Calgary

Indigenous film workers in Alberta excited about industry's shift in representation

The success of Prey and other Indigenous-led films and TV shows are moving the needle in Indigenous representation.

Predator prequel filmed west of Calgary had 95 per cent Indigenous cast

Michelle Thrush, right, and Amber Midthunder on the set of Prey, the latest movie in the Predator franchise. (Submitted by Michelle Thrush)

Michelle Thrush has been an actor in film, television and stage for over 30 years. 

As a Cree woman, she said she remembers breaking down emotionally many times throughout her career after delivering or engaging with heavy dialogue or re-traumatizing material in a project. 

"The material we deal with is medicine and it's sacred," Thrush said.

"I have spent so many times in my trailer or on the edge of a set somewhere bawling my eyes out by myself having to deal with what that medicine is, of how it affects me, my family, how it affects my community."

Thrush has been an actor in film, television and stage for over 30 years. (Submitted by Michelle Thrush)

Thrush was recently in Los Angeles for the premiere of Prey, the latest movie in the Predator franchise, which was filmed last year at Stoney Nakoda Nation west of Calgary.

Prey is a prequel to the first four Predator movies and is set 300 years ago on the Northern Great Plains in Comanche Nation. Thrush plays the role of Aruka, mother to the main character, Naru, portrayed by Amber Midthunder, who is Sahiya Nakoda.

About 95 per cent of the cast of Prey is Indigenous, and so is the film's producer, Jhane Myers, who is Comanche and Blackfeet.

When Prey started streaming on Hulu on Aug. 5, it became the platform's most-watched premiere to date for all film and TV debuts, based on the accumulation of views over three days.

Thrush sees the success of Prey as a shift toward better recognition of Indigenous involvement in the film industry.

"We're starting to have some sense of control over the Indigenous narrative in the story, and that to me is brilliant."

Shifting the narrative

More Indigenous representation is taking place behind the scenes as well. 

Chase Cardinal, who is Cree, spent  nine days on the Prey set as a trainee in the makeup department. 

"It felt like Indigenous people were at the front of it with obviously the entire cast but also behind the scenes with a producer and also other Indigenous crew members who were just participating throughout the whole project. It felt meaningful," Cardinal said.

After Prey, Cardinal worked on the limited series Under the Banner of Heaven, which was also filmed in Calgary and surrounding areas. Both experiences were positive ones for Cardinal. But he said that's not always the case for Indigenous crew members.

Makeup artist Chase Cardinal, pictured here on the set of Prey, remains cautiously optimistic about the future of Indigenous inclusion in the film industry.  (Submitted by Chase Cardinal)

"I think there is a lot of tokenization that still goes on and it's tricky. The motivation behind hiring and bringing people on has to be coming from a good place of actually wanting Indigenous peoples' input," he said. 

While Cardinal remains cautiously optimistic about the future of Indigenous inclusion in the film industry, for Thrush, who's working on a number of projects, well-thought-out practices on production sets are replacing her previous experience of crying alone in her trailer.

She recalled being on the set of her newest show, Bones of Crows, which will be coming out next year on CBC.

"There was a camera truck that I could go into after a really intense scene and there was a beautiful elder from that territory waiting with smudge. And I just sat there and bawled for 20 minutes while he brushed me off with his eagle feather and allowed me to cry."

After decades of struggling to get Indigenous stories told through an Indigenous lens and fighting to create space for those narratives, Thrush said the industry is finally changing.

"We are getting our foot in the door and we are putting into place people that have the ability to shift that narrative on set."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Terri Trembath

Video Journalist

Terri Trembath is a video journalist who joined CBC Calgary in 2008. You can reach her at terri.trembath@cbc.ca.

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