imagineNATIVE offers opportunities for Indigenous filmmakers

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imagineNATIVE is a celebration of Indigenous film. It’s also a hustle for executives trying to find the next big name in Indigenous cinema and Indigenous filmmakers looking for funding or distribution for their work. In other words, it’s a working celebration.

The 18th Indigenous Film Festival invaded Toronto’s Tiff Bell Lightbox October 18-22 with 115 Indigenous-made films, more than 80 of them by women sitting in the director’s chair.

The working celebration became abundantly clear on the third day of the festival in a neon-lit white room during what could only be described as speed dating for film industry professionals. The buzz of rapid-fire conversation filled the room until a bell abruptly silenced the participants and they were instructed to move to their next meeting.

“Are you here to pitch?” asked a busy looking man with a clipboard. After telling him I was journalist, he introduced himself as Daniel Northway-Frank, Industry Director for the festival and programmer for the Micro Meeting Networking event I’d stumbled into.

Northway-Frank informed me that this year’s event was the most successful to date and had attracted 37 industry leaders and 50 creative teams. There were about 200 one-on-one meetings that took place, he added.

“It’s not just about making a sale, it’s about establishing a relationship and a contact,” explained Kanawake Mohawk documentary filmmaker Courtney Montour. “It’s that meeting where you start the conversation with people who can help your career.”

But Montour wasn’t there to pitch a film. She had already made it. For her it was about getting it seen. “Submitting to festivals can be a lottery, there are thousands of submissions and only so many slots available,” she noted. “Sometimes your film is turned down without anyone seeing it – you can tell because your Vimeo account tracks views.”

The micro meetings afford filmmakers valuable one-on-one time with people who can help their career. It’s about attaching a face and personality to what can be an ocean of anonymous submissions. The meetings are tailored to individual needs. Montour met with the heads of festivals, while Cree/Métis filmmaker Jay Cardinal Villeneuve spent his time at the event pitching to producers and studio heads.

“It was like I was playing for the Blue Jays in there,” Villeneuve told the Nation. “I was just serving up pitches.”

In addition to the networking and cinematic buffet, the imagineNATIVE festival does its part to recognize both the new faces and mainstays in the industry.

Tina Keeper, of North of 60 fame, was honoured for her contributions to Indigenous film with the August Schellenberg Award of Excellence. Kahnawake’s Devery Jacobs was singled out for her work as writer and director of the short film RAE with the Ellen Monague Award for Best Youth Work.

The festival also does its part to develop Indigenous talent through grants, residency programs and professional development opportunities. One of this year’s recipients was Colin Van Loon, a Blackfoot filmmaker based in Vancouver.

Van Loon received the NFB/imagineNATIVE Interactive Digital Residency. The application-based program will immerse him in an eight-month development of a digital media piece through mentorship, training and access to human and fiscal resources provided by the National Film Board of Canada’s digital studio in Vancouver.

The residency will give Van Loon the resources to create a VR-360 docu-drama depicting the Indigenous history of Canada from an Indigenous perspective.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity and I’m very grateful I was selected to create something with and be mentored in new media,” Van Loon said. “It’s exciting to work with a format that’s just being developed and I feel like I’ll have the chance to discover new techniques and ways to tell stories.”

One film that created waves at the festival was Waru, directed by eight different Maori women, that tells eight interconnected stories revolving around the death of a young boy. It was the film-to-see at the festival according to critics and filmmakers alike. “Waru was the one film that got me kind of misty at the festival,” Van Loon told the Nation.

Jordan Wheeler, a screenwriter for North of 60, said imagineNATIVE was a bit of a reunion for the popular program that ran 1992-98 on CBC. The show’s alumni were out in full force to support the festival, and while Wheeler’s gone on to write, story edit, and run writers’ rooms on a number of shows, seeing the cast got him thinking about the start of his career.

North of 60, back when the CBC had training dollars and training was part of the mandate, had a number of writer interns pass through. I was the first, an intern for all of season one,” Wheeler wrote in a Facebook post. “We also had Richard Van Camp come through the story room as an intern. A young, spry scribe not far removed from the En’owkin Centre in Penticton, BC, Richard had an optimism that was infectious. He was nicknamed the ambassador of love. In season three, the late Richard Wagameese was brought on board as an intern.”

While things in the film industry have evolved, imagineNATIVE gave the impression that Indigenous film is thriving. New generations of filmmakers are carrying the torch forward with pride while opportunities abound for those with the creativity and drive to tell our stories.

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