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'World appears to be opening a little' for Indigenous actors, producers and writers

Indigenous content in the film world is progressing, from casting calls looking for Indigenous talent to new Indigenous films, a lot is happening. But to those in the industry, they say there is more work that needs to be done.

The Indigenous Screen Office opened in 2018

Jonathan Elliott, a Tuscarora director and cinematographer from Six Nations, says while things are progressing with Indigenous film there's still more work to be done. (Submitted/Jonathan Elliott)

By the time the CBC television show Anne With an E issued a casting call on Facebook for three Indigenous youth — two girls and a boy, no experience required — Jonathan Elliott could see, for Indigenous actors, things were changing.

Elliott, a Tuscarora director and cinematographer from Six Nations, says the new "boom" in the hiring of Indigenous talent made things "a lot" different than just a few years ago.

"The casting process, even like 7 years ago or 6 years ago, was far more difficult, and I had a far harder time finding people to audition for those roles that were non union as opposed to now," said Elliott.

A non-union actor can work on any project from indie films to short films, while also being able to work on union sets. But if someone is a union actor, they are no longer able to do non-union work.

Elliott says there "seems to be" a focus on creating Indigenous content that comes from Indigenous creators.

"Indigenous people... don't get to just be characters, all their entire identity has to do with the fact that they're Indigenous," - Elliott, A Tuscarora director and cinematographer 

In June 2018, the Indigenous Screen Office was announced as a collaboration between the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, the CBC, the Canada Media Fund, Telefilm Canada, the Canadian Media Producers Association, and the National Film Board of Canada.

The plan is to develop a long-term strategy to support the development, production and marketing of content in the Canadian Indigenous screen-based industry.

Additionally, the NFB is working on a three-year-plan to "redefine its relationship with Indigenous Peoples," as well as ensuring that 15 per cent of production spending is on Indigenous-directed projects.

'I don't look like your typical stereotype Indigenous person'

And while Elliott thinks this is all good, there is still more work that needs to be done with Indigenous representation on film.

"In mainstream Canadian content, Indigenous people being cast for projects tend to have to play a character that are dealing with very topical issues. They don't get to just be characters, all their entire identity has to do with the fact that they're Indigenous," said Elliott.

Nadia George, a mixed Mi'kmaw and Irish Canadian actress, says she still has issues getting Indigenous roles because she "doesn't look like your stereotypical Indigenous person." (Submitted/Nadia George)

Nadia George, a mixed Mi'kmaw and Irish Canadian actress, agrees with Elliott.

"It's this idea of 'okay, if you are Indigenous and we're casting you, then it's definitely for an Indigenous role, it's definitely either historical or the idea of a show like Frontier or those kind of things,'" said George.

And while she is Indigenous, George says she still has a difficult time getting even those roles.

"I don't look like your typical stereotype Indigenous person, so I get a lot of questions asking things about where are you from? Do you speak your language? And you know, tell me more about your tribe," said George.

She says she's even been asked if she could wear brown contacts for a role, and has had casting directors call her asking if she knew any Indigenous actors.

"I think that maybe the intention is really good, that they're like 'okay we want authenticity, we want someone to look at this commercial or look at this film and tell this person is Indigenous,' but then again what's happening is they're telling me what I have to look like, so there's still not a truth behind that," said George.

Getting the word out

Stephanie Gorin from SG Casting is doing callouts for Anne With an E, and says a lot of work was done to get the word out.

Gorin says she reached out to Indigenous casting directors across the country, various theatre companies, First Nation communities, and various other organizations who have had an Indigenous focused program. She's also asked Indigenous actors she's come in contact with if they knew anybody interested that could take on one of the roles.

Jonathan Elliott, a Tuscarora director and cinematographer from Six Nations, says the casting process is much easier than it was six or seven years ago. (Submitted/Jonathan Elliott)

For Elliott, he thinks the way they've gone about searching for these roles is a "decent approach."

"You're searching in a small pool for a very particular casting requirements and it definitely makes it difficult, and I find a lot of the time you have to work with as many connections as you possibly have to try and find people who might suit the role," said Elliott.

"I think a lot of times it's easier to reach communities now through digital casting calls on Facebook or just posts on Facebook, just because they're easy to share," said Elliott.

And while there is still more work that needs to be done, George still sees a "positive movement" going forward with Indigenous representation on film.

"We have some fantastic Indigenous directors, producers, writers, and I'd like to say the world appears to be opening a little more in their minds to this idea of Indigenous people existing."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jasmine Kabatay is an Anishinaabe freelance journalist from Seine River First Nation in northwestern Ontario. She is based in Toronto and has written for the Toronto Star, VICE News, and was a national columnist for Metro News (now StarMetro.)

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