VIFF 2017: Indian Horse heads up a strong schedule of First Nations–themed films

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      "My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.” It’s been more than a century since Louis Riel—the Métis founder of Manitoba and of Canadian multiculturalism—said that and was executed for his efforts. Some sleeps last longer than others, of course, but most do end eventually.

      Whatever comes of Justin Trudeau’s movement of Indigenous affairs to the front burner—that is, whether actions will really follow words—the national discussion has changed. Reflecting that, the First Nations–themed tales at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival bear out Riel’s claim.

      Most are documentaries, but a key feature is the lavishly made Indian Horse. Making its debut here September 30 and October 2 and 11 after a strong premiere in Toronto, the tale—about a youngster’s residential-school torment in the 1960s and his short tenure in the NHL—was adapted from the award-winning 2012 novel by Ojibwa author Richard Wagamese.

      The current prime minister’s father, Pierre Trudeau, was in charge 35 years ago when this writer arrived in Canada as an immigrant from the U.S., where the conversation still hasn’t caught fire. By an odd quirk of fate, Wagamese was my first friend in this country. His then-wife was a colleague at my new job at Calgary Magazine, and I lived in his house until I found my own place. He taught me a lot about things I never thought I needed to know.

      Although spared the residential-school experience, Richard had a foster-home nightmare of a childhood. This he eventually escaped, not via hockey—like his alter ego, Saul Indian Horse—but through books, music, and other, less salubrious pastimes. He became gregarious, articulate, extremely funny, and memorably unreliable.

      We lost touch over time but reconnected when his writing career took off and awards and speaking tours really kicked in. Vancouver producers Trish Dolman and Christine Haebler stumbled upon him in 2011, during a radio interview with CBC’s Shelagh Rogers, who became like an older sister to Wagamese.

      “I was just knocked out by Richard, by his personality and the way he spoke,” Haebler says just before heading to TIFF. Sitting in the Main Street office of their Screen Siren Pictures, the duo discuss what led them to option his then-latest work.

      “We read the book before it was published, and were totally knocked out,” Dolman remembers. “We were determined to win him over, even though he already had suitors with bigger wallets and credit lists.” They succeeded, and Wagamese specifically asked for Vancouver playwright and screenwriter Dennis Foon to do the adaptation.

      The result, a directorial debut from Clint Eastwood cameraman Stephen Campanelli, is well cast, with three talented young actors playing Saul at different ages. (There’s also flavourful music from our own Jesse Zubot.) But according to its producers, the best thing about their gruelling sojourn in remote locations in Northern Ontario was the support of First Nations people in smaller parts and on the crew.

      “Working with Richard was fantastic,” Haebler says, “and he was right there for some of the most important decisions. It’s a tragedy that he didn’t live to see the finished movie. It’s an even bigger tragedy that all that vast amount of talent has been wasted over the centuries. That’s the real story here!”

      Wagamese died earlier this year, at age 61. Like others in his orbit, Haebler and Dolman would not discuss what ended my old friend’s life, but as Shelagh Rogers put it after the fact: “Richard was killed by colonialism.”

      For the production team, this created a professional crisis as well as a personal one. “Suddenly,” Haebler says, “we lost our most passionate defender. And we are very sensitive about discussions of cultural appropriation.”

      Vancouver filmmaker Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers is uniquely qualified to comment on this tricky dynamic. Her background combines Blackfoot heritage with that of the Sami people, Aboriginal nomads who have experienced analogous treatment in northern Scandinavia. (In fact, the VIFF lineup includes Sami Blood, playing October 10 and 12, set in rural Sweden in the 1930s.)

      “The challenge is really to get enough stories told that everyone feels represented,” Tailfeathers says, calling from her Vancouver home. Her own festival contribution, c̓əsnaʔəm: the city before the city (October 1 and 6), lays out the map under the map of Vancouver, displaying who was here before urbanization took over. It’s about the literal reclamation of sacred land through political action, and it’s also about the recognition of “the living book that we are”, as one interview subject puts it.

      “I feel humbled by this movie,” the young filmmaker insists, “because it was really a collaboration with the Musqueam people and I had to view it as an outsider who was invited in. I needed to be respectful, like any visitor.”

      The fest offers some darker tales, such as Luk’Luk’I (October 3 and 8), which examines life in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side. But most reflect the more celebratory nature of Meet Beau Dick: Maker of Monsters (September 30 and October 11), which shows the successful dance with modernity of a gifted traditional carver.

      Elsewhere, the delightful nine-minute “Fence” follows a fictional Indigenous artist on his trip to a Montreal gallery. It’s part of a shorts package called Strangers in Strange Lands (October 5 and 12), along with the luminously animated “The Mountain of SGaana”. Likewise tooning up ancient mythology, Amanda Strong’s “Flood” is part of New Skins & Old Ceremonies (October 1 and 8).

      Tying together these themes of survival through creativity is master filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin’s new film, Our People Will Be Healed (October 5 and 9), which focuses on one inspiring success.

      “Alanis told me that she’s tired of making sad stories,” Tailfeathers recalls of a recent meeting with the American-born Obomsawin, now 85, “and that she was ready to make something more uplifting.”

      Indeed, this lovingly made doc about Manitoba’s Norway House—a school that sprang up in Riel’s old stomping grounds—catalogues a model not just for integrating First Nations students into the dominant culture but also the other way around. Math and sciences work hand in hand with music, agriculture, and spiritual awareness, pointing a way forward in soul-crushing times. Or, as another city before the city subject explains: “We have to be here for a reason!”

      Given the size of this still-raw country, it’s not dumb to ask for directions from people—one-and-a-half million, spread over 600 Nations in all provinces—who have been on hand for 10,000 years. Especially when some of us only arrived yesterday. Or even the day before.

      The Vancouver International Film Festival takes place from Thursday (September 28) to October 13. More information is at the VIFF website.