How a film festival in the North is changing the dialogue on indigenous experience for the better – by amplifying Indigenous voices and views from around the world.
For many Canadians, the complicated relationship between Indigenous Peoples and Canada is still relatively abstract. Generations of Canadians have grown up in the country not fully aware of the ongoing policies and colonial treatment toward Indigenous Peoples or how the leadership and contributions of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis people shape the country we know as home.
Understanding Indigenous perspectives is vital to understanding ourselves as Canadians. By examining our history and the diversity of present experiences in Canada, we illuminate the vast richness of places and realities that make up the country and that also connect us as human beings.
This year, we partnered with the Available Light Film Festival (ALFF) in Whitehorse, Yukon—Canada’s largest film festival north of 60—to shine a brighter spotlight on diverse filmmakers (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour, and LGBTQ2S+) in Canada, and especially in the north. 0ur mission is to give a larger platform for these storytellers to reach communities across the world.
Indigenous storytelling traditions span several millennia and contain vital and incredibly rich knowledge. From creation stories to governance, Indigenous knowledge passed on through stories instruct on to how to live in balance with an interconnected world, which must be preserved for future generations. Storytelling takes many forms: orally, in song, drumming, pictographs, or through cultural practices such as sewing or harvesting from the land. As ALFF Associate Programmer Siku Allooloo explains, “stories are multilayered, complex, and give understanding of origins and one’s place in the world and relationship to all other beings and elements of creation. Stories are instructive and can also be healing. In the context of Canada, in which competing stories about how the country has come to be and who Indigenous peoples are often frames them as less civilized, less advanced, self-destructive, and fraught with trauma, addiction, violence and dysfunction – it is important to understand the importance of Indigenous stories as paramount to not only the cultural survival of Indigenous peoples, but the survival of human beings on a planet in desperate need of balance and good relations.”
“The power of Indigenous storytelling is to generate the energy we need to remind ourselves who we are, and what kind of world we want to live in,” says Allooloo, an Inuk, Haitian, Taíno writer, multimedia artist and community activist from the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. “It’s important that we retain autonomy of our stories because the majority of Canadians aren’t aware of who we are and even more importantly, because they aren’t aware of their own colonial history,” she says. “The Canadian government has done such a good job at forming the narrative around how this country came to be, and erasing Indigenous presence, that Canadians don’t understand the myriad challenges we face, and why Indigenous populations are so marginalized – which has everything to do with the relationship with Canada and Canadian society. This is the importance of bringing in the other voices, to truly hold dialogue. Otherwise it is just one oppressive story.”
As such, Indigenous peoples continue to bear the brunt of systemic racism and violence in Canadian healthcare, justice, economic, and educational systems. They are the most severely impacted by environmental degradation, food insecurity, poverty, incarceration, and targeting for violence. If Indigenous people were to exist only within the constructs of this colonial reality and the narratives constructed about us, it would be paralyzing, says Allooloo. “Our realities can be tremendously debilitating, so reviving our own stories about who we are and appropriate ways in which we are meant to live as human beings in the world, vocalizing them, and embodying them is a literal lifeline for us,” she says. “They function as an act of worldmaking, and living resistance.”
Allooloo has been an avid leader in Indigenous resurgence initiatives across the North and British Columbia since 2012 through cultural land-based education, decolonial advocacy, and the arts. This year, she is developing her practice in documentary and experimental film while also curating Indigenous short films for the Available Film Light Festival.
While selecting the films she would program, Allooloo knew she wanted to move away from narratives focused on trauma – which tends to be the scope by which non-Indigenous filmmakers (and society) frames Indigenous peoples – and instead focus on strength. She curated her selection through the purview of celebrating the resilience, power, healing, and beauty of living an Indigenous life, from many different contexts around the world. She used the Medicine Wheel as a guide; a model used by many different Indigenous nations across North America, that represents the alignment of the spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and physical connections to the world. “I knew I had to shift focus away from the constant perception of Indigenous people being ‘too traumatized’ and ‘too impoverished’ as to be helpless,” she says. “Where the topic of colonialism does come up, I ensured that it is framed appropriately as the enactment of injustice and violence on the part of Canadian systems, as opposed to the stereotype of ‘Indigenous trauma’. Impacts are expressed in connection to specific actions – which promotes accurate understanding. But overall, I wanted to shine a light on Indigenous autonomy, self-affirmation, beauty, love and strength.”
The Available Light Film Festival is hosted virtually this year. While the global pandemic has posed significant challenges for the festival, it also presented unexpected opportunity in terms of greater access. More people are able to view the films this year, and from across the country, and the possibility of that reach means even more of us have the chance to expand our understanding of Indigenous cultures. “Cinema is amazing because it opens the doors for people to learn about the realities of a human experience outside of their own,” says Allooloo. “These stories open the door to a diversity of truths that most Canadians don’t know. Having exposure to these different facets of humanity and being able to witness and recognize humanity in people that most of society never gets to hear from or see represented accurately, to have a glimpse into the importance of what is happening in our communities and our contexts, and to understand the connection in how we’ve gotten to this state as a country and a world is the heart of what compassion is. It creates a safer, healthier, more connected world. Having the platform and the support to be able to showcase Indigenous knowledge, love, worldmaking, truth-telling, and resilience is not only wonderful and a long time coming, but is an important component of increasing safety in the every day lives of Indigenous peoples. As well as richer and more just and more meaningful connections with those who share our homelands.”