'Big year' for First Nations films at TIFF

From a documentary about Ontario's notorious Attawapiskat First Nation to an irreverent drama set against the backdrop of residential schools in the 1970s, aboriginal films have a strong presence at this year's Toronto International Film Festival.

Aboriginal presence at festival a growing trend, say native filmmakers

Jeff Barnaby, left, will be one of several aborignal filmmakers screening films at this year's Toronto Film festival. He will be debuting his feature Rhymes for Young Ghouls, which stars Kawennahere Devery Jacobs, right. (Galit Rodan/Canadian Press)

Jeff Barnaby caught the filmmaking bug back in the early 1980s, when acclaimed aboriginal documentary director Alanis Obomsawin fixed her lens on a controversial Quebec police raid over salmon fishing rights on his Mi'gmaq reserve in Listuguj, Que.

"Alanis is the reason that I'm a filmmaker," the 37-year-old said in a recent interview. "I think her doing a kind of politically charged film (Incident at Restigouche) about my reserve really kicked off my film career in my brain."

Barnaby will get to share the spotlight with his 81-year-old movie-making icon when the two screen their features at the Toronto International Film Festival.

On Sept. 9, Barnaby will unveil the world premiere of his debut feature, Rhymes for Young Ghouls, which he wrote and directed. The irreverent drama is set against the backdrop of residential schools in the 1970s as it follows an aboriginal teen (Kawennahere Devery Jacobs) who exacts revenge on a sadistic Indian Agent.

Meanwhile, Obomsawin's doc, Hi-Ho Mistahey!, will make its world premiere this Saturday with a look at the plight of the Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario and the lack of funding for the education of children in First Nations communities.

Film an important presence on native reserves

Between those two features and the Peter Stebbings-directed drama Empire of Dirt, which  debuts at the fest on Friday, "it turned out to be a really big year for First Nations films," says Canadian features programmer Agata Smoluch Del Sorbo.

Barnaby predicts the trend will continue.

"I think there's a huge fascination with film on any native reserve, because there's so little to do there, and nine times out of 10 what you're doing is kind of occupying your time going to the movies or playing video games," he said. "So, I think the medium really has a presence in native reserves, particularly because there are so many films out there with native people in them.

"So, I think you're going to start seeing a bit more native filmmakers coming out of the woodwork."

Obomsawin agrees.

"I think more and more, a lot of people and a lot of young people are into this business and there's a lot of interest, and more and more professional people are becoming professional filmmakers," she said in a telephone interview. "So, it's very encouraging."

Departure from 'hyper-masculine' stories

Barnaby said he embarked on Rhymes for Young Ghouls because he wanted to deviate from the "hyper-masculine" stories he's tackled in the past with his three short films, which include the Genie-nominated File Under Miscellaneous.

Using the "strong, hard-headed" women in his life as inspiration, he placed his heroine "in a place and time where it wasn't very popular to be a woman or to be native."

Fifteen-year-old Aila (Jacobs) lives on the Red Crow Mi'gMaq reservation and helps her uncle run the drug business abandoned by her father when he went to jail.

Aila's pot dealings have made her enough money to pay corrupt Indian Agent Popper (Mark Antony Krupa) her "truancy tax" so she can avoid attending residential school. But her fate changes when her money is stolen and her dad (Glen Gould) gets out of jail.

Barnaby, who is also an author and artist, shot the film in Montreal last fall and set the story from1969 to 1976 because "that's when you start seeing the collapse of the residential school system."

The subject matter is still topical "because families that experienced the aftermath of what happened there are still being directly affected," he added.

Barnaby should know — his grandmother was in a residential school, as was one of his cast members.

Not a political film

Jacobs, who's a Native American Mohawk, also has family members who went to residential school.

The 20-year-old said when she read the script, she "knew it was going to be something that was a game-changer that most Canadians wouldn't be expecting."

"I think a lot of people who go to see the film are going to be shocked by it."

But despite the shocking elements, Barnaby insisted it's not a political film.

"I think the film is political insofar that it has natives in it, but it's not something I deliberately set out to do," he said. "There is no pulpit-dumping, once-we-were-warriors speeches or anything like that. It's just a story that just so happens to have a little bit of political ideology and edge to it. But by and large, it's a story first, a very cinematic story, borderline exploitation film.

"I think everybody's going to kind of get blown away by it, to be honest. I don't think they're going to realize what they're sitting down to see."

Perhaps one of the most surprising elements for audiences will be the humour that's sprinkled throughout the characters' trying circumstances.

"I think one thing that doesn't come across in a lot of native films is this idea that the native people as a whole have an insane sense of humour," said Barnaby. "So, there are quite a lot of things in there that are inappropriately funny and shouldn't be laughed at, but we'll laugh at them because, you know, we're native."

"That's how you cope with things," said Jacobs. "You laugh at inappropriate things and you just make light of it."

Undoing damage of past cinema

Obomsawin called Barnaby a "very special" and talented filmmaker who brings different ideas to the big screen.

"He has stories sometimes that are difficult to look at, but I think it's very exciting to see that he's managed to do what he's done so far," she said.

Barnaby said he hopes his film will have the same impact Obomsawin's doc did on him when he was young.

"In that there will be some young kid out there watching TMN (The Movie Network) one day and then see my movie and say that they can do that and make a difference to some other kid 20 years from now.

"I think in a really crazy way, native films are undoing a lot of the damage that the films that came before did, in giving native people an identity onscreen."

The Toronto film fest runs Sept. 5 to 15.