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The Decolonizing Lens: An evening of films by Indigenous Canadian filmmakers

Rosie. Source: Downtown Winnipeg Biz

The Decolonizing Lens is an initiative that celebrates the work of Indigenous filmmakers, incorporating Indigenous actors, directors, producers and narratives. This marks the fourth year of the film and discussion series, which was organized and supported by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) and the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at the University of Manitoba and held at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. The screenings I attended were comprised of 6 short films presented in collaboration with ImagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival.

The films – screened on Oct 3, 2019 and free for the public – all explored some aspect of the lives of Indigenous people in Canada, with the films’ subject matter focusing specifically on the experience of queer Indigenous people.

The first film, Rosie, was written and directed by Gail Maurice, and co-produced with her partner Mélanie Bray. It depicts the beginnings of an unconventional family. Rosie is a young Indigenous girl who has recently been orphaned. She is taken by childcare services to her mother’s sister, who is now her only living relative. Her aunt – played by Mélanie Bray – is named Frédérique (a.k.a. “Fred”) and owns a sex shop that later burns down. Fred has no interest in raising the child; she is reluctant and highly unwilling to play the maternal role. She is persuaded (or guilted) into it eventually, and brings in Rosie to live with her and her two close friends, a pair of drag queens. She is living what queer theorist Judith Halberstam would term a “queer way of life,” one that defies conventionality, eschews job security or “respectability,” as well as rejecting traditional ideas of gender roles or notions of happiness as prescribed by mainstream society.

The film discusses and opposes normative gender roles, for instance in Fred’s initial rejection of the maternal role that has been foisted upon her, and in a scene where Rosie picks up a toy gun to play with and is given a doll instead, which she then throws away. Innocence is subverted when little Rosie is given a lollipop which had been marketed in Fred’s shop as a “cocksucker.”

Co-producer Melanie Bray announced during the post-viewing discussion that Rosie is currently in the process of being made into a feature-length film. This will allow the creators to explore the characters in more depth, delve into a deeper examination of the interactions between these characters and to see how the unconventional family is generated; in sum, it will allow the filmmakers to do more justice to the story.

The next film was titled Emerge: Stone Braids, and featured a documentary-style narration of the processes that went into organizing Toronto’s Indigenous Fashion Week. The voiceover that accompanied behind-the-scenes clips and videos of the runway spoke intimately of the connection between fashion and feeling, and the importance of showcasing Indigenous art and culture. The clips also showed how this particular fashion-scape provided a safe space for queer Indigenous expression.

The third film was a beautiful story about learning to accept and take pride in one’s cultural roots. Mino Bimaadiziwin, written and directed by Shane McSauby, tells the story of a budding friendship between Jim, a transgender English-speaking Indigenous boy, and a mysterious Anishinaabe girl, who speaks in her native tongue. The film traces the interactions between the two, and how they (particularly Jim) are limited in communication due to the language barrier between them. Jim has lost his language, his culture, and his connection to the land, which is symbolized in his sitting outside the round dance – he feels like an outsider among his own people. The mysterious girl, Bangishimogikwe, helps him reclaim these vital aspects of his cultural identity. The story progresses in the form of flashbacks. When he was a child, his grandmother spoke to him in his native tongue and helped him establish a relationship with nature, and with his culture, which he has now forgotten. She advised him to follow the sunset to find Mino Bimaadiziwin, which in Anishinaabe means “the good life.” Toward the end of the film, Jim decides to give his Indigenous culture a chance; he partakes in a smudge ceremony – an Indigenous purification ritual – after which he joins the round dance. Bangishimogikwe then speaks in English to him, and reveals that her name means Sunset Woman.

The feeling of being out of place among one’s own people is one that many can relate to, including people who have been displaced or have migrated to another country and are now stuck in the weird liminality between two cultures. Feeling alienated from one’s native culture can be a very painful, disorienting experience, as though one no longer has nothing concrete to hold on to. The moment when both parties understand each other and converse on equal terms represents the opening up of gates, and opening up of minds to understand one another’s way of life. The film tells a beautiful story, journeying from loss of identity and ambiguity, to openness, reclaiming one’s identity and the joy felt at all the possibilities enabled by making oneself open.

The film can be found here: https://vimeo.com/236230762

You Will Go Home is set in downtown Winnipeg, around Higgins and the Waterfront area. Directed by Rhonda Lucy, the story is more contemplative than narrative, although there is a constant voiceover which speaks of resilience and enduring suffering. The settings shift from a claustrophobic, grungy urban setting to a serene natural environment, on the banks of the Red River. The red scarf that trails behind and goes before the woman seems to symbolize generational pain; not just of this one woman, but the pain carried by her mother before her, and the pain of her mother before her as well. The red scarf symbolizes blood and memory. The film comments on the violence faced by Indigenous women, and in this case, trans women. The words “You will go home, Butterfly Woman,” are an encouraging mantra, signifying the resilience of the transformed being in the face of adversity.

The fifth film, Make Me, was fascinating in its form. It employed a gothic/horror aesthetic as the backdrop against which was set musical poetry. The poem was musical in that apart from its lyrical, flowing, sensuous recitation, the sounds of drumbeats and waves could also be heard in the background. The use of poetry as a medium for expression already grounds the work heavily in emotion. While the poem was being read, a woman clad in black (who was in fact Janet Rogers, the poet and director) performed a sort of ritual: lighting candles, moving liquid (perhaps oil) from one bowl to another, burning herbs, etc. The burning of herbs and taking in of its vapour invokes Indigenous smudge ceremonies, thus the film seems to create an intersection between Indigenous experiences of the world and eroticism.  Her motions seemed almost interpretive, in sync with the musical poetry, and yet not directly correlated to what was being said. The poem was about bodies, about sex and intimacy, and the sensual tone of the poem, combined with the ritual created an unsettling effect, in part because one was unsure what exactly they were looking at. Perhaps without meaning to, the short film seemed to coyly defy our attempts to make sense of it, inadvertently exposing how barriers to understanding can exist and be sustained as one observes aspects of a culture they are unfamiliar with.

You can watch this film here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=63Xa9E9VGDs

The final film, entitled Positions, was directed by Justin Ducharme. It very explicitly explored themes of sex and sexuality, and followed the life of a male sex worker who is hired to sleep with a variety of men in a city. The film covered the themes of secrecy, desperation and power dynamics within homosexual encounters. At one point, the protagonist was hired by a woman to sleep with her husband in an attempt to save her marriage. The racialized queer body, in a sense, was commodified and objectified for the pleasure of others; but interestingly, this was a voluntary service being rendered. The protagonist still had agency over his own body and chose to use it as a means of economic gain, rather than being coerced or forced into it by others.

The Decolonizing Lens provides a space where important stories of, for, about and by Indigenous creators can be told and shared with a wider audience, and appreciated or contemplated for their aesthetic or stylistic qualities as well as for the deeper issues being explored through these modes of storytelling. The value of such spaces for Indigenous, queer and other marginalized communities cannot be overstated. A vital part of the process of decolonization is having opportunities to share the stories which are closest to our hearts, and platforms from which our voices can be heard.

Be sure to keep an eye out for upcoming films by the Decolonizing Lens, or join their Facebook group.

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