By: Josh Welsh

Indigenous films are making waves across Canada.

The 2019 Toronto International Film Festival saw a lot of Indigenous films screened during its run. Some of these films include Jeff Barnaby’s zombie thriller Blood Quantum and the NFB’s docu-drama, by acclaimed Canadian Abenaki director Alanis Obomsawin, Jordan River Anderson, The Messenger.

However, some say that Indigenous films are still being underrepresented.

Adriana Chartrand, institute manager at imagineNATIVE, says that although there has been a lot of progress this past year, Indigenous films still need a voice.

“There could always be more for Indigenous films,” she says. “We’ve made a lot of inroads recently, in terms of funding available for Indigenous film, especially in Canada and access to different resources but there’s still a long way to go.”

Adriana Chartrand has been at imagineNATIVE for over 3 years and loves it. ©imagineNATIVE, Adriana’s LinkedIn profile.

ImagineNATIVE is a non-profit and charity organization that runs year-round. They host the largest indigenous film festival in Canada which takes place once a year in October. ImagineNATIVE attracts Indigenous people from all over the world like New Zealand, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, the U.S., Russia and Canada.

The Institute, another department of imagineNATIVE, deals with professional programming like panels, talks, workshops and master classes that take place during the festival. 

This past October, the imagineNATIVE Film & Media Arts Festival became the only Indigenous film festival that is Academy Award qualifying. It is also one of the few qualifying festivals in Canada.

“I think it was a very important step for them to take and I’m glad they did it,” Chartrand says. “We really pushed for it – to get Indigenous representation in the media and places like Hollywood where there hasn’t been a lot of authentic Indigenous representation – so I think it’s definitely a really big step and I’m really excited about it.”

Joel George, an Indigenous filmmaker from Quinte West, Ontario, agrees with Chartrand.

“I don’t think there’s enough authentic representation,” he says. “It’s getting closer and closer to being more of what it should be, like Indigenous filmmakers telling stories of their own people and all that, but it’s still in the process.”

George is the founder of Prime Media Productions, a production company based in the Quinte West area. He feels that Indigenous stories are universal.

Joel George’s Facebook photo. ©Joel George

“The more we explore these Indigenous stories, the more we realize they’re everybody’s stories and I think that’s something Indigenous people are able to communicate in a greater or powerful way than some of the mainstream media out there,” George says.

One of the issues that George feels is underrepresented among Indigenous films is mental health.

“Everybody struggles with it but it’s a really core issue with Indigenous people that I meet from all over that I think is becoming more and more prominent the more it’s explored,” he says. “Indigenous people have been ashamed of who they are. It’s not unique to them but it’s certainly prevalent amongst the vast majority of them.”

He wants specific Indigenous issues brought to light that can be talked about and see people work towards solving them through the power of film.

Jamie Monastyrski, manager of communications and research at the Indigenous Screen Office, feels it’s time for Indigenous people to take back their way of telling stories.

“Non-Indigenous producers and storytellers have been telling our stories for so long,” he says. “We need to take that back and create sovereignty over our stories and how they are told. This is the time.”

The Indigenous Screen Office announced a partnership with Netflix back in the summer called the Netflix Production Mentorship and Apprenticeship Program. The program brings a range of partnership programs that aim to develop the next generation of Indigenous content and creators across Canada.

“What an amazing partnership,” Monastyrski says. “We partnered with Netflix to provide new funding opportunities to support training, capacity building and culturally specific approaches for Indigenous on-screen content creators. We’ve heard from the people we’ve supported and they are ecstatic and thankful for these opportunities.”

Monastyrski says the goal of the program is to offer the opportunity for Indigenous producers, directors and writers to engage in cultural mentorship. This will create new opportunities for hands-on training and career progression for Indigenous creatives who want to take their careers to the next level.

Indigenous filmmaker Tony McGuire, who is the founder of Theymedia in Thunder Bay, Ontario, feels the Canadian system of representation for Indigenous films needs to change.

“There’s an overrepresentation in Canada of the same people telling the same stories,” he says. “I want to see more stories and more natives doing stuff. We are represented in Canada but it’s overrepresented by an exclusive group who tell a lot of the stories and are in control of a lot of the TV shows.”

McGuire says film is part of a revival of the storytelling process.

“Filmmaking has replaced the storyteller around the fire,” he says. “The reason I exist is to try to get more Indigenous stories out there. Let’s change how people view natives,” he says.

McGuire is currently working on a feature film called Mercy and the CBC show Land and Sea. The show’s next season will touch on Indigenous issues and is set to premiere next spring.

Tony McGuire on set for a promo for Lakehead University, taken from his Facebook page. ©Tony McGuire

To see imagineNATIVE and Indigenous films flourish in the future, Chartrand hopes to see proper representation of Indigenous people in the industry.

“I would like to see it continue to grow and the community minded organization continue to make inroads into having authentic Indigenous representation at all levels of the film and television industry – whether that’s people actually making the films or people administering the films or people in decision making positions,” she says.

Writer’s Note: This story was originally an assignment submitted for the Reporting in Indigenous Communities course at Humber College.