Indigenous Cinema in Canada - Edmonton Short Film Festival

National Indigenous History Month is a great opportunity to share some history of Canadian Indigenous cinema and especially to champion some of those early and significant Indigenous filmmakers who crafted their own way of looking through the camera and inaugurated a new type of cinema.

As a strange way to begin, jump with me all the way across the Pacific to the words of a Māori filmmaker living in New Zealand by the name of Barry Barclay. In 2003, Barclay suggested the idea of a “Fourth Cinema,” or what has come to be known more commonly as Indigenous Cinema. Barclay proposed the concept of Indigenous Cinema in response to what he saw as a small but growing cannon of films that did not quite fit into any preexisting category of films. These were feature films that had been made by different Indigenous groups throughout the world in an autonomous and self-determined way. Cinematic contributions by Indigenous filmmakers living in Canada were essential to the formulation of this global cinematic category of Indigenous Cinema.

Let’s look at some of these pioneering Indigenous filmmakers working in Canada who through their films establish and propose an approach to cinema that exceeds the boundaries of what is otherwise classified as “Canadian Cinema”.

One of the very first films made by an Indigenous artist in Canada was the 10 minute short film “The Ballad of Crowfoot” made by the Mi’kmaq/Scottish folk songwriter William Dunn. We’ve mentioned this film made by Dunn in the past and his significance for Indigenous film in Canada can’t be understated. “The Ballad of Crowfoot” was made in 1968 as a music video of sorts, featuring the titular song that Dunn wrote detailing the story of Crowfoot, the 19th-century Siksika (Blackfoot) chief who negotiated the Treaty 7 agreement. The visuals of the film feature archival images, both still and moving, of Indigenous peoples, buffalo, and early settlers. The song tells the story of Crowfoot’s bravery and the colonial betrayals that followed the signing of the Treaty.

Dunn is also a notable for being one of the inaugural members of the then-called Indian Film Crew, the first collective of all-Indigenous filmmakers in Canada, supported by the National Film Board. The other members from this group include Ernest Benedict and Michael Kanentakeron Mitchell.  It is these artists and their experiments in filmmaking in the late 1960’s that made it possible to initially think of something like an Indigenous cinema both in Canada and globally.

It is in the 1990s and early 2000s when this promise of an autonomous Indigenous cinema in Canada reaches a serious climax, all thanks to the Inuit filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk. In the 80s Kunuk worked for a broadcasting company that had a station in the Iglooik area of Nunavut where Kunuk was from (Nunavut at the time was not yet recognised as its own territory). He grew increasingly frustrated with the bureaucratic processes and directional influences that came down from the broadcasting company’s authority figures that were located elsewhere in Canada. Which is to say that many of the choices around representation of the Iglooik community were coming from people outside the community itself. Kunuk left this company and founded the production company Igloolik Isuma Productions with the intention of having greater control over the films made by and about the people in this region.

Isuma productions became a great success. The team Kunuk brought together produced many films, all filmed entirely in Inuktitut. One of the early successes of Isuma productions was the tv series called “Nunavut (Our Land).” Over 13 episodes, Kunuk and members from his community recreated local traditions, ceremonies and practices. They recreated these past practices in a unique filmmaking style that combined documentary and fiction into a kind of hybrid form that established its own criteria for cinematic truth and value. A personal favourite from this series is the final episode “Quviasukvik (Happy Day)” . This episode imagines what Christmas Day in 1945 might have been like, with the episode depicting different members of the community gathering together in a seemingly ironic transformation of the classical Christian holiday. Throughout the episode, the typical happenings of Christmas day are broken apart and reimagined through the eyes of Inuk culture.

2001 is when Zacharias Kunuk would direct the feature film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner that brought international acclaim to Kunuk’s quest for representational sovereignty. With this film, and the rest of Kunuk’s work, he strived to preserve and cultivate the ancient roots of his culture. Together, Kunuk and the other filmmakers mentioned here strive to bring into existence a type of cinema that shows Indigenous cultures from the inside — and in doing so also dismantle, erode, and liquify that thick layer of misrepresentation that has long been crusted into the history of popular cinema. It is through this cultivation of image-sovereignty that many such Indigenous filmmakers and artists support and extend a demand for sovereignty in a broader sense.