The imagineNative Festival: Global Indigenous Culture Commands the Spotlight

By Liam Lacey

The imagineNative Film + Media Arts Festival, which opens today (October 17) and runs until October 21 — with all screenings free on Friday — is billed as “the world's largest presenter of Indigenous screen content” which is something for any of us to consider.

Black Divaz .

Black Divaz.

In a global culture that is increasingly standardized and urban, Indigenous people are the last gasp of cultural diversity, often living on the edges of the most environmentally threatened regions of the planet. This year’s festival line-up includes works from 109 “Indigenous nations” in countries including Russia, Peru, Samoa, Denmark, Canada, United States, and Australia.

The term “Indigenous” has no fixed definition but as used by the United Nations, it describes around five percent (370 million) of the world’s population who, historically, were linked to traditional territories before other cultural or ethnic people moved in and became dominant. That means, along with their diversity, they have a lot of issues in common. The UN holds these groups must be provided with special protection from exploitation, forced assimilation, social marginalization and genocide.

While the theme of resistance against the dominant culture is common to the films I had a chance to preview, its meaning is complicated by specific circumstances. The extremes can be seen in two documentaries from Australia.

First, there’s the very serious After the Apology by Larissa Behrendt, which begins with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s historic 2008 national apology to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for the generations of “stolen children” in forced assimilation policy. It has become an Australian national scandal that, a decade later, the number of children removed from their homes has dramatically increased. The film follows the advocacy group, Grandmothers Against Removals, and their campaign to end the destructive practice.

Sometimes, it’s the Indigenous culture doing the oppressing. Another Australian documentary, Black Divaz, follows a group of drag queens — Nova Gina, Isla Fuk Yah, Crystal Love, Josie Baker, Jojo and Shaniqua — on their quest to win the Inaugural Miss First Nations Drag Queen contest as part of Sydney Pride Week. As we learn from their back stories, these men found freedom denied to them in their own communities.

In many of the films, traditional mythology serves primarily as a fresh paintbrush in the storyteller’s kit. Anori, the first feature directed by a woman from Greenland (Pipaluk Kreutzmann Jorgensen) is a contemporary tragic love story about a beautiful traditional singer named Anori (real life singer and actress, Nukâka Coster-Waldau) who falls in love with Inuk, who works on the Arctic Command or coast guard. When Inuk has an accident at sea that leaves him in a coma, he’s taken to a New York hospital and Anori flies to the city where she waits, along with Inuk’s best friend, to see if he will recover. During the wait, she experiences a series of flashbacks to a traditional Inuit story about a girl’s first experience of an evil storm that foreshadows the film’s conclusion.

Similarly, the Canadian children’s film Tia and Piujuq (directed by Lucy Tulugarjuk) uses the Inuit myth of Tariaksuq or “invisible people” to deal with the theme of social marginalization in the story of a girl from a family of Syrian refugees in Montreal who finds a “portal” to a new friend in the far north.

A scene from  Tempo de Lluvia .

A scene from Tempo de Lluvia.

A trove of indigenous wisdom serves as a remedy to contemporary illnesses. The Mexican film Tempo de Lluvia (In Times of Rain) covers a familiar rural/urban divide in the story of an indigenous healer, Soledad (Angeles Cruz), who lives in remote Oaxaca, taking care of her grandson and offering traditional advice and medicine to the local people. At the same time, she longs to help her daughter, a hotel maid who has become involved with an abusive boyfriend in Mexico City.

Women not only carry babies but also traditional crafts and stories. (Perhaps it’s no coincidence that 55 percent of the films at imagineNATIVE are directed by women, far higher than at any mainstream festival.) Lisa Taouma’s documentary Marks of Mana looks at the practice of tattooing in the Pacific islands, from Fiji to Samoa. The practice is being revived by women, who describe how tattoos once served as a living book that told a woman’s entire personal and family history.

The threat of collective extinction is the theme of Winaypacha (Eternity), Peru’s foreign film Oscar entry, from first-time director Oscar Catacora. Set more than 5,000 meters above sea level, the film features minimal dialogue and only two characters (an elderly couple in their eighties) as they tend a small farm and pine for their son who disappeared in the city years before. Eternity is an exquisitely crafted film that will delight cinephiles but also serves as a form of cultural preservation: It’s the first feature in the Indigenous Aymara language.

Similarly, the Canadian West Coast-set film, Edge of the Knife (co-directed by Gwaai Edenshaw and Helen Haig-Brown) is the first feature in the Haida language. The story, set in the 19th century, follows the legend of a hunter who, mad with remorse at the death of a friend’s son, hides in the woods and transforms into a half-human half-angry spirit.

Several of these films deal with a call to political resistance. That’s hard to miss in the elegantly sinister Toyon Kyyl (The Lord Eagle), a film which took top prize at this year’s Moscow International Film Festival. Set in 1930s in an Indigenous northeastern region of Yakutia, the film is pure political allegory. An elderly Yakut couple maintains a small farm and one day, an eagle appears on a tree near their home. Hoping to distract it from attacking their livestock, the old couple begin to feed it, and eventually, the bird moves into their house, sitting on the mantle next to their icons. If you don’t know about Stalin’s persecution of the Yakuts people in the 1930s, it will certainly be clear by the film’s end.

From the U.S.,  Empty Metal .

From the U.S., Empty Metal.

“Resistance” has become a cliché on everyone’s social media feed in the Trump era. That brings us to the timely if unexpected inclusion in the Festival of the American film Empty Metal (directed by Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer) a slice of confrontational agit-prop which had its debut at the Lincoln Centre last May.

The multi-thread narrative includes a punk/noise band from Brooklyn, an armed survivalist group training in the woods, and a trio of supernatural beings (a Native woman elder, a Rastafarian man and an Eastern European cult leader) who telepathically direct their acolytes to assassinate policemen. Avant-garde, apocalyptic and ultimately inconclusive, Empty Metal is a snapshot of contemporary rage and political impotence from across the spectrum of indigenous and non-indigenous alike who feel pushed to the edge.

For the full schedule and ticket information visit the imagineNATIVE website. Tickets to all screenings are free on Friday, October 19, courtesy the TD Bank Group.