Doc on Indigenous musicians kicks off Edmonton's Northwest Fest

A documentary film screening tonight at Edmonton’s Northwest Fest explores how a generation of Indigenous musicians has transformed colonial trauma into powerful art.

University of Alberta grad Leela Gilday helped inspire the film

Juno Award-winning singer-songwriter Leela Gilday helped inspire When They Awake, a film about the power of Indigenous music. (Shawna McLeod)

A documentary film kicking off Edmonton's NorthwestFest explores how a generation of Indigenous musicians has transformed colonial trauma into powerful art.

When They Awake screens tonight (May 3) at 7 p.m. at Edmonton's Metro Cinema, 8712 109th St.

The festival, a celebration of non-fiction, music and documentary filmmaking, runs until May 13. All films and events are at Metro Cinema and the Art Gallery of Alberta.

When They Awake, which also kicked off the Calgary International Film Festival last fall, features more than 20 Indigenous musicians, including A Tribe Called Red, Tanya Tagaq, The Jerry Cans and University of Alberta graduate Leela Gilday.

Gilday, a singer-songwriter based in Yellowknife, was an important figure in getting the film made, according to one of its directors.

Co-directors Hermon Farahi and PJ Marcellino travelled to the Northwest Territories to document Listen Up! NWT, a musical education project for school children in six communities. Gilday was working with students there and helped inspire the directors to create a bigger film with a wider scope.

"That project was the spark that revealed to us that there was a huge resurgence of Indigenous music that has really pushed forward a new generation of artists and a new generation of audiences," Farahi said Wednesday on CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

The film's title comes from an 1885 quotation attributed to Métis leader Louis Riel: "My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake it will be the artists who give them back their spirit."

The non-Indigenous directors used music a way to bring stories of political activism and cultural reclamation among Indigenous communities to mainstream audiences.

Indigenous musicians, Farahi said, "are translating 500 years of colonial relationship into something new and welcoming to people who never lived through that period."

"Music somehow has a capacity to touch your soul and create a space of healing."

A songwriters' circle performance featuring Don Amero, Leela Gilday, Jay Gilday and Trent Agecoutay will take place after the screening.