Two Indigenous filmmakers feature prominently in this month’s Vancouver International Women in Film Festival.
But despite their documentaries’ strikingly different topics – one a profile of Gemini-winning actor Michelle Thrush, the other about the history of a B.C. First Nation – both spoke to Windspeaker about the importance of honouring their subjects’ stories.
The festival’s March 9 screenings include Shannon Kaplun’s film Michelle Thrush about the Arctic Air Cree star, and Lisa Jackson’s How a People Live about Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw nation. The ethics of documentary filmmaking also emerged as common themes in the work of both.
“It is a huge responsibility,” Kaplun told Windspeaker. “It’s a huge trust relationship, and I always try to honour the people whose stories I help facilitate in a way that honours their true spirit.
“In my whole career, any time I could, I try to find inspiration about women. Indigenous women are the most vulnerable in our society, but they’re also some of the strongest. But you don’t hear the strong stories; you hear the sad and tragic stories.”
Kaplun’s profile of the Calgary-based Cree actor – who has appeared in films with Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro, and currently stars in Aboriginal People’s Television Network’s Blackstone – is part of a series of women’s profiles soon to air on APTN, but premiering in Vancouver.
“I wanted to put these women up to show the world,” she said. “I’m proud to call them my friends.
“But I really felt Michelle [Thrush]’s story was one of strongest. She gave all of herself to me in our interviews. I have a huge admiration for her. She made herself vulnerable to me and her audience.”
Thrush’s story follows her path after a childhood surrounded by poverty and stereotypes. Kaplun’s film addresses the actor’s struggles to believe in herself before discovering her talents. But even then, Kaplun said, “she didn’t go down the traditional Hollywood route” but “carved out her own path.”
“Michelle is not just an amazing Aboriginal actor,” she added, “she’s an amazing actor.
“We all know about the despair, downfalls and struggles that people have. But we wanted to inspire our audience.”
The film is part of a series Kaplun has directed about some of the most high-profile Indigenous celebrities – including musician Buffy Sainte Marie, model Ashley Callingbull and hockey player Jordan Nolan.
Another Indigenous-made film screening at the festival is How a People Live, which uses oral story-telling and archival documents to explore the history of the Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw, a remote First Nation in B.C. who were forced to move in 1964.
But today the community continues to honour and reclaim their history, and celebrate their coastal culture. As the film’s director, Jackson said that water emerged as the film’s central metaphor and is featured throughout, and helps frame the powerful narrative.
“These people have been through incredible adversity,” Jackson told Windspeaker, “but there’s such a joyfulness about them.
“They’re such great story-tellers, there’s such a family love. That was one of the most amazing things. They’re still struggling with so many things as a community, but there’s so much strength and love among them.”
The film’s screening will be attended by members of the First Nation, including its chief negotiator Colleen Hemphill and Port Hardy councillor Jessie Hemphill. But despite being commissioned by the band to document their history, Jackson insisted she had the freedom to tell the community’s harrowing story in her way.
“Technically, it was a commission,” she said. “But, in a lot of ways, I had the most creative freedom I’ve ever had. They just said, ‘We’re on board with what you’re trying to do, we totally trust you.’”
The end result is a documentary that deftly weaves together contemporary footage of Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw life, story-telling Elders, archival footage and primary documents, including diaries of the government’s Indian Agent.
One of the challenges of historical films is ensuring that what she called “colonial documents” aren’t given more weight that oral stories and traditions.
“One of the things that I am proud of in the film is the interweaving of historical narrative and the traditional lifestyle,” she explained. “There’s sometimes a sense (in documentaries) of privileging historical documents.
“The importance of oral history was on my mind. It’s always been others saying what their culture was like. It was clear these people were amazing story-tellers themselves... Very often historical archive materials are seen as the colonial view. But I thought, ‘How can these images be used in a way that is appropriate to help tell their own story?’”
Jackson’s film also discusses the devastating 1862 smallpox epidemic, which historians believe killed one-third of the B.C. Indigenous population.
Asked about her documentary filmmaking influences, she cited two celebrated National Film Board of Canada directors: Donald Brittain, whose 1965 film Memorandum followed a Holocaust survivor’s journey back to a concentration camp; and Abanaki director Alanis Obomsawin, whose 1993 film Kanesatake: 270 Years of Resistance drew widespread acclaim for telling the story of the Oka Crisis.
“She tells people’s stories in a particular way – with respect,” she said of Obomsawin. “She has such an abiding respect for her subjects and the people she deals with.”
Jackson also credited the ImagineNative festival with nurturing many Indigenous women directors.
“There’s always the statistics from the industry about how there are so few female filmmakers,” she said. “But in the Indigenous filmmaking community it’s more than 50 per cent, and in general documentaries have a lot more women – I don’t know why.
“The film industry, by necessity, is quite military in style. You have to pull off a lot of big things, it has to be structured ... I’ve been inspired by filmmakers who are able to bring different styles to their filmmaking.”