Filmmaker Jayce Salloum brings First Nations voices to front

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Kelowna's city fathers and mothers were not amused. Although they had commissioned a piece from local videographer Jayce Salloum as part of their 2005 centennial celebrations, at the last moment they decided not to show it. The 38-minute work in question–which documents the destruction of Okanagan Native culture and landscape after European contact–is called "untitled part 4: terra incognita" and will be screened at the Pacific Cinémathí¨que in conjunction with some of the artist's other work next Thursday (June 14). The controversial creator of said oeuvre will also be there to provide answers to audience questions.

Salloum was just back from a recent trip to the Interior when he explained the background of this imbroglio to the Georgia Straight over the phone.

"The Alternator Gallery, which is the alternative gallery in Kelowna, won a public-art commission that”¦ [was] set up for centennial projects," the filmmaker explained. "The Alternator had proposed a project where they were going to invite two senior video artists, Dana Claxton and myself, to do longer pieces, about 15 minutes or so, and five emerging video artists to do shorter pieces, after which time a compilation DVD would be produced. So that was their project, and the city approved it. I thought it would be appropriate if at least some First Nations voices were heard during the centennial celebrations, so I asked Dana if she wanted to collaborate on that with me, but she didn't [Claxton being herself of Lakota descent], but telling me to go ahead. So I tried to record some stories of precontact, contact, and postcontact, and everything was sent in for the premiere screening, which was scheduled to occur in May of 2005, I believe.

"The day before the screening, the city, in its wisdom, decided to watch the pieces, and I guess it was their public-art committee who decided that it wasn't appropriate for them to be sponsoring or sanctioning such stuff, so they cancelled the screening of everything, including the other six pieces. Since people were coming from up and down the [Okanagan] Valley, especially First Nations people–they'd heard that something was going to happen–to see these works in general and mine in particular, I convinced the Alternator Gallery to host a”¦screening. So they ran it past their board, and the board said yes. Then I called them back and said, 'Why don't you book the fancy theatre the city booked, because they're probably going to cancel it?' So we did the screening in the same theatre, the beautiful Mary Irwin Theatre in Kelowna, at the same time, and in the same place as originally scheduled.

"It was amazing, something like 350 people showed up, including three or four chiefs or former chiefs, there was a great discussion, everything was very warm and supportive. I even had the Okanagan Nations representatives doing an official welcoming song to the whole event, something which almost never happens, because First Nations people are rarely taken seriously. After that, there were six or seven weeks' worth of mainly superficial battles in the press, then the city reneged on paying the final seven or eight thousand dollars that was due to the commission, and the Alternator agreed to take on the project as their own. In the end, my video ended up being claimed by the people in it as their own film, and they've been using it in schools with First Nations advisers when they do presentations. It's a piece they're very proud of."

Although Salloum claims to spend years on most projects (his usual subject area being the Middle East, his grandparents having been born in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley), this one was done in a rush, and he had to find talking heads wherever he could. Even though he always frames each interview subject in a manner "meant to challenge traditional notions of documentary and those voices of authority that are ingrained in our psyches, and which we accept as verbatim truth and seamless reality", some of his best sources were once the most disdained.

"When the residential-school system was set up," Salloum elaborated, "certain families did not heed the threats of the colonizers, and those families were ostracized during that period. It's only now that they're being recognized as cultural resources with an amazing wealth of experience. They're usually the ones who still speak the language and have kept some aspects of their culture alive."