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Is Winnipeg at the Forefront of Canada’s Aboriginal Film Scene?

In just over a year, the Aboriginal Film Collective has more than quadrupled in size as Winnipeg's Aboriginal filmmakers delve into genre and comedy.

by Whitney Light
Nov 30 2015, 7:56pm

Justina and Jenna Neepin, while filming their documentary Bayline. Photo supplied by Jenna Neepin

There's an Ojibway belief that "star children" will descend from the sky in the people's time of need—an aspect of ancient oral teachings and sky stories about communication between mortals and the spiritual world, according to filmmaker Sonya Ballantyne. "Sorta like how Superman came to Earth and ended up helping out," she said.

The legends of super-powered guardians who protect earthlings from danger is central to Crash Site, her short film about a girl from the reserve struggling to fit in the big city. With its Superman-esque plot and flashy comic book graphics, the film is playing in festivals from Adelaide, Australia, to San Diego, California, and at last week's Winnipeg Aboriginal Film Festival.

The success of the roughly $15,000 production won praise from fellow emerging filmmakers gathered at the Winnipeg Film Group one evening late in October for the one-year anniversary of the Aboriginal Film Collective.

"I want us to make Winnipeg an Aboriginal Bollywood," Ballantyne, a 29-year-old director said during a round of introductions that evening. Co-hosted by filmmaker Roger Boyer, the group had been meeting for a year to discuss ideas, get support for productions, and make contacts. At Ballantyne's comment, the up-and-coming writers, actors and cinematographers chuckled and shared knowing glances. Having grown from less than 10 filmmakers a year ago to a regular group of 45, with women directors at the fore, the group was planning its first film together—a horror.

Ten years ago, the scene looked a lot different. Only one film by an Aboriginal filmmaker appeared in the catalogue of the Winnipeg Film Group. That reflected trends nationwide. A report by imagineNATIVE found that although Indigenous film grew, and is successful in documentary, only five in 310 feature films funded by Telefilm Canada between 2008-2012 were made by Aboriginal filmmakers. Indigenous filmmakers said they had difficultly getting funding because they had to navigate cultural misconceptions about their content and market.

Sonya Ballantyne. Photo by Whitney Light

To be sure, Winnipeg boasts successful Aboriginal production houses. APTN made its headquarters here, after all. But that the Film Group, a breeding ground for industry talent generally, is seeing so much activity from Aboriginal filmmakers marks something new. Their first film, a suspenseful seven-minute comedy called Dude Vs Dude, has taken on a somewhat legendary status at the film group, said executive director Cecilia Araneda.

"It's kind of a guy-pal movie. It's not the most sophisticated film, but it foreshadows some elements that we're seeing in films by Aboriginal filmmakers now," she said, noting their affinity for narrative storytelling and genre films, especially comedy.

For some, the drive toward these types of films comes from growing up with media that narrowly cast Aboriginal roles and lacked realistic or admirable characters to identify with.

"I'm making films for the nerds back home who don't have people to look up to," Ballantyne said. As a kid growing up on the reserve in Grand Rapids, Manitoba, she found herself identifying with the characters of Star Trek, Will Smith in The Fresh Prince, and The Hobbit, who she imagined was a native person.

"North of 60 was like my life already, so why the hell would I watch it?" she said of the perennial CBC show set in the Northwest Territories.

Still from Crash Site supplied by Sonya Ballantyne

Her tomboy taste in books and comics often didn't win family or social approval in the small northern community, so Ballantyne jumped at a chance to attend university in Winnipeg, first as a psychology student, and later as a film major. She also attended New Voices at the National Screen Institute, a talent incubator program founded by veteran Aboriginal producer Lisa Meeches that is producing many ambitious young artists. Now Ballantyne is writing her next film, tentatively titled WWShe, about small-town sisters who start a pro-wrestling enterprise.

"My films are not Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," Ballantyne says, "but they're important stories that need to be told, because they show us as modern people, and we're surviving."

Of course, survival as a filmmaker is tough for anyone. Justina and Jenna Neepin, a sister team from Thompson, Manitoba, who make narrative dramas and documentaries, explain that their writing is often a pragmatic attempt to get funding and thus put Aboriginal talent on crew and set.

With their short drama Mark, in which a romantic encounter at a bus stop takes a deadly turn, Jenna Neepin, 30, said "we were just trying to think of a dynamic film that would catch and grab people." After the pitch won the 2012 RBC Emerging Filmmakers Contest, the film played at the 2013 Gimli Film Festival, among others. Next month, Jenna Neepin will participate in the Aboriginal Filmmaker Fellowship at the Whistler Film Festival to get advice on their next dramatic short.

"What we've found is that although Aboriginal artists complete emerging programs, there's no jobs for them after they graduate," said Justina Neepin, another New Voices program graduate who now works at Animiki See Digital Productions. "This is a career, it's not just art."

Justina Neepin. Photo supplied by Jenna Neepin

The New Voices program has aimed to impart that business-minded approach. Over 100 filmmakers have taken part since it was founded 12 years ago, and most graduates still work in the industry, said Ursula Lawson, manager of programs and development at the National Screen Institute.

As an indicator of how much the film scene has changed, Lawson said, most participants come to the program these days with film experience and credits. Twelve years ago, most had none.

"It's a huge difference. There's a generation that's more confident now," said Lawson, noting the predominance of women artists. "I can see it growing."

At the same time, this generation is evidently striking a balance between personal artistic vision and a sense of responsibility to tell stories about the Aboriginal experience in Canada.

But if there is a tension between those things, it's a creative challenge rather than barrier. "I don't feel it in a negative way. I feel I have a privilege to share these stories," said Métis filmmaker Madison Thomas, 24. Her debut feature film, This Is Why We Fight, is a post-apocalyptic drama about the struggle for survival in a barren Winnipeg of 2042.

"Young people today need representation in media. We have a responsibility to reflect our society as it actually is," Thomas said, referring to the need for diversity in crews and casts, not a restriction on roles and stories. Born and raised in the Winnipeg's North End, Thomas recalls feeding her fascination for sci-fi.

Still from Mark supplied by Jenna Neepin

"My parents didn't have a lot to spare. It fostered the imagination," she said. "If it had aliens and spaceships, I was all over it. That spills over into my writing."

While there's no doubt Winnipeg is still playing catch-up with Montreal and Toronto to develop its Aboriginal film scene, as is often the case for artists in this city. But that means opportunities to leap into fields that few others are working in and a sense that defining the scene is not only possible but necessary.

"There were no other females on the scene at the time I started making music videos [five years ago]," said filmmaker Jody-Leigh Pacey, 28. "I wanted to show that native women could do it too."

Her work with rap group Skelpa Squad merited a Best Rap Video nomination at the 2010 Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards. Now working with hip-hop crew Foreign Objekts, she is making a video that deals with missing and murdered women and cyberbullying. And she said she's also experimenting with horror, citing Sam Raimi of Evil Dead fame as a favourite director. "It's fun," she said. "I'm learning how to write scripts to just make reading them scary."

Indeed, horror is hot right now, buoyed by the recent success of Roger Boyer, co-host of the Aboriginal Film Collective, with his film Dark Forest—tagline: "their camping trip turns into a fight for survival"—which crowdsourced funds well above expectations and went on to an extended run at a downtown cinema.

"People might think of Aboriginal film as Smoke Signals, Dance Me Outside, or Dances with Wolves, but it can mean different things to different people," said Jaydon Ono, 20, an actress in Crash Site and comedy writer.

"I want to bring Aboriginal humour, faces and voices to the screens of people who might not normally see it," she said. To that end, Ono is writing a comedy script she describes as the Aboriginal Clerks, referring to Kevin Smith's breakout film made on a shoestring budget.

Eventually, the Winnipeg Film Group wants to see 10 percent of local film directors coming from the Aboriginal community. "It should reflect the society we live in," Araneda said, referring to the city's census demographics. With these women and others working, it may happen yet.

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