Top 10 indigenous films of all time

Jesse Wente says that festivals like imagineNATIVE, which opens today today in Toronto, have played a big part in the rapid development of indigenous cinema. And that made narrowing this list to ten a challenging task.

The imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival kicks off today, celebrating the best of indigenous cinema

Rhymes for Young Ghouls is Jeff Barnaby’s debut feature and one of Jesse Wente's top indigenous films of all time. It "brings the anger to indigenous cinema, a clarion call for both the cinematic community and the indigenous community," says Wente. (Jan Thijs)
  First of all, let me say that lists of the top ten anything — while not without value in reducing topics to easily debated clickbait — are a pain when you’re the one making the list.

When agreeing to this assignment I understood that the making of such a list would necessitate leaving films and perhaps more importantly, filmmakers, that I love off the list, but knowing that has not made it easier.

Here are 10 (technically 11, but whatever) amazing films that are a great starting point for a journey into indigenous cinema history, but it is, of course far from complete.

Indigenous cinema, at least in its contemporary form, is only 40 years old, and the fact that there are films to be left off a list like this is testament to its rapid development and to the artists who have taken up the camera to tell our stories.

1. Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (Canada)

The first Inuktitut language feature is also the most important film in Canadian history, bringing epic film making to a Northern legend. It won Official Selection at the 2001 Cannes International Film Festival, and remains the highest grossing indigenous film in Canadian history.

(National Film Board of Canada)
​​2. Bastion Point Day 507/Incident at Restigouche (New Zealand/Canada)

These two activist documentaries were often paired on the festival circuit and are among the most important films in contemporary indigenous cinema.  Directors Merata Mita and Alanis Obomsawin seemingly willed indigenous cinema into life with these two endlessly fascinating historical documents. 

3. Bedevil (Australia)

Tracey Moffat’s dreamscape/ghost story began indigenous cinema’s move away from traditional cinematic narrative structures and remains an under seen masterpiece.

4. The Dead Lands (New Zealand)

Toa Fraser’s martial arts epic is bloody and bold, recreating pre-contact New Zealand and featuring remarkable, bone crunching performances. Coming soon to a cinema near you!

5. Four Sheets to the Wind (U.S)

Sterlin Harjo’s gripping feature is a descendant of Smoke Signals, portraying contemporary Indigenous life with an unflinching eye and open heart. It won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance for Tamara Podemski’s remarkable performance.

6. Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (Canada)

Alanis Obomsawin’s documentary epic chronicles the Oka Crisis in Quebec and helped shift the dialogue around Indigenous issues in Canada and globally. It was the first documentary to ever win the Best Canadian Feature award at the Toronto International Film Festival.

7. Once Were Warriors (New Zealand)

Lee Tamahori’s ferocious and exhilarating portrait of an urban Maori family was the first indigenous feature to have a truly global presence. Among the highest grossing films in New Zealand history.

8. Rhymes for Young Ghouls (Canada)

Jeff Barnaby’s debut feature brings the anger to indigenous cinema, a clarion call for both the cinematic community and the indigenous community. A director to watch for years to come.

9. Samson and Delilah (Australia)

Warwick Thornton’s Camera D’or winner is a searing depiction of modern life in Australia and a marvel of naturalism and restrained storytelling.

10. Smoke Signals (U.S)

Chris Eyre’s road movie based on Sherman Alexie’s screenplay is a touchstone for indigenous cinema, bringing humour to a story of contemporary Indigenous life. Also features the core of young performers such as Adam Beach, Michelle St. John, Irene Bedard and Gary Farmer who would go on to star in numerous other films in the ensuing years.

Honourable mentions:

So while I believe these films are all amazing, there are more not listed here — Ten Canoes, Charlie’s Country, Patu!Barking Water, Trudell, Before Tomorrow, Mohawk Girls —​ and more every year, in large part thanks to the festivals like ImagineNative. 

This article was initially published in Muskrat Magazine. It was edited and republished with permission.

Let us know what your top indigenous films are via CBC Aboriginal on Facebook, or on Twitter @cbc_aboriginal.


Jesse Wente has appeared on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning as film and pop culture critic for 20 years. He previously served as Director of Film Programmes, at TIFF Bell Lightbox, where he oversaw theatrical, Cinematheque and Film Circuit programming. Wente is a self-described ‘Ojibwe dude’ with a national and international lens.