The 2020 imagineNATIVE Film Festival is under way, showcasing Indigenous talent in the filmmaking arts around the world.
More than 50 films ranging from music videos to animation and live-action features are on the festival roster from October 20 to 25, which has gone virtual due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Stories come from countries like Norway, New Zealand, the Solomon Islands, and the United States. Several of the contributions are Canadian.
Denendeh is well represented at imagineNATIVE. Two entries bring Dene and Inuvialuit tales of the Canadian Northwest to international screens.
Tom McLeod is the filmmaker behind one of those entries: an animated short entitled Greed Story.
Narrated by McLeod and hand-drawn by Inuvialuk and Gwich’in artist Darcie Bernhardt – who McLeod says is one of his “favourite artists” – the piece tells an old Inuvialuit story of a man eventually driven to cannibalism by greed.
“It is a story that I heard, actually, not too long ago in Tuktoyaktuk from the Elder there,” McLeod explains. “It wouldn’t leave my head – it was there living in my head rent-free, this story. And I needed to tell it because it was such a relevant story for the times, I think.
“It was one of those things that I had to make, because if I didn’t, it would just live with me for the rest of my life.”
McLeod is an Inuvialuk and Gwich’in filmmaker from Aklavik. While he works in many different formats as an artist, including photography and radio, he says it is the “unsubtlety” of the medium that draws him to film.
“You can do pretty-much anything with storytelling, even just with oral storytelling … but the thing with that is sometimes there’s room for mix-ups, people can misunderstand things,” he says.
“Being completely unsubtle about storytelling is the absolute strength of film, in that you can depict something totally and without any ambiguity … and you can just put it down in front of someone and it’s so universal.”
This forthrightness is what propelled McLeod forward with Greed Story.
Its themes of greed and selfishness are heavily prevalent in the current moment, McLeod says, something the film explores with brutal honesty.
“Right now, with climate change and wealth inequality, I was really thinking about this idea of maybe not being greedy and taking from those with you now,” he says.
“I feel with climate change, with pollution, with the extravagant lifestyle everybody lives today … a lot of these bad things that are happening [are not affecting] super-rich people. The story is sort-of how I imagined them, living in a way that their greed controls them.”
However, McLeod pointed out, the film seeks to challenge the viewer to confront their own greedy or selfish impulses.
“The way that the Inuvialuit Settlement Region is today is that we get to manage our own land and our own animals, our own fish stock, and they’ve been thriving recently. The Porcupine Caribou herd has been thriving. Our fish stocks are doing well. The whales are here, they’re coming back every year,” he said.
“But we can’t do it alone, right? There is an entire world out there. Nothing happens in a vacuum, and I just think it’s important for people to think about their own greed and what that can do to you, and make you do without even thinking about it.”
Greed Story premieres on the imagineNATIVE website on Friday and is available for ticket-holders to watch until Sunday morning.
Breaking northern stereotypes
Meanwhile, two Dene artists have collaborated on a music video that seeks to bring a northern perspective to the electronic dance music scene.
Smells Like Smoke, which premieres on Saturday, features music from DJ Eugene Boulanger (who performs as Young Dene) and graphics by video artist Casey Koyczan, layering footage of Sahtu landscapes with visual effects.
According to Koyczan, the goal was to make the video “as trippy as possible.”
“There’s a lot of colour, there’s a lot of trippy effects, overlay effects, trying to incorporate the timing aspect of the hi-hats, the kick basses, the snares, all that sort of thing,” Koyczan explains. “There’s a lot of straight cuts as well, a lot of cross dissolves, and that sort of thing.”
He adds: “It was a way to bring that different viewpoint and energy to reflect a different portion of what the NWT and Sahtu was.”
Boulanger is Shúhtagot’ı̨nę Dene from Tulita, while Koyczan is Tłı̨chǫ Dene from Yellowknife and spent much of his childhood in the Sahtu.
Both men are multimedia artists, and both say the North is often stereotyped to fit a specific narrative when it comes to art and music.
“If you think of the North, you think of Aurora Borealis paintings, Inukshuks, folk and blues and country music, and that’s it,” Koyczan says.
Koyczan hopes the video will help convey that communities and artists in the NWT are infinitely diverse and tackle different media, genres, and themes within their work and interests.
Casey Koyczan (left) and Eugene Boulanger. Photos: Submitted
Boulanger, who has been integral in promoting the electronic dance music (EDM) scene in the North, agrees.
While EDM originated within Black music culture, Boulanger says “it feels natural to participate in that as a Dene person, and to contribute to this emerging tradition, which is sound system culture.”
“[It’s] this beautiful, young subculture that is still very much valuable as it kind-of comes to define itself,” he says. “And to me, it’s a big honour to inject some Dene culture, some Dene perspectives or insights into that emerging culture, to hopefully add to it and build on it.”
Boulanger has come to see this not only as a creative outlet, but a responsibility to his people.
“I used to be a little bit shy about putting myself out there as a DJ, because I was worried that people would think it was childish,” he says. “It wasn’t until after an event one night in 2015 … when one of my friends said to me, ‘Eugene, why didn’t I know that you DJ? That was so much fun!’
“And I said, ‘Well, I guess maybe I’m hesitant, because I’m worried [what people will think]. And he said, ‘No, dancing is medicine, and people need to dance, and you provide the music. It’s like being a drummer.’
“It’s totally a responsibility and a tradition to uphold, so that’s how I look at it now.”
More information on imagineNATIVE can be found on the festival’s website.