From a zombie apocalypse to heartfelt documentary: The rise of Indigenous cinema at TIFF

This year at the Toronto International Film Festival, there are more Indigenous films screening than ever before — 13 to be exact. Jesse Wente explains why that growth is so important to the industry.
Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild and Jesse Wente at the Toronto International Film Festival. (Zoe Tennant/CBC)

This year at the Toronto International Film Festival, there are more Indigenous films screening than ever before — 13 to be exact.

"Thirteen is a really unprecedented number, I think we've seen a really steady growth of Indigenous artists at festivals like TIFF, I think that this selection this year really reflects [that]," said Jesse Wente, director of the National Indigenous Screen Office, who has been attending the festival for 30 years. 

For Wente, what's more exciting is the different genres that Indigenous filmmakers are taking on. 

"Because of towering figures like Alanis [Obomsawin], activist documentaries were sort of what Indigenous people made, that was also a function of what were were … funded to make." 

"Now we're seeing what we're allowed to make really broaden, and I think increasingly because as more Indigenous people get to be in positions of power … [and] get to decide what gets made." 

Jeff Barnaby debuts his second feature length film Blood Quantum, which is described as equal parts horror and political critique. (TIFF)

One film Wente attended at TIFF and recommends is Blood Quantum by Jeff Barnaby, which is set in a zombie apocalypse world, where the only people immune to the plague are the Mi'kmaq.  

"I fell in love with [zombie films] when I was a kid … one of the reasons I've loved and obsessed over them is George Romero could use zombies as an allegory for what he really wanted to make movies about, which was politics and the social challenges of his day," said Wente.

"For me, that's what Jeff Barnaby's done, he's returned politics to the zombie movie … lots of people will just love it as a zombie movie … I will love it as a movie deeply about us and our history here." 

Another film on Wente's list of ones to watch is Zacharias Kunuk's One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk. Set in 1961, the film follows an Inuk hunter who faces pressures from the Canadian government to move into permanent housing, send his kids to government school, and give up their traditional way of life. 

"What I love about this film and all of Zach's work is they're lived in — it's hard to separate his movies from life," said Wente.

"I think his cinema lives in a way that other cinema doesn't — it lives in the cultural reclamation, the language preservation. It lives in the stories."