Monday, September 17, 2018

History of Indigenous film and television

I'm not an aficionado of the Toronto International Film Festival much, but the other day we did get to a showing of Edge of the Knife, or Sgaaway K'uuna, the first feature film made entirely in the Haida language. It is co-directed by Gwaii Edenshaw, who is Haida, and Helen Haig-Brown, who is Tsilhquo'tin, and they had the assistance of the film team that made the terrific Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. There must be a good chance it will be seen this winter in major cities and specialty cinema venues.

Edge of the Knife and Atanarjuat are powerful demonstrations why cultural appropriation is a problem.  Oh, says defenders of the practice, a good novelist (or film-maker) will grasp the truth of the culture, because that is what artists do, that is how an artist works. Watch Edge of the Knife or (even more so) Atanarjuat and you quickly become sure no Euro-Canadian would have made it.  Worth the price for that alone.

Edge of the Knife presents a traditional story of a man who becomes a gaagiid, a wildman, how he flees society for a violent and degraded life in the deep woods, and how his relatives attempt to redeem him,  It's less dramatic than Atanarjuat, perhaps, and in some ways more comfortable with mainstream film tropes and naturalistic acting styles. But it is beautifully filmed, simply designed  (with rather less of 19th century Haida splendour than I might have expected), and gracefully acted by a mostly amateur Haida cast speaking their ancestral tongue as a second language.

Meanwhile APTN, the indigenous TV network, has First Contact. This is not a drama about indigenous people confronting Cabot or Champlain. It's a reality show. Over a string of episodes, it takes a group of ordinary Canadians and takes them where ordinary Canadians never go:  Indian country.

The participants are quick to describe themselves as average Canadians. Which is to say they are atrociously ignorant and horribly prejudiced about all things indigenous.When they are taken to Kimmirut in Nunavut, or Muskrat Falls, Ontario, or the Samson Cree reserve south of Edmonton, the confrontations are, well, they are visceral. Sure there are lots of reality-show conventions being observed here, and maybe the encounters are set up, reality show style, to favour the hosts over the guests. But this one is worth watching (even if you want to put your fingers over your eyes a lot of the time).  Ouch. 

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