'This is a political fight': Doc series Rise brings Indigenous resistance to Sundance and beyond
...and its creators have a message for artists that want to help the cause
"Can you tell me why you guys think it's important to know your history?" Sarain Carson-Fox asks a group of Standing Rock youth in new documentary series Rise.
"So it doesn't happen again," one of them responds.
It's one of the many powerful moments in the series, which debuted three of its episodes at the Sundance Film Festival this past weekend. Hosted by Anishinaabekwe dancer Carson-Fox and directed by Métis/Algonquin Toronto filmmaker Michelle Latimer — both activists — the Viceland-produced series takes us to the front lines of global Indigenous resistance at a moment when that fight could not feel more crucial.
"This year, Sundance has a special climate program," Latimer tells CBC Arts the morning after the series' premiere. "It's the first time the festival has done a thematic program. And so we showed three episodes that kind of deal with climate and environment."
But Latimer says it's crucial to be aware that what Rise represents is so much larger than that.
"This is a political fight for us as well," she says. "It's about sovereignty and liberation. So when you see the Trump administration coming in, as well as in Canada where the government has approved three major pipelines cutting through various Indigenous territories — I think with that kind of political willpower and power of the state, it's a war on Indigenous people."
And it means a lot for Latimer to have the series bring up these issues in public consciousness, both at Sundance and when the series debuts on Viceland later this month.
Our water's not for sale; our land is not for sale. We were the original stewards of that land, and we have to be able to protect it.- Michelle Latimer
"They're not just Native issues — they affect everybody," she says. "Our water's not for sale; our land is not for sale. We were the original stewards of that land, and we have to be able to protect it."
Latimer and Carson-Fox also both urge artists to do whatever they can to play their own role in helping the resistance.
"If you are a really successful artist, divest," Carson-Fox laughs. "But seriously, even if you're not, divest. Targeted at Canadians, this is going to be really hard to hear. But I will say, TD Bank is a major contributor to the Dakota Access Pipeline. So there is this really sticky and uncomfortable situation. Outside of my work with Rise, I'm a dancer, and a lot of our arts funding comes from TD Bank. And there are definitely real realities. You have to be willing to make a sacrifice and say, 'Maybe I'm not willing to perform on that stage. Maybe I'm not willing to accept this grant.'"
Carson-Fox adds that artists in general have much more power than they may think.
"Our voices are so important right now, and I think I learned that this year [as far as] the importance of art as messaging," she says. "So I think if artists have an opportunity to tie in their art to direct action, I encourage them to do so — to actually make messaging and to use their artistic platform to speak to these issues. And if you are an ally, to reach out and really follow protocol and ask Indigenous people how you can use your platform to support them."
I think if artists have an opportunity to tie in their art to direct action, I encourage them to do so.- Sarain Carson-Fox
Latimer agrees — and she adds that the importance and power of art lies in its emotional reaction.
"It's different when you read a news story and you're reading and taking in the information," she says. "Art can hit people on a visceral level in that it emotionally connects. I think when you affect someone in that way, it's a different kind of call to action that can be quite profound."
Latimer and Carson-Fox are enjoying that profound moment themselves at Sundance, where dozens of people from the series joined them for the premiere.
"At a certain point, somebody said to me, 'It looks exactly like the lobby of the Prairie Knights Casino,' which is the casino in Standing Rock," Carson-Fox says. "And it did. It felt like we had been transported from Standing Rock to Sundance. And when I looked around, I saw all the same people I saw at Standing Rock except in a very different environment. So for me that was a really insane and beautiful way to open the series."
Rise debuts on Viceland on January 27th and will screen at TIFF on February 1st in a program called Standing With Standing Rock. Latimer will join Jesse Wente, TIFF's Director of Film Programmes, for an onstage conversation about the making of the series, Indigenous resistance, the fight for sovereignty and the importance of documenting activism and protest.