imagineNATIVE Turns Lucky Thirteen
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imagineNATIVE Turns Lucky Thirteen

The annual film and media-arts festival focuses on Indigenous stories.

Alanis Obomsawin's new documentary, The People of Kattawapiskak River, will open the fest.

imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival
Various venues
October 17–21
Individual screening tickets $7 to $12

For imagineNATIVE, thirteen is no unlucky number. Established in 1998 by Cynthia Lickers-Sage, the annual festival of work by Indigenous filmmakers and artists has beaten the odds, managing to carve a niche for itself on Toronto’s busy film calendar—and a meaningful one, at that. Part of its charm is the diversity of forms and genres that it encompasses: fiction feature films, documentaries, shorts, radio broadcasts, music videos, and art exhibits. Despite being a film festival in name, imagineNATIVE’s focus has never been on the medium. It’s about the stories.

The festival begins with the world premiere of Alanis Obomsawin’s new documentary, The People of the Kattawapiskak River. An acclaimed Canadian filmmaker (whose 80th birthday coincides with the festival), Obomsawin rose to prominence with her 1993 documentary on the Oka Crisis, Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance. Her work has centered on Indigenous rights, with the aim of sharing the stories of First Nations people—particularly those not heard (or actively ignored) in the mainstream media. For her new work, Obomsawin journeys to Kattawapiskak River, 700 kilometres north of Timmins, Ontario, in Cree territory. Around 1700 people live in this remote community. One thousand of them are in need of homes.

The documentary begins with a montage of Ministers of Parliament from all political parties tossing around the word “Kattawapiska.” By presenting politicians’ hollow cries for more housing, Obomsawin quickly establishes the disconnect between Ottawa and the very real crisis on the reserve. Tracing the Cree’s long history of disappointments (beginning with Catholic missionaries and pre-confederation heads of state, and ending in the present day), Obomsawin eschews talking to politicians. Instead, she focuses on those living and working in the Kattawapiska community. Her intimate interviews never reek of poverty porn or voyeurism. Instead, they give platforms to people who belong to demographics that are often talked about, but rarely listened to: a single father giving a tour of his condemned home; a teacher reduced to frustrated tears because her students have to choose between coming to class and adequate housing; a mother who dreams of her son becoming chief one day. Though the subject is dour, Obomsawin doesn’t sentimentalize it. Instead, she captures a pragmatic truth: to dream of the future, one needs to be able to take root in the present.

Kattawapiskak River is paired with Obomsawin’s first film, Christmas at Moose Factory, a 1971 short comprised of simple illustrations drawn and explained by children from the titular community on James Bay. It’s easy to write off the short as “cute,” but it dovetails with the themes expressed in Kattawapiskak River and Obomsawin’s other works: delving into the untold story, giving a voice to those who are marginalized.

A snow-swept scene from The Tundra Book.

The festival’s features programme offers a mixed bag. Not to linger on the bad, it suffices to say that Michael Melski’s Charlie Zone aims for Flashpoint via The Wire, but lacks the basic tension of the former and the nuance of the latter. (Though fans of the short-lived prime-time soap Whistler will recognize B.C.’s Amanda Crew.) By contrast, the documentary by Aleksei Vakhrushev, The Tundra Book, paints an illuminating (and often funny) portrait of life on the Chukotka peninsula in Russia’s Arctic Circle. After a brief overview of the Indigenous population who live in the region, the on-screen text tells viewers: “So, it’s noon in Chaun tundra. -37 C. Squally wind.” Though seemingly glib, this sentence sets the tone for the film, which captures the daily existence of Vukvukai, a 72-year-old deer herder.

Kaniehtio (Tiio) Horn plays a loutish Quebecker looking for cheap rez smokes.

In the festival’s shorts programme, one of the strongest is Da Smoke Shack, a satirical look at a day in the life of a cashier selling native cigarettes. Directed and written by Kaniehtio (Tiio) Horn, the short humourously lampoons the boredom, monotony, and isolation of smoke-shack work. Horn plays not only the cashier, but also the cashier’s boyfriend and a white, loutish Quebec customer. Da Smoke Shack captures the frustrating cyclical nature of life on the reserve, concluding with the line: “Time to go home and do the same shit I did all day.” Fittingly, the short is paired with an excellent documentary on the subject of Native cigarettes, Smoke Traders.

Closing night will feature The Lesser Blessed, which, having played at TIFF, might have less pull for serious film fans. Adapted from Richard Van Camp’s novel, the film is set in the Northwest Territories. It centres on Larry Sole (Joel Nathan Evans), a man who is bullied because of his past. The story is one of finding the balance between the present and the past.

And this is merely the tip of the iceberg. After the festival kicks things off with a welcome gathering at the Native Canadian Centre, the space will host new media and digital installations (such as Concealed Geographies, a group exhibit which examines geography through an Indigenous lens) and an exhibition of Obomsawin’s prints, which have never been displayed in Toronto before. So no matter what your style, there’s sure to be a story that speaks to you.

Images courtesy of imagineNATIVE.

CORRECTION: October 17, 9:37 AM This post previously stated that the character Larry Sole is “bullied because of his native roots.” He is in fact bullied because of past (burns that cover his body, his interest in metal, etc.). The post has been edited to reflect this.