imagineNATIVE film fest features themes of reconnection

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Perhaps there is no better way to absorb a cultural tapestry than through a series of films on a dreary, rain-soaked weekend. Audiences who attended this year’s imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival were given five days (October 19-23) packed with programming centred on Indigenous voices from around the globe.

In addition to the eclectic film screenings, this year’s festival boasted a wide range of events including immersive VR and digital media exhibits, an art crawl, music night and a mix of workshops and panels. This 17th year was a triumph, delivering riveting and thought-provoking work from a host of Indigenous filmmakers, both established and emerging.

The festival explored a multitude of themes. One group of short films explored our relationship to the Canadian landscape, another dealt with LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) equality, one spotlighted works from Greenland, and another group of shorts were made simply for experimental reasons. Mixed in with these collections were several stand-alone features and documentaries.

Taken as a collective, imagineNATIVE’s screenings were stark reminders of the resilience and beauty of our people, despite our history of colonialism. These are voices connected and determined to share and build a culture together. These are voices united in a quiet desperation to remain intact and strong in the modern world.


The film Te Kuhane o Te Tupuna (The Spirit of the Ancestors) tells the story of Moia Hoa Haka Nana’ia, one of the sacred spirits of the people of Rapa Nui (Easter Island). The spirit was carved into a stone statue, infused with mana, the power essential to the lives and well-being of the Rapa Nui, and today that statue sits in the British Museum in London. The film documents the colonial history on the island and how this cultural touchstone was removed from the island, depriving the people of life force.

The film focuses on a man teaching his granddaughter about the history of her culture. At one point in the film, they travel to London to view the source of their cultural pride. It’s disheartening to see this little girl watch historians handle her culture with sterile, rubber gloves. In one scene, director Leonardo Pakarati stands helplessly before the museum-goers and reminds them of the significance of this statue and how it belongs back home on Rapa Nui. Yet, here it sits behind glass. What can be done?

A lot of the drama that drives these films comes from the struggle of people trying to reclaim what has been lost. In Zacharias Kunuk’s Maliglutit (Searchers), an Inuit hunter tracks down four men who’ve stolen his wife. Similar to the Rapa Nui story, The Grandfather Drum, illustrates how the healing drum of the Anishinabek of the upper Berens River was taken by colonial forces. In Four Faces of the Moon, animator Amanda Strong explores the reclamation of language and nationhood. In this river, volunteers trawl Winnipeg’s Red River for the bodies of missing Indigenous woman.

Running through the themes of loss – be they of land, families or language – is a strong sense of determination to overcome and heal.

A stunning example of this was seen in the feature film, The Land of Rock and Gold, about a mother’s struggle to raise her young son after her husband mysteriously disappears. It ends with the mother learning to trap for animals while living in a fixed-up shack in the bush, a reconnection with her roots.


Where the features and shorts tended to use emotion and nuance to tell their stories, the documentaries used hard-hitting reality and the result was inspiring. The festival opened with a documentary produced by the National Film Board called Angry Inuk, which highlights the effect of the anti-seal hunt campaign on the Inuit. The film recounts the years of social-media activism by director Alethea Arnaquq-Baril and the difficult living conditions of the Inuit. We’re given amusing scenes of Inuit lawyer and activist-fashionista Aaju Peter taking the European Union by force. The juxtaposition of exotic-looking Peter speaking with white-collared EU members is humorous until you realize the overwhelming opposition she faces.

Colonization Road, the directorial debut of Michelle St. John, is hosted by comedian Ryan McMahon and focuses on the colonial repercussions of the settler road system in McMahon’s hometown of Couchiching First Nation.  

“In Canada, when we’re talking about reconciliation, I hope we’re talking about centring Indigenous voices. There are decades of work that has been done by filmmakers, visual artists, musicians and writers and poets. There is a ton of work for people to discover,” McMahon speaks vehemently.

“I invite people to think about their relationship with the pre-existing work, I invite people to think about the emerging work as well.”

The audience was cheering particular scenes of Colonization Road during the screening. Watching these films, many not mentioned in this article, with an audience genuinely interested in Indigenous views, was encouraging.

While the calibre of the films varied, the mere fact that they are being created and watched is worth celebrating. Indigenous cinema has largely been an independent, small-budget affair, resting on the importance of stories and the will of filmmakers to share them. For anyone interested in experiencing what those voices have to offer, imagineNATIVE continues to be an invaluable channel through which to do so.

For the full list of festival winners, visit the imagineNATIVE website.

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