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imagineNATIVE fest celebrates banner year for First Nations film

Categories: Movies

Empire of DirtShay Eyre, left, and Cara Gee star in the multi-generational drama Empire of Dirt. (imagineNATIVE Film Festival)

"Right now, it feels really good to be Indian."

It's been a banner year for indigenous cinema and that closing line from the film Empire of Dirt, produced by and starring Saulteaux filmmaker Jennifer Podemski, is a sentiment that prevails more than ever as this year's imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival takes place in Toronto.

Directed by Peter Stebbings, Empire of Dirt is screening at imagineNATIVE and is also one of three feature-length films that premiered earlier at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, along with Jeff Barnaby's irreverent and gritty Rhymes for Young Ghouls and documentarian Alanis Obomsawin's Hi-Ho Mistahey!

Jennifer PodemskiActress, director and producer Jennifer Podemski (imagineNATIVE Film Festival)

According to Podemski, having indigenous representation at TIFF is a step in the right direction.

"It helped us prove that native is not a genre. It doesn't belong in a category onto itself," said the actress, director and producer, whose film examines the multi-generational struggles of a family of First Nations women.

"We rarely see more than one film, which you can't help feeling like you're a quota, filling some sort of cultural niche."

What general interest moviegoers may not know is that imagineNATIVE has played a large role in the growing prominence of indigenous film, which is gaining a national, mainstream audience.

"We can't deny that imagineNATIVE has had an impact on the festival circuit. People are looking for these works," says Jason Ryle, the festival's executive director.

"Certainly indigenous filmmakers and artists have been creating work always, but festivals like imagineNATIVE have really provided a platform that didn't exist for a diversity of stories to be told."

WakeningDanis Goulet's short film Wakening, starring Sarah Podemski, takes figures from aboriginal myths and casts them in a post-apocalyptic tale. (imagineNATIVE Film Festival)

Currently in its 14th year, the five-day festival is the world's largest indigenous film and media arts festival. With a 2013 lineup of 101 films overall — the festival's largest offering to date — imagineNATIVE promises an exciting slate of dramatic films, documentaries, shorts, discussion panels and art exhibits this week.

Cree filmmaker Danis Goulet, whose short film Wakening opened TIFF this year, hopes to educate non-indigenous audiences when her work screens in larger festivals.

"The two characters in [my] film are re-imaginings of classic Cree characters from an oral tradition, Weesageechak and Weetigo, so I sort of felt like they were infiltrating this huge film festival," says Goulet.

"People don't necessarily know who these people are and to me they're just as classic as Shakespeare."

Though she appreciates the support of other events, she is looking forward to her imagineNATIVE screening Thursday night at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.

"As a filmmaker, I've been to some of the biggest film festivals in the world, like Cannes, Berlin, Sundance," says Goulet.

"imagineNATIVE, for me, is like coming home."

That sense of community is one thing that has always remained true to the festival's original spirit. It was apparent at this year's opening ceremony, held Wednesday at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto.

Bannock was served and a dance ceremony showcased different styles: from traditional to jingle and grass. At one point, colourful regalia intermingled with contemporary clothing, as attendees joined performers for one final round dance. It was a mix of the traditional and the new, much like imagineNATIVE itself.

The imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival runs through Sunday

— by Christian Allaire

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