How Indigenous Filmmakers Are Changing Contemporary Cinema

For decades, Indigenous people have been calling for better representation on the big screen—and, in the process, making world class movies

Inuit man sitting on snow while hunting

When the acclaimed Inuk film director Zacharias Kunuk attended his first Toronto International Film Festival reception seventeen years ago, he noticed the noise—the deep, resonant mumble of well-dressed partygoers talking over one another, the staccato clink of glasses. In the past, Kunuk had often been the only Inuk at these kinds of parties, which had few analogues in his home of Igloolik, Nunavut. This time, he spotted a few tawny patches of hide amongst the cotton and polyester: some members of his cast who were invited to attend were wearing traditional clothing. Suddenly, he realized what was familiar about the sound: the glamorous party sounded like a herd of walruses.

Kunuk no longer feels out of place at these sorts of events. The film he premiered at that festival, Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner), won the Caméra d’Or at the 2001 Cannes film festival and has been called the best Canadian movie ever made. Atarnajuat is the eponymous main character, a legendary Inuk hunter who gets wrapped up in a complex drama of romance and revenge brought on by a spiritual disturbance. The movie’s retelling of Inuit legend has an epic quality that is immanent in the landscape, language, and culture of Igloolik, where Kunuk lives, works, and hunts animals—including walruses. It was the first feature film to be made entirely in Inuktitut, featuring Inuit actors and telling Inuit stories.

This approach is Kunuk’s modus operandi: he has produced an astonishing volume of content—feature films, oral histories of community elders, documentaries of polar-bear and whale hunts—but all of his work is grounded in fidelity to his own experiences and those of his people. “Inuit are my first audience,” he says.

Kunuk is now an elder statesman among a diverse group of Indigenous filmmakers, a group that is set to grow as Canada takes a more proactive role in supporting Indigenous artistic talent. A host of young filmmakers have emerged in recent years, including Mi’gmaq director Jeff Barnaby, whose Rhymes for Young Ghouls stages a stylish and brutal revenge film in a 1970s-era residential school, and Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, whose documentary Angry Inuk explains the devastating effect that the European Union’s seal-product ban has had on Inuit.

When Kunuk started his career, he did not realize that any funding agencies even existed for the types of films he wanted to make—and, once he did, he had difficulty navigating a byzantine world of grant applications that gave little consideration to cultural differences beyond the two solitudes. Now the government has signaled that Indigenous films are a priority. Then heritage minister, Mélanie Joly, announced last June the creation of the Indigenous Screen Office, a collaboration between multiple agencies and partners, including APTN, the NFB, Telefilm Canada, and Vice Studio Canada, that is meant to develop Indigenous screen-based content. In doing so, the government has just begun to redress an absence that went often unnoticed except by those it most affected: the lack of Indigenous stories, faces, and voices that are true to the people being represented onscreen.

It may seem strange to concentrate on a cultural disparity at a time when others—access to education, clean drinking water, justice—are so apparent. But films construct narratives, and those narratives can construct identities. Fictional movies have already demonstrated their ability to emancipate Indigenous people from the stale conventions of white cinema, recasting them not as another historical feature among covered wagons and log cabins but as central, compelling figures. Documentaries have introduced viewers to diverse ways of being and retold events in ways that validate Indigenous perspectives but might be surprising or even shocking to the rest of the country. The 150th anniversary of Canada—intended to celebrate “our” story—more than anything drew attention to the fact that this story is a palimpsest, the narratives of its Indigenous peoples obscured by the hand of settlers. In a country beset by self-consciousness about its identity and the way it displays that identity to the world, Indigenous film can help us both reckon with our past and create movies worth watching.

Much of the Canadian film industry has been undermined by an excessive and irritating fixation on what it means to be “Canadian.” When TIFF compiled a list of the best Canadian movies, in 2015, half of them were made in Quebec—essentially another nation with its own sense of place and culture, as well as a significant amount of funding for French-language feature films. Anglophone Canada has trouble telling the country’s story, perhaps because it’s hard to decide exactly what that story is or what it means. The CBC had to apologize last year for its historical miniseries The Story of Us, which attempted to showcase Canadian history in all its diversity and ended up upsetting large parts of the country who felt misrepresented or excluded. (In a sense, this farce was actually a profound expression of Canadian identity.)

Jesse Wente, the head of the new Indigenous Screen Office, says that the Story of Us problem is symptomatic of Canada’s “storytelling issue”—and he says it exists because of Canada’s colonial past. The Canadian narrative has long emphasized settler history while eliding or ignoring the history of Indigenous peoples. This is in part due to racism or disinterest, but it is also because acknowledging Indigenous history and narratives requires fundamentally reframing what it means to be a Canadian: from pioneers to colonizers, from benign and bumbling to cold and shrewd, a nation whose freedom, peace, and prosperity are not gifts of the land but the spoils of conquest. There has been a growing chorus of Indigenous people criticizing the institutional process of “reconciliation,” which is willing to acknowledge Indigenous suffering but hesitant to name its causes or redress them. And so the Canadian identity narrative uses Indigenous people as most films do: as window dressing, as opponents, or as a way for its white characters to learn something important.

The historical relationship between Indigenous people and film is long, fraught, and—as you might expect—quite racist. Wente, who identifies as Ojibwe from the Serpent River First Nation, says film was used early on as an anthropological tool to document Indigenous cultures that many thought would soon be extinct. Nanook of the North, a 1922 film by explorer Robert Flaherty and one of the first feature-length documentaries ever created, was famously sold as a depiction of the quotidian life of an Inuk hunter, Nanook. Later, Flaherty admitted that many of the scenes were staged: Allakariallak, the man who played Nanook in the film, had agreed to participate, hunting with a spear instead of his usual rifle and pretending not to recognize objects such as a gramophone. A few years earlier, on the West Coast, Edward S. Curtis—the photographer whose famous portrait series explicitly sought to capture North American Indigenous people before their presumed extinction—paid Kwakwaka’wakw people to dress in ceremonial clothing and “play Indian” for the benefit of curious white viewers. Although the result, 1914’s In the Land of the Head Hunters, was a feature film rather than a documentary, it too emphasized the mythical pre-contact practices of a people who had largely modernized.

Ironically, Curtis was in some ways more progressive than his successors—his cast at least consisted of Kwakwaka’wakw people playing themselves and depicting their cultural practices. Future films flattened a continent of nations into a stereotypical Hollywood Indian, a process described in the 2009 NFB documentary Reel Injun. Taking a cue from the age-old narrative of the “noble savage,” movies tended to alternately highlight two aspects of this identity: Indigenous people were either free, mystical beings, similar in function to the “magical Negro,” or they were vicious primitives bent on obstructing the settlement of the frontier. In all cases, they were typically costumed in the outfits of Plains peoples—including beads and feather headdresses—and played by white people, which the Oneida-Mohawk-Cree comedian Charlie Hill likens, in Reel Injun, to casting “Adam Sandler as Malcolm X.”

This narrative not only shaped outsiders’ views of what it meant to be Indigenous, it also influenced its Indigenous viewers. In his youth, Kunuk sold carvings outside Igloolik’s community hall and elsewhere so that he could buy a ticket to the hall’s Saturday movie screenings. He remembers watching cowboys shoot Indians on the screen and listening to John Wayne lament the violence of the “savages.” At first, he didn’t understand how films worked, with cameras and sets and teams of people behind the scenes; he didn’t think of these depictions of Indigenous people as a conscious choice. He was just cheering for the heroes as they cut their way across the frontier. In one of Wayne’s movies, Kunuk recalls in a blog post for his production company, IsumaTV, American soldiers come across a group of their scouts who have been recently attacked: “[W]e go out where there’s arrows sticking out of dead soldiers and horses and one soldier says, ‘What kind of Indians did this!’ I was shocked too. That’s what I learned in my education, to think like one of the soldiers.”

If you don’t believe that narratives and representation matter in a profound way, then these are just the tropes of a genre film. But, even today, many movies that feature Indigenous people use them as a foil to develop white characters, and the subordination or destruction of Indigenous people is instrumental to resolving the narrative. There have been some exceptions and positive examples among films of this type—Oneida actor Graham Greene’s performance in 1990’s Dances with Wolves, for instance, is widely seen as a positive step for Indigenous representation onscreen, despite the fact that Greene plays a Sioux medicine man who helps induct Kevin Costner’s character, a Civil War–era cavalry officer, into his tribe. Through his acting, Greene elevates what could be a stereotypical role into a funny, complex, and deeply empathetic character. But, typically, Indigenous people are not fully developed characters outside of Indigenous-led productions, even as our sensibilities have supposedly evolved.

For example, 2015’s The Revenant, the Oscar-winning historical drama, has painstaking attention to historical accuracy and detail—Leonardo DiCaprio was instructed in the Arikara language to play the role of trapper Hugh Glass—but critics such as Wente have argued that it still reduces its Indigenous characters to bit players who lack agency. Glass’s Pawnee wife remains unnamed throughout the movie; the murder of their son, Hawk, provides the motive for DiCaprio’s character as he seeks revenge.

“I think we’re still facing representation issues,” he says. “Because as much we can say, ‘Oh, that’s the right language’ and even cast an actual Indigenous person…if they’re just there as window dressing, or to die, that’s ultimately not the change we want.” It may no longer be acceptable for a white woman to play an Indigenous one, but the character will still probably die within the first ten minutes.

Kunuk’s latest movie, Maliglutit (Searchers)—inspired by John Ford’s classic 1956 Western, The Searchers—was released in 2016. Kunuk’s version, which he co-directed with Natar Ungalaaq, swaps out dusty wagon trails for dog sleds and “cowboys and Indians” for an exclusively Inuit cast, subverting the genre it pays homage to. Wente calls it a “Northern.”

For Kunuk, attention to detail is a natural function of his mission to make movies that are true to Inuit tradition. Watching the 1992 film Map of the Human Heart, directed by New Zealand’s Vincent Ward, Kunuk noticed a qulliq, or seal-oil lamp, giving off an enormous flame in the wrong part of the igloo: “it was like the Olympic torch,” he says. Kunuk realizes that if he noticed this detail, then his target audience—Inuit, first and foremost—will likely notice if he gets something wrong too. But his motivation is also cultural and linguistic preservation. There are few Inuit still alive who remember how life was prior to the Canadian government’s assimilation attempts and who remember the techniques and ingenuity required to survive. In 100 years, he hopes, his films will be studied for the insight they provide into how his people once lived. This is part of what makes Kunuk’s films so distinct. The camera itself moves and observes in a way that feels unique: the product of a great and singular vision, but also embedded in a particular way of seeing.

Contemporary Indigenous films affect not only how Indigenous people see themselves, as increasingly represented and empowered, but also how Canadians see them. When Alanis Obomsawin, a prodigious Abenaki documentarian with fifty-one movies to her name, was a young woman, she saw books and classrooms filled with misinformation—misinformation, she says, “that was designed to create hate towards our people.” Ultimately, “it really was left to [Indigenous people] to educate.” She began her filmmaking career in 1967 with that goal in mind, she told me over the phone last fall. At first, the NFB approached her to be a consultant on a documentary it was making about the Standing Buffalo Reserve—but, soon after she agreed, she got the impression the NFB was just using her to gain access to the reserve. She resolved to tell those stories herself instead.

The result is a vast body of educational work that offers an alternative perspective on Canadian history, past and present. Her documentary on the 1990 Oka crisis, Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, for example, fundamentally changed the way Canadians and international observers perceived the armed standoff between the Kanien’kéhaka (Mohawk), protesters, the police, and the army by presenting the Indigenous side of the narrative, including scenes of white people throwing rocks at a convoy of cars full of women, children, and the elderly. When it was first released in 1993, the CBC initially declined to air the documentary, which is now regarded as a classic.

Of course, this isn’t just an issue of justice or fair representation. There’s every reason to believe that promoting Indigenous filmmaking will result in great, interesting movies. Four of New Zealand’s five top-grossing movies prominently feature Māori actors and themes; it’s possible to have both critical and commercial success. In particular, Taika Waititi has emerged as a great, idiosyncratic director, comfortable with offbeat comedies about vampire roommates (What We Do in the Shadows), coming-of-age stories (Boy), or action blockbusters (Thor: Ragnarok). And the world-beating success of Black Panther has hopefully put to rest the idea that stories made by and for marginalized communities have no outside appeal.

Nevertheless, some may be concerned that Indigenous-led stories will veer toward the tedious and tendentious, a form of educational penance for viewers rather than a source of entertainment. This concern is partly a product of funding structures: many grant agencies are staffed predominantly by non-Indigenous people who may have a narrower conception of what an “Indigenous story” should be (historical, environmentally focused, guilt inducing), which adds a further layer to the already challenging process of getting a film made. In countries such as New Zealand and Australia, which have growing Indigenous filmmaking communities, the governments have set up funding agencies specifically for Indigenous content—something Canada had been missing until the recent creation of the Indigenous Screen Office and the more direct financial support of its partners. Wente is excited about the possibilities. “I think if we allowed more freedom for Indigenous artists to really tell their stories the way they wanted to, and to be free of barriers but also preconceptions about what ‘makes’ an Indigenous story,” he says, “I think people will be blown away.”

Kunuk recently nominated Asinnajaq, a young Inuk filmmaker and artist, to be awarded a prize of $50,000 in filmmaking services. Her latest short documentary—a mix of animation and archival footage—was nominated for a Canadian Screen Award. Other artists, such as Cree-Métis filmmaker Danis Goulet, are exploring Indigenous futurism: envisioning Indigenous culture not as a relic but as something that persists and progresses into science-fiction futures.

Last fall, Nyla Innuksuk, an Inuk filmmaker based in Toronto, reflected on Kunuk’s legacy in a piece for CBC Arts. Though Innuksuk’s own work is not about documenting traditional lifestyles or oral histories, she writes, “Atanarjuat reminds me that there is an alternative to allowing others to tell your truth.” In a country such as Canada, it is inevitable that attempts to reduce that truth to a single narrative—a cohesive meaning that applies equally to all Indigenous people or all provinces—is bound to fail. The best we can do is to be honest with one another and tell our stories in the earnest belief that someone else is listening.

Alex Tesar
Alex Tesar is a writer and editor who lives in Halifax with his partner and their dog, Dr. Tony Spaghetti.