Streaming Spotlight - Indigenous filmmakers

Ahead of the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples we look at the rise of storytellers who are changing the narrative

by Amber Wilkinson

Monday marks International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples. As UN secretary-general António Guterres notes in his consideration of the day: "Indigenous peoples around the world continue to face overwhelming marginalisation, discrimination and exclusion. Rooted in colonialism and patriarchy, these profound disparities are sustained by a deeply held resistance to recognising and respecting the rights, dignity, and freedoms of indigenous peoples."

The marginalisation many communities have faced has also extended to their portrayal on film in the past, where stories tended to be told by the colonisers, who all too frequently, exoticised and/or marginalised the portrayal of indigenous people on screen. That balance has thankfully begun to shift in recent years, thanks in no small part to the Sundance Film Festival which, largely under the guidance of Bird Runningwater, has long invested in nurturing indigenous voices, including its Indigenous Programme, which has seen more than 100 different Indigenous filmmakers mentored and supported through labs, grants and fellowships. Other organisations helping bring indigenous stories to light include Screen Australia's First Nations programme, in existence in some form since 1993, the International Sami Institute, founded in 2007, and Canada's Indigienous Screen Office, which was established in 2018, while Toronto's imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival has been bringing these stories to a wider audience since 2000.

The rise of on demand streaming is making these films more accessible than ever to wider audiences, so this week, we're shining our streaming spotlight on some of them.

Boy, Amazon Prime

When New Zealand director Taika Waititi won the Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Jojo Rabbit in 2019, he said: “I dedicate this to all the Indigenous kids all over the world who want to do art and dance and write stories”. Way back before he found world fame with the likes of that film and Thor: Ragnarok, Waititi, whose dad is from the Te Whanau-a-Apanui Maori people and whose mum is Jewish, made this delightful coming-of age tale - which only secured release in the UK after his Marvel success. He also stars as Alamein, a two-bit crook whose son (James Rolleston) idolises his fantasised image of him as an all-conquering hero. The youngster's imagination smacks hard into the reality of the situation when Alamein returns, not to connect with his kids but to try to find some stashed loot. Although this is really a celebration of the rough and tumble of childhood friendship, Waititi also manages to keep a surprising amount of sympathy with Boy's dad, even as his actions become increasingly reprehensible.

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, Apple TV

Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner, screening at this year's event
Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner, screening at this year's event
Inuk director Zacharias Kunuk had made other films prior to this story, which is rooted in Inuit myth, it was the first to be made in the Inuit language of Inuktitut and brought him to international prominence. The tale of a bitter feud across two generations, centred on a love triangle between Atanarjuat (Natar Ungalaaq), Oki (Peter Henry Arnatsiaq), and Oki's betrothed (Sylvia Ivalu), Kunuk complex but immersive and vibrant picture of life for the Inuit - marked out by stunning cinematography and a haunting score - that also explores how their fables teach the young the importance of putting the group's wellbeing above their own personal desires.

Edge Of The Knife, Apple TV

Edge Of The Knife
Edge Of The Knife Photo: Niijang Xyaalas Productions
This fiction feature debut from Gwaai Edenshaw and Helen Haig-Brown, while culturally specific and drawing on the Haida myth of the Gaagiixid - a feral being that was once a man - also feels universal in its themes of revenge and redemption. Tyler York is the man in question, whose actions lead to tragedy and exile, leading to him becoming a wild thing of the woods. Beyond its story, it is also a lasting monument to the vanishing Canadian Haida language, which is now only fluently spoken by about 20 people, with the cast deserving particular credit for the intensive rehearsals needed to speak the lines. The film also captures the cultural history of the Haida's migratory lifestyle in the 18th century.

Cousins, Netflix

Jennie Kermode writes: Adapted from Patricia Grace's groundbreaking novel and co-directed by her daughter-in-law Briar Grace Smith, Cousins takes a timely look at systemic manifestations of racism and colonialism in New Zealand's state care system through the story of a Maori girl who is removed from the care of her extended family when her mother is struggling, told that her mother is dead, given a new name and left to try and survive in a series of violent or exploitative homes, a process which causes her lasting psychological harm. It's not just about abuse as it's understood more generally, but about the damage done by stripping away cultural identity, whose importance is illustrated in the parallel story of two cousins she played with as a child. Whilst they struggle with another threat to Maori heritage, the potential loss of land rights, they continue to hope for an eventual reunion. A beautifully made film with strong performances all round, this is also a powerful cry for justice and a step forwards for Maori women carving out their own space in the film industry.

Top End Wedding, Netflix, Amazon and other platforms

Top End Wedding
Top End Wedding
This sunny side up romantic comedy from Australia proves you don't have to be po-faced and arthouse to incorporate interesting themes into a film. Co-written by Miranda Tapsell, who also stars, and directed by The Sapphires Wayne Blair this is a sweet little charmer charting a couple who are about to wed (Tapsell and Gwylim Lee) who end up on a hunt for the AWOL mum of the bride-to-be. The film is offered real heart by its setting, particularly in the latter stages which take place on the Tiwi Islands and which celebrates Aboriginal culture without ever being preachy. Blair told us: "I think we can lose sight of having that connection to home. I think that was one of the things that I responded to in this story."

Vai, Aya Films, from August 6 to 8

Jennie Kermode writes: To Pacific islanders, water doesn’t mark the limits of the world; rather, it’s a highway. Our tears, they say, remind us that water is inside of us, connecting us all no matter how far apart we might be. The word for water, shared between different but closely related languages in the region, is vai, and the Vai we follow here is a daughter of the islands who journeys between them. Different filmmakers tell her story at different ages, on different islands. Each time she is played by a different actress yet is instantly recognisable. Within Vai’s story are the interlinked stories of communities which rarely get to voice their concerns on the world stage. There is anger here – about the pollution and climate change that threaten an ancient way of life – but as our heroine overcomes the obstacles presented by poverty, the focus of the story is on empowerment and the strength of women as enduring as the ocean. Although not readily available to watch online, you can catch the film this weekend as part of the BFI Film Feels: Hopeful programme - Imagined Futures at Aya Films.

Angry Inuk, Amazon Prime

Angry Inuk
Angry Inuk
A perfect example of why it's important to see situations from just one perspective Alethea Arnaquq-Baril's documentary comes at the subject of seal hunting not from the 'stop killing the cuties' perspective one might expect in the current era - but from the point of view of the Inuit, for whom seal hunting has been a fundamental part of family life since time immemorial. The director digs in deep - not just regarding the traditions of seal hunting themselves but in terms of the cultural problems the Inuit have had in terms of making a vociferous stand against the anti-seal movement. While perhaps not perfect in its arguments this is nevertheless a welcome invitation to see the world from a different point of view that questions who gets to take control of certain narratives and why.

If you're looking for a place to start with indigenous film, you could do a lot worse that take a look at the Canadian National Film Board's selection, which are free to view here. As for our specific short selection, here's a couple of recommendations. First up, Throat Singing In Kangirsuk, which sees two girls play a favourite game

KATATJATUUK KANGIRSUMI (Throat Singing in Kangirsuk) from Wapikoni mobile on Vimeo.

and secondly, the short film Two Cars One Night, which would go on to be used as a springboard for Taika Waititi's Boy.

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