Tank Standing Buffalo explores incarceration, isolation in TIFF animated short

When Tank Standing Buffalo created RKLSS, he thought he'd post it on Instagram, get a couple of likes and move on. Instead, it premiered at TIFF this week. 
A screencap of RKLSS, an animated short produced by Tank Standing Buffalo. The film follows Tank as he struggles through the prison system. (Submitted by Xstine Cook)

When Tank Standing Buffalo created RKLSS, he thought he'd post it on Instagram, get a couple of likes and move on.

Instead, it premiered at TIFF this week. 

Standing Buffalo, who is mixed-race Anishinaabe and now based in Calgary, spoke to Unreserved's Falen Johnson about RKLSS, his success so far, and what's next for the animator.

Your animated film is based on your own true story. Can you tell us what the animation shows?

It starts with my friends collecting some money and it doesn't go well. We have to get out and we get into a high-speed chase. So then we get caught, and I go to jail.

I get thrown in segregation. It was only supposed to be ... for a week. Even just that short week, at the end of it, I was kind of losing it. That week of me being in segregation turned into six months. I just kept acting out. 

There is a point — it's not shown in the cartoon — but they do take away pencils, my paper.

For someone who compulsively draws, that was the worst thing. So, for some reason, I started to scratch myself. 
Tank Standing Buffalo is mixed-race Anishinaabe and is the animator behind RKLSS. (Submitted by Xstine Cook)

I realized that my blood was like ink. I could draw on the walls. But this infuriated the guards even further. I got beat down for that. 

We had an elder that would come by and check up on us kids, make sure that we were doing OK. 

What inspired you to tell us your story through film?

Well, I didn't want to at all. I was encouraged by my producer, Xstine Cook. She knew a bit about my history and she wanted me to tell a bit of that but I was really hesitant.

I just always stuck to lowbrow-type art, like cool stuff like wrestling and hot rods.

And I was never really interested ... dramas don't interest me at all. Like, I have to live my real life. I don't want to make someone else's.

But it took her a bit, and I finally agreed. The story was pretty much the same, but I set it in my cowboy time or way in the future. She was pretty insistent on it being real. So I trusted her. So far, so good. It worked out.

One of the scenes that stuck out was when you're driving the getaway car while your friends, mid-chase, are admiring your drawings. Tell me about that.

I've been drawing since I could hold a pencil. Pretty much my whole life, almost everyone in my life had encouraged me to pursue that. But there was really no avenue to pursue.

My friends would always tell me that I shouldn't be going out with them, that I shouldn't be following their path. But what else was I to do, have no friends?

Standing Buffalo, driving, is running from the cops with his friends Yvan Blanchette, J.P. Blanchette and Trevor Spooner while they admire his drawings. (Submitted by Xstine Cook)

They really liked seeing their cartoon selves, and me being able to depict us in humorous ways. 

There was one time we had drawn this big poster of all of us and the cops came in and raided our place and they took the poster and then they blew it up pretty big, the size of this wall. 

They had like this town hall meeting about how crazy the town is getting and what these kids are doing. That was my first bit of notoriety with my art. I saw that it got this attention and even though it was negative attention, like to me, that was awesome. 

They hated what I was doing, which made me want to do it even more. 

How did you feel once you were accepted into TIFF?

I had no idea that [Cook] was even applying for any of that. 

It didn't really register what TIFF really was. I had heard of it. I didn't know how big of an honour it was to be accepted into it.

The music is pretty important. It's my fiancée, Cara Adu Darko.

She's been my collaborator for pretty much every cartoon and any award that we won, I would say, is 90 per cent based off of the feeling that she evokes in people through music.

She's nailed it again. 

You're working on a prequel for RKLSS. What will that be about?

I'm making this correlation between children's aid now and residential schools of the past.

My brothers and sisters all went through foster care. I was too old and I was jailed instead. But we were never together as a family after that. 

This Q&A has been condensed for length and clarity. To hear the full conversation click the 'listen' link at the top of the page.