Landscapes of Truth: Alanis Obomsawin, Zacharias Kunuk, and Jeff Barnaby
by Jason Ryle
The rapid rise of Indigenous cinema in the last two decades has been nothing short of extraordinary. Audiences around the world have witnessed the growth of an industry that simultaneously inspires, educates, challenges, and entertains—and which supplants a century's worth of often derogatory or simplistic cinematic portrayals of Indigenous people with more complex, realistic, and self-directed representations.
Canadian filmmakers have long been at the forefront of this global cinematic movement, and three Canadian Indigenous artists in particular—Alanis Obomsawin, Zacharias Kunuk, and Jeff Barnaby—have become justly celebrated for their unique vision, talent, and dedication to previously unspoken truths. Their combined 40-plus documentaries, fiction features, and shorts have made an immense contribution to contemporary Indigenous cinema, and their new work continues to redefine the Canadian film landscape.
Often called the First Lady of Indigenous cinema, Alanis Obomsawin has led a remarkable life. Since leaving her birthplace in the Abenaki Territory, she has been a model, singer, artist, activist, filmmaker, and — often to her delight — an enfant terrible in the eyes of a national culture industry that has often sought to silence her. As one of the first — and last — tenured filmmakers at the National Film Board of Canada, she made her first documentary in 1967 and is currently working on several projects for the NFB even as she approaches her 80th birthday.
Truth has always been Obomsawin's driving force. "My films are usually inspired by the plight of First Nations people and their fight to see an injustice undone," she has said. "I want their voices to be heard, and I want people everywhere to see the dignity our people have. I am fascinated to hear what people say and how they express themselves. It's like poetry." This determination to tell Indigenous stories from Indigenous perspectives was manifest from her first short documentary Christmas at Moose Factory, where the voiceover narration of children explaining the inspirations behind their drawings paints a gentle yet heartbreaking portrait of life in a residential school.
In a country that has habitually, if not systematically, sought to efface Indigenous experience from its national narrative, the very act of giving voice is inherently political. It is for this reason that Obomsawin's art has always functioned equally as activism. Her film Richard Cardinal: Cry from a Diary of a Métis Child – about a young Indigenous man who eventually committed suicide after years of being shuttled through the foster care system — changed legislation in Alberta; Incident at Restigouche, Is the Crown at War With Us? and Our Nationhood detailed the battles fought by Indigenous communities to use and manage the natural resources of their traditional lands against encroachment by federal and provincial governments; while her four films on the Oka crisis — including her best-known film, Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance — brought this milestone of Indigenous struggle to a global audience (Kanehsatake was watched by an audience of over 23 million when it aired in Japan). "People often say a picture can say a thousand words," says Obomsawin. "For me it is the words they say that are powerful. The words someone speaks are definite and clear, and this is what I'm interested in." It is this voice — the voice of the Indigenous people — that is heard in Obomsawin's films, and it has been her mission for more than four decades to ensure that the truth it speaks is told definitely, clearly, and free from fear.
When Zacharias Kunuk delivered his acceptance speech in Inuktitut on the Cannes stage in 2001, after winning the Camera d'Or for his first feature Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, the festival organizers were sent into a mild panic: they had not prepared for simultaneous translation for a language rarely, if ever, heard on the international stage. For the Indigenous film industry, however, Kunuk's speech had a powerful resonance. While winning a coveted award at the world's most prestigious film festival was certainly a tremendous victory, Kunuk undermined any potential aura of tokenism by speaking in his mother tongue, staking out the same rhetorical space for First Nations peoples as that readily accorded any other nationality.
The road to Atanarjuat began in the late 1980s with the founding of Igloolik Isuma Productions by Kunuk, Paul Apak Angilirq, Pauloosie Qulitalik and Norman Cohn. The Nunavut-based company produced a series of groundbreaking television productions devoted to Inuit life and culture that won a number of international awards. The intense realism and imaginative re-creation that marked such acclaimed TV productions as Nunavut: Our Land would be taken to a new level when Kunuk set about directing Isuma's first feature. In adapting a well-known Inuit fable to the screen, Kunuk and the Atanarjuat team created a brilliant hybrid of traditional storytelling, visceral immediacy and exacting historical accuracy. And while introducing international audiences to a world they had rarely, if ever, seen depicted on film, Isuma also made the ancient past into a living history for their own community. Kunuk and company's renowned attention to historical detail and insistence on fabricating all costumes, tools and structures according to traditional styles and techniques has been credited with singlehandedly reviving these long-dormant Inuit skills in Igloolik, the small Nunavut village that Kunuk still calls home.
As the first part of what would come to be known as the Fast Runner Trilogy—which continued with The Journals of Knud Rasmussen and Before Tomorrow—Atanarjuat laid the foundation for a remarkable redefinition of Canada's North in popular consciousness. Though we are aware of its presence, so few of us have actually witnessed the Arctic and its wonders; it remains a veritable undiscovered country within our own nation. Kunuk's films shatter the myths and clichés that have arisen around this still almost mythical land to reveal the depth of history within this vast space, and its intimate and inextricable link with the Inuit people and their culture — and by thus creating stories from Indigenous perspectives, Kunuk, like Obomsawin, plays a critical role in enriching and expanding the Canadian narrative as a whole.
Jeff Barnaby occupies the ironic position of being on the margins of what is regarded as an already marginal cinema. Even as he embodies the present and the future of Indigenous cinema, his unflinching and unapologetic visions of contemporary Indigenous life venture into dark territory that few other First Nations artists wish to explore. Utilizing highly stylized production design and employing tropes from Hollywood genre cinema (chiefly horror and science fiction), Barnaby addresses the legacies of colonialism, assimilation and systemic marginalization on First Nations peoples in the form of visceral, sometimes nightmarish parables that call to mind the films of Cronenberg, Lynch, and Terry Gilliam.
"[My films are] hyperbolic interpretations of things that I've gone through or seen firsthand," said Barnaby, who grew up in the Mi'gmaq community of Listuguj, Quebec, in a 2011 interview with Montreal Serai. From his very first shorts Red Right Hand (which follows a trio of drink- and drug-fuelled friends partying in a ramshackle house) and From Cherry English (a hallucinogenic allegory about losing one's Native language), Barnaby staked a place for himself defiantly outside the documentary and social-realist tendencies that had constituted the main current of Indigenous cinema. His two most recent films expand that dark cinematic universe even further. The Colony, a feverish psychodrama about a man battling his personal demons in the confines of a squalid trailer, fearlessly pushed the envelope in the extremity of its vision (including a memorable scene involving a chainsaw and a dangling leg). With the Genie-nominated File Under Miscellaneous, Barnaby took a step into the future, depicting a dystopic, Blade Runner-esque world where Native people undergo brutal full-body skin transplants to appear white.
Though often set in the strange landscapes of the mind or of worlds yet to come, Barnaby's work is as immediate, and angry, as that of Obomsawin or Kunuk. By taking us inside the tortured psyches of his characters, his remarkable visuals externalizing their self-hate and self-destruction, Barnaby's films never lose sight of the systemic political and cultural prejudices that have so greatly contributed to these seemingly personal afflictions. "Indians in film went from dog-eating pedophile cannibals to tree-hugging shamans holding crystals up to the fucking moon," Barnaby told the Montreal Serai. "The film industry has never really let go of that white-guilt stereotype of Indians. And you see it manifest itself over and over again. I think one of the things that I'm trying to do in my films is get rid of that imagery and humanize—flaws and all—Mi'gmaq men and women."
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While Obomsawin, Kunuk and Barnaby could be seen as representing three different generations of Indigenous film artists, their respective bodies of work should not be viewed from a strictly chronological perspective. Time, as it is commonly understood in contemporary society, was after all yet another unwilled inheritance thrust upon First Nations peoples by the forces of colonization. History, as it was once known to Indigenous peoples, was not a dead record but a living document, inscribed in every facet of daily existence. It is this quality that Indigenous artists are continually trying to recapture—not aiming to recreate an archaic past, but to restore that richness of life that has been so brutally fragmented. If Kunuk's fables and Barnaby's dystopic visions seem far removed from the urgency and immediacy of Obomsawin's documentary imperative, all three filmmakers are dedicated to depicting the ageless landscapes of experience—both literal and figurative—that make up the lifeworlds of Indigenous peoples in Canada.
Jason Ryle is the Executive Director at the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival, the world's largest Indigenous film festival. He sits on the Board of Directors for Vtape, an independent video distributor, and is a script reader for The Harold Greenberg Fund, which provides financial aid to Canadian filmmakers. As an award-winning writer, Jason has written for the Smithsonian Institution and numerous publications throughout North America.