Slash/Back shows how Indigenous creators get things done despite 'unlimited barriers'

Slash/Back is among a wave of new Indigenous-led projects that have made their way to the screen in the last few years. Like many others, the creators behind the camera have had to work hard to ensure they are building bridges for young Indigenous creators to make their way into the industry.

New horror among wave of Indigenous film and TV content helping pave the way for young creators

Nalajoss Ellsworth appears as Uki in horror film Slash/Back. It's among a wave of Indigenous-led cinema championing Indigenous youth, and its creator had to take unusual steps to pull it off. ( Mixtape SB Productions Inc)

When director Nyla Innuksuk decided what her film Slash/Back was going to be about, she knew she was going to have to do some things differently. And in a way, shaking things up was the whole point. 

The film, which premiered on Friday, follows a group of teen and preteen girls in Nunavut as they grapple with the pains of growing up, reconcile their cultural identity with an adolescent pressure to conform — and single-handedly fight off an alien invasion. 

"I grew up obsessed with horror movies," Innuksuk said in explaining why she chose to make a film ultimately about identity in the horror genre.

"I was always dressing up my cousins as ghosts and dousing them in blood. And it just kind of made sense for me to be thinking that kind of route when it came to making my first feature."

The result is a unique mix of contemporary sci-fi and traditional Inuit myth, comedy and horror that Innuksuk created by borrowing from her own past growing up in Nunavut. 

But to make Slash/Back come out the way she envisioned it, she had to change how actors are cast, how crews are housed, and prove to investors that a horror movie could work in the Arctic's 24-hour sunshine — demonstrating the lengths Indigenous filmmakers are going to to build capacity and get their stories told.

WATCH | Slash/Back trailer:

'It was totally crazy'

Slash/Back is filmed entirely in the hamlet of Pangnirtung, on Baffin Island roughly 300 km from Iqaluit, with no roads leading in or out — the first feature-length film to shoot there.

To get investors on board, Innuksuk first started with a virtual reality proof-of-concept short film, featuring horror in that landscape, with the normal everyday realities of Inuit teens talking about boys, scrolling Instagram and dreaming about summer holidays in Winnipeg. 

Since there were no casting agents in the territory, Innuksuk instead organized a series of acting workshops to simultaneously teach about 20 girls — the majority of whom had never acted before — the ins-and-outs of the craft, figure out which girls fit which part, and refine those parts to truly match the habits and personalities of Nunavut's Gen Z. 

And on top of all that, the production shipped nearly 60 beds and mattresses to two schools in the community, and the whole crew stayed there for the entirety of filming. Innuksuk says they chose to do so because, with Nunavut's housing crisis, it would be impossible for them to highlight and champion Pangnirtung without ultimately hurting residents by doing it any other way.

"It was totally crazy — crazy way to make a movie. But that's kind the only way that it would have been possible, is to be given that space and have everyone in the community help out and help us make it."

Despite the lengths she had to go to, Innuksuk is far from the only filmmaker approaching filmmaking with that level of access and support in mind. For years, Indigenous filmmakers have pared filmmaking with behind-the-scenes work to support Indigenous creators and communities historically shut out from the industry.

And now, that work is beginning to see real results, Innuksuk said. 

Director Nyla Innuksuk on the set of Slash/Back
Director Nyla Innuksuk on the set of Slash/Back, shot in the hamlet of Pangnirtung, on Baffin Island about 300 km from Iqaluit. Innuksuk set up acting workshops to help cast her film. (Ksenia Stassiouk)

Training works, says director

Movies like Danis Goulet's Night Raiders, Tracey Deer's Beans and Kathleen Hepburn and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers's The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open by Indigenous filmmakers and starring Indigenous cast have, in the last few years, burst onto the scene as some of the best productions coming out of the country. (Hepburn is not Indigenous, though co-director and star Tailfeathers is Blackfoot and Sámi)

At the same time, like Innuksuk's, those films oftentimes were produced with a number of programs built in to support the next generation of talent, and increase the confidence and access of other Indigenous creators.

In the case of both Night Raiders and The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open, that materialized in the form of onset mentorship programs to help give young Indigenous filmmakers a way into the industry. For Beans, which is drawn from Deer's own traumatic experiences during the 1990 Oka Crisis, Deer had a behind-the-scenes acting coach help the film's child stars learn how to engage with the emotionally charged aspects of the script. 

Many of those children had never acted before, and Deer explained in an interview at the time with news and culture outlet Cult MTL that she similarly had to cast through an acting workshop instead of going through the normal casting process as "there aren't a ton of Indigenous kids in that traditional system that have already been discovered."

Writer, director and actor Jennifer Podemski explained that sort of resource building is one of the reasons we see the wave of Indigenous-led productions we have now. 

Her first production was also the first Indigenous dramatic series in North America — and came to exist wholly because of a training initiative for young Indigenous artists. In 2002, Podemski and Laura J. Milliken brought a script and film crew to Regina and worked with 40 Indigenous youth to produce what would eventually morph into 2003's Moccasin Flats TV series, which ran for three seasons. 

"I know, and I've seen — and anyone who remembers or who was a part of that project knows — that training works and training builds capacity," Podemski said. 

"It may not be for everybody, but we do need our own communities to engage with us as content creators to help build that capacity, and also introduce these careers in the film sector to the youth."

Two decades later, Podemski is now working on a new show, Little Bird, about an Indigenous woman looking for her birth family after being removed from them during the Sixties Scoop. That production, like so many others, also features a training program for both emerging and mid-level Indigenous filmmakers. 

Jennifer Podemski says she is passionate about giving Indigenous creators chances to train, learn, share content and succeed. (Shine Network)

'Unlimited barriers' remain

While offering those opportunities and resources is necessary to break down the barriers facing Indigenous creators, she said, there are still "an unlimited range of barriers within the industry itself." 

The greatest barrier, said Podemski, is Indigenous people's "ability as corporations." Despite the proven track record of Indigenous productions, it is often difficult to secure investment, while Podemski said broadcasters often request that Indigenous creators "have partners who are non-Indigenous so that … they can feel more confident that they will get the delivery they're looking for." 

"I'm pretty sad to see that we are still near-invisible in terms of the kind of work that we are able to do, the kind of money we are able to access, and the kind of audiences we're able to engage," she said. "Because we don't have the platforms needed to bring our stories to wider audiences."

Until that can change, Podemski said, Indigenous creators are forced to rely mostly on self-sustained training opportunities to foster young talent. 

But even still, the positive effects of that training are undeniable. At 24, Harlan Blayne Kytwayhat is a younger player in the Canadian entertainment industry. He fell into acting only a few years ago after a scout noticed him working at a country club and asked him to audition. 

After booking his first role in the drama series Tribal, he later landed a role in the Letterkenny spin off Shoresy, in which he plays Sanguinet, comic foil to title character and hockey player Shoresy. 

Harlan Kytwayhat appears in a scene from Shoresy. (Bell Media)

Kytwayhat says growing up in Makwa Sahgaiehcan, a Cree First Nation in Saskatchewan, acting or acting classes weren't opportunities open to him or any of his friends — which meant he never even considered a career in the film or television industry for himself.

Now, seeing where his career led him, one of his ultimate goals is to one day start an arts program in his reserve — to champion the arts as a viable career for young Indigenous kids so they can make their way into the industry the way he did. 

"I really hope it progresses more here," Kytwahat said. "And not just here, but like all small towns, small communities and other reserves."


Jackson Weaver is a senior writer for CBC Entertainment News. You can reach him at jackson.weaver@cbc.ca, or follow him on Twitter at @jacksonwweaver