.

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First Peoples Cinema: 1,500 Nations, One Tradition is now under way at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox, and runs until Aug. 11 (tiff.net).

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