Indigenous Women Grab More Screen Space at the Toronto Festival

·4-min read

By Jennie Punter

From icons and industry veterans to emerging directors and new faces, the stories and creative power of Indigenous women are featured at the 2022 Toronto festival.

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Buffy Sainte-Marie alighted opening night Sept. 8 to launch Toronto’s streetfest, just an hour before the premiere of Madison Thomas’ “Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On,” The doc explores the artistry and activism of the Cree singer-songwriter — the only Indigenous person to win an Oscar (for song “Up Where We Belong” from “An Officer and a Gentleman” in 1983).

Buoyed by the ascendant advocacy and investment of Canada’s Indigenous Screen Office (ISO) and the longstanding grassroot networks across the arts, this year’s slate further broadens the festival’s evolving programming ethos with narrative films that reflect the histories, dreams, and day-to-day realities of Indigenous women filmmakers and their communities.

For the “Bones of Crows,” esteemed multihyphenate Marie Clements held close the stories of her mother and aunties — “these beautiful strong women who also survived residential schools, to various degrees” — in shaping the fictional multigenerational story of Cree matriarch Aline Spears (played by three actors over the course of the film), who becomes a wartime Cree code-talker and raises a family, all the while tormented by memories of abuse, which she eventually seeks to expose.

The West Coast-based Métis Dene director “extracted” — then expanded — the film’s storyline from a five-part limited series of the same name, which she developed with producer partners and wrote and directed for CBC Television. The series is slated for broadcast in 2023; Elevation is releasing the film in Canada, Bron Releasing is handling U.S. and international sales.

“It takes something out of you to tell that truth and understand the significance, but the process was invigorating,” Clements told Variety last week. “We cast nationally, in the U.S. and also in the community, and reached out to young actors looking for experience — we have five generations of Indigenous performers.”

Writer-director Gail Maurice also drew from personal history for “Rosie,” her feature debut about an orphaned, English-speaking Indigenous girl sent to live with her French-speaking dumpster-diving artist aunt and gender-bending friends in ’80s Montreal. Maurice, who grew up in a village in Northern Saskatchewan, is one of just over 1,000 speakers of Michif, the Métis language mixing Cree and French; she told Variety she made her film multilingual to honor her culture.

“The story is told from a child’s perspective because they accept the except the world as it is,” she explained. “That’s also how I felt when I first came out and went to my first gay bar — my whole world exploded. I wanted that feeling of wonder and love.”

Maurice’s film school was Jorge Manzano’s 2000 Sundance-premiering prison-set “Johnny Greyeyes,” in which she starred and earned a co-writing credit while shadowing the crew. For “Rosie,” she accessed an ISO program that allowed her to bring Indigenous mentees and interns onto the set. “Mentoring other Indigenous individuals interested in filmmaking was a dream,” Maurice said.

Anishinaabe director Darlene Naponse, who lives and works in Northern Ontario, based “Stellar”— which stars Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers (“Night Raiders”) and up-and-comer Braeden Clarke — on her short story about two lovers who connect in a dive bar while a meteorite hits just outside, creating environmental devastation.

“A meteorite fell to earth a billion years ago in our land area, bringing to surface an abundance of minerals that became billions of dollars extracted from the land in our territory,” she told Variety last week. “Mining, stolen land and privilege will always be part of my exploration in film. How history affects the characters in ‘Stellar’ — the backdrop of their history as Indigenous people and the trauma that comes at them every day — brings complexity.”

Devery Jacobs (“Reservation Dogs”) stars alongside Priya Guns in Canadian director V.T. Nayani’s “This Place,” a queer love story about an Iranian and Mohawk woman (Jacobs) and Tamil woman, who are both struggling with issues of displacement and loss. Jacobs co-wrote the screenplay with Nayani and Golshan Abdmoulaie. Picture Tree Int. added the film to its Toronto sales slate in advance of the festival.

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