Now in its 14th year, the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival returns with a full slate of feature films, shorts, video essays, and live performances designed to showcase the range of Indigenous media arts from around the globe—with a particular emphasis, this year, on artists from the Maori nation in New Zealand.
The festival kicks off with Mystery Road (October 16, 7 p.m.), a compelling potboiler set in the Australian outback. Drawing from both classic Westerns and American Southern Gothic fiction by the likes of Flannery O’Connor, Ivan Sen’s film is a straightforward but smartly told procedural about an Aboriginal detective named Jay (Aaron Pederson), who returns to his old community after a stint in the big city to investigate the murder of a young woman. His sleuthing takes him deep into a corrupt police culture and an underground drug ring involving Aboriginal youth who are sold into prostitution.
The film’s mystery is easy enough to solve, and the attempts to flesh out Pederson’s stoic lawman by saddling him with a run-of-the-mill family drama aren’t always successful, but the climactic set piece is one of the best-executed shootouts in recent memory—the rare standoff that’s as spatially coherent as it is tense.
Like Mystery Road, a number of imagineNATIVE’s highlights debuted at September’s Toronto International Film Festival. Some of the best-received titles to get their second wind here are films about the First Nations experience in contemporary Canada, including Rhymes for Young Ghouls (October 18, 9 p.m.), Jeff Barnaby’s period piece about a teenaged girl weathering the devastating effects of the residential school system, and Peter Stebbings’s Empire of Dirt (October 19, 9 p.m.), a modest intergenerational family saga set partly in Toronto and grounded by a terrific supporting performance by Jennifer Podemski, who also produced the film.
Those seeking more explicitly political material would do well to take in Alanis Obomsawin’s intelligent and moving Hi-Ho Mistahey! (October 19, 4:15 p.m.), the first-runner-up in TIFF’s People’s Choice award for documentary filmmaking this year. The documentary traces the development of an activist campaign called Shannen’s Dream, an effort to lobby the Canadian government for equal access to education for First Nations youth. Obomsawin follows the campaign from its tough inception in the Attawapiskat community to its eventual arrival at the House of Commons, soberly capturing the emotional highs and lows along the way as ordinary children become active agents in the fight for their rights and educational futures.
In addition to these features and a number of shorts programmes spanning Canadian and international work, the festival will also host its inaugural video-essay project, indigiTALKS (October 19, 2 p.m.). The programme, to be presented at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, began as a formal challenge to three Ontario-based artists (Wanda Nanibush, Rachelle Dickenson, and Ariel Smith) to produce 10-minute video essays and accompanying public talks on their respective approaches to Indigenous-created film and video work. The festival likewise includes a musical component called The Beat, consisting of a performance by Polaris Prize nominated artists A Tribe Called Red and, as their opener, beat-boxing Inuit throat singer Nelson Tagoona.
For more information on the festival, including some free online offerings, visit the imagineNATIVE website.