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Canada’s Indigenous Filmmakers Build on Success With More Films and Visibility at Toronto Festival

Indigenous filmmakers continue to make strides in Canada, building industry capacity on their own terms and telling stories that both honor their communities and reach out to global audiences. Toronto’s 2023 slate offers audiences and buyers vital, provocative, and — because we need it — hilarious world-premiering work from established creators and up-and-comers.

“Tautuktavuk (What We See)” is the latest from Isuma, the collective of Inuit-owned media companies best-known for Camera d’Or-winning “Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner” (2001). “Tautuktavuk” is written and directed by film veterans Carol Kunnuk and Lucy Tulugarjuk, who also play sisters helping each other heal from past and present trauma.

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“Originally we were to be face-to-face in the same house,” Tulugarjuk, who is based in Montreal, tells Variety. “I was supposed to film in Igloolik (in Nunavut) over three seasons but when COVID hit, the world locked down. We had to put that reality — the southern pandemic versus the Arctic pandemic
— in the film.”

With pandemic radio updates in the background, the sisters videochat about their daily lives and experiences of domestic abuse. The healing power of community is shown in scenes — hunting and distributing of community food, traditional songs sung in Inuktitut, drum-dancing — that blend reality and fiction.

“When I was a child, it was rare to see drum-dancing because it was banned [by colonial entities], but my father kept the tradition, thank goodness,” Tulugarjuk says. “If we are bringing our identity and strength into this film, there has to be drum-dancing and songs.” Isuma Distribution Intl. is handling all sales.

The international version of Abenaki documentarian Kim O’Bomsawin’s four-part doc series “Telling Our Story,” part of a larger transmedia project, aims to decolonize the history of the 11 First Peoples in Quebec and surrounding areas. It bows in TIFF’s Primetime section; Off the Fence is handling U.S. and international sales.

Shot over 75 days, often in places rarely seen on screen, the series — commissioned by the CBC — explores ancestral knowledge and contemporary experience across the themes of territory, identity, spirituality and rebuilding.

O’Bomsawin, who is president of Indigenous production shingle Terre Innue, says that she was “a token Indian” when she started in the screen industry 15 years ago. “It was hard to put our own stuff out there. Then we saw a shift in the culture and practices, and the funding started to come after ‘Pathways and Protocols,’” the 2019 media production guide to working with Indigenous communities and stories.

“The opportunities are coming at us now, and so we have to mentor and create new filmmakers — the momentum is here,” says O’Bomsawin, who has several new docs in motion. “Colonization did a good job of separat-
ing us. What’s amazing is that we are now learning from each other.”

Guitarist and music producer Stevie Salas, who is Apache, first realized the power of documentary to create awareness when he executive produced the multi-award-winning “Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World.” He brings this concept to “Boil Alert,” which explores issues of water security and identity through the experiences of emerging activist Layla Staats, a Mohawk woman who lives on Six Nations of the Grand River (near Hamilton, Ontario, Canada).

Produced and financed through Seeing Red 6 Nations, Salas’ prodco with Six Nations business exec Brian Porter, the doc, which Salas co-directed with James Burns, visits some of the worst-hit First Nations communities in North America as Staats listens to individuals working for change.

“Lack of awareness might be the most dangerous thing for Indigenous people,” says Salas, who worked with Porter last year to install water filtration systems in Six Nation homes. “How many times have we been somewhere gorgeous and realized if you drink that water, you might die?

“We don’t need to hammer people with bad news and guilt. We want to show them the beauty, too. And if we tell these stories right, people can be entertained as they learn, then step up and say something must be done.”

When Cody Lightning appears next year in Marvel’s “Echo” miniseries, some viewers may recall his turn as the younger version of Adam Beach’s character, Victor, in the 1998 Sundance audience award-winning “Smoke Signals.” Lightning revisits that world — in a meta way — in his directorial debut, “Hey Viktor!” a mockumentary in which Lightning, playing a fictionalized version of himself, is followed by a doc crew as he tries to make a sequel.

Lightning, who would “go full Viktor” as a joke for years, worked with partner Josh Jackson and co-writer Sam Miller for three years “to figure out what was funny and heartbreaking about the character and how to redeem him.” After getting financing in place, they connected with Calgary’s North Country Cinema, which understood the vision and kept production on track through the pandemic. Visit Films is
handling U.S. and international sales.

“Rez humor is the craziest, raunchiest humor in the world, yet there are no Indigenous comedies, at least not feature films,” says Lightning, who hails from Samson Cree Nation in Maskwacis, Alberta. “There are amazing films about serious subjects — traumas, war, loss of language — but we have to be able to laugh at ourselves, too. We hope our film inspires kids on every rez to pick up a camera and make a bullshit movie with their friends.”

That said, Canada’s new generation of filmmakers is diverse. Below, Variety picks out five to watch:


Meredith Hama-Brown

Vancouver

“Seagrass” director, screenplay

If the world premiere of her debut feature on Toronto’s opening weekend wasn’t enough excitement, Meredith Hama-Brown recently signed with Gersh, just one indication that the Japanese Canadian filmmaker’s stories and aesthetic—her award-winning shorts and “Seagrass” were all shot on film—are turning heads. For “Seagrass,” she worked with innovative B.C. boutique companies Experimental Forest Films and Ceroma Films, and scooped Ally Maki (“Shortcomings”) to play a woman who brings her interracial family to a couple’s therapy retreat. Hama-Brown is writing her sophomore feature: “It also looks at Japanese American/Canadian identity and lineage but has a genre side as it incorporates sci-fi elements.”

Ariane Louis-Seize

Montreal

“Humanist Vampire Seeks Consenting Suicidal Person” director, screenplay

Ariane Louis-Seize has premiered four of her award-winning shorts in Toronto but this year she returns to “live in the moment” and fuel the momentum of her Venice-Days buzzing debut feature—a horror-comedy coming-of-ager that requires no logline. Produced by all-female-and-non-binary Montreal production company Art et essai and starring Sara Montpetit (“Marie Chapdelaine”), “Humanist Vampire” is rooted in Louise-Seize’s adolescent fascination with “films that were edgy, that played with supernatural elements, and that gave outcasts their own coming-of-age stories.” Among several projects in development is a feature related to the phenomenon in Japan of jouhatsu: “The idea of individuals choosing to vanish overnight, effectively erasing their past identities, deeply intrigues me.”

M. H. Murray

Toronto

“I Don’t Know Who You Are” director, screenplay, producer

Directing, writing, and producing three seasons of an award-winning viral web series (“Teenagers”) while attending film school gave M. H. Murray the skills to forge his first feature, which was funded with small arts-council grants: “Producing on a shoestring with collaborators I had already worked with proved the best way forward.” 2023 TIFF Rising star Mark Clennon plays gay working-class musician Benjamin (a character he created for Murray’s 2020 short “Ghost”), who is sexually assaulted by a stranger and spends a tense weekend raising cash for HIV-preventive meds. Murray is shooting his sophomore feature—a queer body horror film starring Chloe van Landschoot ( “From”)—in October. “It is an homage to 1970s and 1980s horror films, and it will be very bloody and very gay.”

Kudakwashe Rutendo

2023 Rising Star, “Backspot” actor

Toronto

Kudakwashe Rutendo found out she’d be joining TIFF’s 2023 Rising Stars program from her “Backspot” castmates. “I’m looking forward to the inside access that the program provides,” said Rutendo, whose background in poetry performance and theater was the warm-up for her big-screen breakthrough. Canadian director D. W. Waterson’s feature bow “Backspot” follows the intense moves and plot twists after a competitive cheerleader (Devery Jacobs of “Reservation Dogs”) and her girlfriend—played by former high school cheer captain Rutendo—both make their school’s elite cheerleading squad. Rutendo (a “huge anime and animation fan”) plans to hit Miyazaki’s last film, “The Boy and The Heron,” which opens the fest.

Eva Thomas

“Redlights” (short) director

Walpole Island First Nation, Toronto

The world premiere of Eva Thomas’s “Redlights” in Short Cuts finds the director in a rare, potentially pivotal, moment when celebration and opportunity entwine. “Redlights” is a short-to-feature project about two women who get in trouble with the law and go on the run; the short is the “trouble,” says Thomas. “The original spark was ‘Thelma & Louise’—two women who can’t go to the police for help. I thought, what if it was two Indigenous women who really couldn’t go to the police?” Thomas is also attending TIFF Every Story Accelerator as executive producer of “Seeds,” the feature-directing debut of actor Kaniehtiio Horn, which is in post, and the TIFF Filmmakers Lab for the feature component of “Redlights.”

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