In Marie Clements’s musical-documentary hybrid, The Road Forward, we see a First Nations activist addressing a crowd in 1980 with the words: “If you really believe we have been here forever, if you really believe, if you really believe—you don’t ask for it. You take it.”
If the idea was to launch this year’s DOXA Documentary Film Festival with a big statement—The Road Forward opens the festival with a gala screening at the Vogue on Thursday (May 4)—then mission accomplished. It’s an astoundingly powerful sequence, mounted by Clements and her collaborators as a kind of cut-up visual poetry, given added force through repetition and then augmented with ghostly, reverb-drenched guitar and the steadfast beat of a drum. The actor is Stō:lo/St’át’imc/Nlaka’pamux hip-hop artist Ronnie Dean Harris, aka Ostwelve. The man he plays—the man responsible for those words—is George Manuel.
“It’s pretty hard not to be ignited by George Manuel and to try to grasp what he actually did, and his vision, and what he was saying over 30 years ago,” says Clements, calling the Straight from Toronto on the eve of her film’s premiere at Hot Docs. “When I first saw the speech it was like seeing Martin Luther King.”
The comparison is apt, and archival footage of Manuel—a tireless fighter who served in the ’70s as the first president of the World Council of Indigenous People—drives the point home. His Constitution Express movement in 1980 is just one of the events that fall under Clements’s roving zoom in The Road Forward.
“I wanted to re-create the visceral experience we have when we open a newspaper,” explains the filmmaker, who mined seven decades’ worth of the Native Voice to build a passionate collage of First Nations life, history, and resistance. “You get drawn to a headline or a picture and you go inside that picture, you go inside that story, and all of a sudden you’re imagining what really happened on that day to these people. And I felt that’s kinda what happened to me when I went through all these archives, this 70 years of newspapers.”
Founded in 1946, the Native Voice was the first periodical devoted solely to aboriginal affairs. Clements’s musical dramatizations—accomplished with an enormous gang of collaborators including Wayne Lavallee, Jennifer Elizabeth Kreisberg, and Shakti Hayes—include the birth of the paper itself, which emerged from the Native Brotherhood of British Columbia. Clements readily admits that the entire process, which began as a 10-minute live production for the 2010 Olympics, was a massive learning experience.
“I think like a lot of us at a certain age, our elementary- and high-school books didn’t exactly talk about Native people, and if they did, it was often not in a great light,” she remarks. Consider The Road Forward to be a major, not to mention very artful, correction to the record. It’s also a hell of a way to start a film festival. DOXA is otherwise committed to handing a bullhorn to the Native voice with the film ôtênaw, double-billed with Michael Kanentakeron Mitchell’s classic NFB short “You Are on Indian Land”, along with a free program of youth-made shorts curated by the Wapikoni Mobile nonprofit group.
And, of course, there’s Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, which does a thrilling job of rooting out the suppressed history of indigenous influence on American popular music. The timing is all very suggestive.
“We’re seeing a kind of critical mass across all art forms and politics and human rights, and I think it’s partly because of the long history of activism, but also I think maybe we now believe we have to actually share,” says Clements, adding that modern social and environmental emergencies have made Manuel’s sentiments universal.
“We have to do this now,” she says. “We have to take it now. We can’t ask for things anymore, you know? Change has to happen now.”