Healing Gaia

Aabiziingwashi: Wide Awake to the Power of Indigenous Cinema

Stories told by First Nations, Metis and Inuit filmmakers from across the country are guaranteed to change your view of Canada's colonial history forever.

By Doreen Nicoll
Published May 10, 2017

On Friday, May 5, 2017, Polaris Prize winner Tanya Tagaq and her awe-inspiring show Nanook of the North electrified the audience at The Oakville Centre for the Performing Arts.

The show had humble beginnings. Tagaq, in her wispy voice, introduced her band made up of good friends Jean Martin on drums, Jesse Zubot playing guitar (often with a violin bow), and Christine Duncan conducting her theremin and contributing vocals.

Tagaq reminded the audience that the improvised music and vocal accompaniments they were about to hear would never be recreated and encouraged them to remain in and enjoy every moment.

The honesty and openness of Tagaq was exemplified when audience members momentarily hijacked her show by belting out Happy Birthday to the singer who was celebrating her 42nd birthday. Tagaq was visibly moved by and much appreciative of the small gesture.

But once Robert J. Flaherty's 1922 documentary hit the large stage screen and the band began to play, Tagaq unleased the mystical magic that is her voice. Primeval sounds emanated from Tagaq reminiscent of the earth, air, and water that was her ancestor's homeland in northern Quebec before being relocated. Coincidentally, this was the backdrop for Nanook of the North.

Originally from Iqaluktuutiaq (Cambridge Bay), Nunavt, Tagaq is best known for katajjaq, or Inuit throat-singing. Ironically, Tagaq grew up in a world bereft of this Inuit tradition because it was banned by priests who undoubtedly found it too sensual and erotic. The art form resurfaced the 1980's but, Tagaq has taken the tradition to a new level with infusions of electronica, industrial and metal to create Inuk punk. Tagaq's performance is physically unrestrained, vocally innovative and a brilliant match for the old documentary.

Tagaq's concert was part of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) retrospective First People Cinema: 1500 Nations, One Tradition, which officially opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on June 21, National Aboriginal Day, and runs to August 11. The festival includes Canadian and international films.

Tagaq's performance and the impending launch of TIFF's Indigenous film festival dovetails nicely with the May 5 official launch of Aabiziingwashi (#WideAwake): NFB Indigenous Cinema on Tour.

"Meaning 'wide awake' or 'unable to sleep' in Anishinaabe, Aabiziingwashi uses the power of cinema as a universal language, to build new understandings and connections between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians. In these films, there's much truth to be heard, if we are ready to listen," said Claude Joli-Coeur, NFB Chairperson.

Throughout 2017, the NFB is making over 250 Indigenous-made works available for free public screenings. Stories told by First Nations, Metis and Inuit filmmakers from across the country are guaranteed to change your view of Canada's colonial history forever. And that's a good thing.

The lineup includes essential films like Alanis Obomsawin's Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993), which documents the story of the 1990 confrontation in Kanehsatake and the village of Oka, Quebec.

Obomsawin spent 78 nerve-wracking days and nights filming the armed stand-off between the Mohawks, the Quebec police and the Canadian army. See the story that was kept from public eye by a government that interfered with media coverage and blatantly distorted the truth.

To understand how very little life has improved for Indigenous people, be sure to see Obomsawin's 2016 film We Can't Make the Same Mistake Twice (WCMSMT). This film will have you in tears, livid at Harper's government and eventually hopeful that a change in government will end an incomprehensively diabolical funding model. Unfortunately, our hopeful is predictably in vain and the Canadian government continues to make the same mistake - but this time it's clearly a choice.

Despite winning a nine-year legal battle, children on reserve still wait for essential services because the Trudeau government has not implemented the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal's recommendations. Obomsawin foresaw this outcome and is currently at work on a documentary about Jordan's Principle and planning the follow-up to WCMSMT.

This River (2016), a 20-minute film by Katherena Vermette and Erica MacPherson, follows the spiritually and emotionally challenging work performed by volunteers of Drag the Red, an organization based in Winnipeg.

DTR was organized to shame the Winnipeg Police Service into searching for missing Aboriginal women and men. Instead, the DTR continues to drag the Red River on a daily basis from May to October. Ground crews search the riverbanks weekly.

This film won the 2016 Coup de Coeur Award at the Montreal First Peoples Festival.

Two Worlds Colliding (2004) is an inquiry into what came to be known as Saskatoon's infamous "freezing deaths." Indigenous men were routinely driven out of town by police officers and left to walk back in minus 20 F weather without their coats or shoes. Many never made it home.

Atanarjuat the Fast Runner (2000) is a drama set in Igloolik, Nunavut, that replaces stereotypes like those found in Nanook of the North with legitimate life experiences. Filmed in Inuktitut with English subtitles.

The NFB worked in partnership with an Indigenous advisory group to plan the Aabiziingwashi tour. This group is composed of some of the country's leaders in Indigenous cinema: Alanis Obomsawin (Cultural Attaché, First Nations, and Producer-Director, NFB), Jesse Wente (Director of Film Programmes, TIFF Bell Lightbox), Monika Ille (Executive Director of Programming and Scheduling, APTN); Denise Bolduc (Creative Director, Producer, Programmer), Jason Ryle (Artistic Director, imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival), and Nadine St-Louis (Executive Director, Sacred Fire Productions).

Screenings will be presented in collaboration with Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, Toronto International Film Festival Bell Lightbox, the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival as well as other partners.

Groups interested in organizing a screening in their community can contact https://www.nfb.ca/.

For a complete and up-to-date list of screenings, visit nfb.ca/wideawake.

Doreen Nicoll is a feminist and a member of several community organizations working diligently to end poverty, hunger and gendered violence.

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