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Indigenous Rights

A “Golden Age” for Native Cinema

BERLIN, Mar 11 2013 (IPS) - Indigenous filmmakers and audiovisual artists worldwide are celebrating their growing visibility, as native voices and stories edge their way onto the big screen, gaining international recognition both artistically and commercially.

“The importance of audiovisual media in forging identity is crucial.  Stereotypes and clichéd images of “natives and Red Indians” on TV and the big screen defined us for decades,” Jason Ryle, executive director of the imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival in Toronto, Canada, and one of the initiators of the Indigenous Filmmakers Declaration told IPS in Berlin.

The document, drafted at the First International Indigenous Film Conference in the northern Norwegian municipality of Gouvdageaidnu, Sápmi, in October 2011, is a pledge by indigenous storytellers to “manage our own destiny and maintain our humanity and pride as indigenous people through screen storytelling”, a powerful statement about cultural and intellectual property rights.

"As stories emerge and films are produced, communities are experiencing their own “audiovisual worthiness” for the very first time. A new generation is coming out of the closet, gaining confidence in the screen value of their cultural traditions, their skills and relevance.”
The conference was organised by the International Sápmi Film Centre (ISF), a body founded in 2007 to promote indigenous films and co-productions globally.

This year, the group made headway by inaugurating the first indigenous film programme – NATIVe – at the major Berlinale International Film Festival.

The global native filmmakers’ community recognises the 2007 UNESCO declaration on the right of Indigenous Peoples – estimated to be 370 million spread across 70 countries from the Arctic to the South Pacific – to practice “unique traditions while retaining social, cultural, economic and political characteristics distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live”.

“It is very exciting to witness the moulding of our own storytelling language and imagery as new genres — from drama and comedy to science fiction — are emerging, sourced from material within our communities,” added Ryle. “This is indeed the “golden age” of indigenous cinema.”

Over the past five years, his journey has taken him to Germany, Norway and Finland, as he works the European festival circuit.

He explained that when he first started programming in 2003 “we were receiving 70 or 80 submissions, so we programmed almost everything we got.  We are up to 500 submissions today so we are able to select from a range of genres and we are seeing a star system evolving, with Native stars like Adam Beach from (the 1998 hit film) ‘Smoke Signals’.

Other landmark productions have broken new ground: ‘On the Ice’ (2011), an Alaskan feature-length drama by Andrew Okpeaha Maclean, winner of the Berlinale’s Best First Feature award 2011, was the first feature by an independent Inuit director with an all-Inuit cast.

Partly crowdsourced, it found 850 backers on pledging 85,000 dollars towards marketing and distribution costs to push the movie theatrically and on Netflix.

The friendship-murder-deceit thriller, set amongst native youngsters reconciling hip-hop with seal hunting in a remote Alaskan town, and depicting the balancing act of living on literal and figurative ‘thin ice’, was a box office sensation, finding positive reception at festivals from Stockholm to Istanbul.

Born and raised in Barrow on the Alaskan polar ice cap, Okpeaha Maclean lives in New York City but receives a hero’s welcome at local screenings that keep him rooted to his native Inupiaq culture.

“My community’s validation is hugely important,” he told IPS. “I know I’m on the right path on this journey when folks slap me on the back because I made a real movie.”

“As stories emerge and films are produced, communities are experiencing their own  “audiovisual worthiness” for the very first time.  A new generation is coming out of the closet, gaining confidence in the screen value of their cultural traditions, their skills and relevance.”

Budding young native filmmakers and visual artists like Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers (from the Blood Reserve in Canada) are also claiming their right to indigenous cultural and intellectual property.

“I just wanted to see a Native chick kick ass on screen,” Tailfeathers told IPS after the screening of her edgy urban black-and-white short ‘A Red Girl’s Reasoning’ (2012).

The punchy, neo-noir vengeance thriller about violence against native women deservedly won Best Canadian Short Drama at the Vancouver International film festival last year.

This year, indigenous filmmakers were celebrated with a special spotlight entitled ‘NATIVe – A Journey into Indigenous Cinema’ at Berlin’s International Film Festival, the third largest festival in the world.

Curated by a team of international indigenous filmmakers, programmers and producers, the series included 24 classic works including Maori Merata Mita’s social documentaries like ‘Bastion Point Day 507’ and ‘Saving Grace’ (2011).

Also showcased were Kent Mackenzie’s ‘The Exiles’ (1961), an epic Inuit saga, ‘Atanarjuat the Fast Runner’ (2001), and box office hits like Samson & Delilah (2009), Cannes’ 2009 Golden Camera Award winner.

‘O Le Tulafale’ (The Orator), a 2011 directorial debut by Samoan writer-director Tusi Tamasese, premiered at the Venice Film Festival, garnering honours and rave reviews.

Native cinema has a rich history, marked by a long line of iconic filmmakers who blazed a trail for those following behind.

The 1986 documentary by Alanis Obomsawin (81) of the Abenaki Nation, ‘Richard Cardinal: Cry From a Diary of a Metis Child’, chronicled the young boy’s years of neglect and abuse as he passed through 28 foster homes. The film was instrumental in changing public perceptions and social policies affecting Canada’s “stolen generations”.

In her latest documentary, ‘The People of the Kattawapiskak River’, Obomsawin explores how and why the Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Canada declared a “state of emergency” over health and safety concerns in their community, right up to the “Idle No More” movement, born in response to violations of treaty rights.

In order to reach the widest possible audience, the film was released by free streaming on the Canadian National Film Board’s website in January.

Meanwhile, programming from Latin America — a region that lacks the institutional public support available through Canada, Australia and New Zealand’s film boards — is more challenging.

ImagineNATIVE set the spotlight on the Mapuche Nation, from the Araucania region in Southern Chile, where, Ryle pointed out, “the socio-political climate is still mainly producing social justice documentaries like ‘Rioto della Silva’, or the grassroots ‘El Nombre del Progresso’ (2010), filling a gap in which native Nations are essentially overlooked and suppressed.”

Native cinema also presents a challenge — born from First Nations’ economic and social marginalisation — to dominant economic models, which sever individuals from their environments and communities, thereby threatening a sustainable future.

“Our stories often point to ways of reconnecting ourselves by embracing the relationship between man, land and community as essential foundations of belonging and spirituality. The reality of indigenous life is that it revolves around love, growth and death – as it does for everyone,” Tanui Stephens, an independent writer-producer-director and founding member of Te Paepae Ataata, the Maori Film Development Board, told IPS.

“However the unique histories of indigenous people mean that we define these matters through land, justice and identity,” he added.

Works like Merata Mita’s ‘Saving Grace’ provide invaluable insights into domestic violence and identity struggles facing young Maori men, revealing the painful disconnect between aboriginal communities and modern lives that sparks disillusionment, despair and violence.

Numerous filmmakers told IPS that empowerment is often found through the process of tracing destructive behaviour to the side effects of colonial trauma.

Maryanne Redpath, Berlinale’s head curator, is now looking ahead. “We are considering extending visibility to regions including Asia, Africa and South America  – the title points to a journey and we want to keep it that way.”

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