Host Sarain Fox and Director Michelle Latimer discuss the making of their new VICE TV series, RISE, telling Indigenous stories, and what it means to tell these stories through film — an inherently colonialist medium.
As part of Sundance’s inaugural New Climate program, the festival held a special event to premiere three episodes of the forthcoming VICE series, RISE. In the series’ first season of eight episodes, the host, Sarain Fox, an Anishinabe Canadian, takes us on a tour of Indigenous communities around the world — including Canada, Brazil, and the U.S. — to tell us about their environmental activism to protect their ancestral lands.The series was directed by Michelle Latimer, herself of Algonquin and Métis heritage, and made with a largely Indigenous team.
Before the Sundance premiere, I sat down with Fox and Latimer to discuss the process of making the series, telling Indigenous stories, and what it means to tell these stories through film — an inherently colonialist medium.
7R: What got you both interested in working on the series?
Michelle Latimer (ML): What interested me was being able to have Indigenous stories told by Indigenous people and have that in the media. I didn’t grow up with that kind of representation. When you see yourself, as an Indigenous person, reflected on screen and in storytelling through an Indigenous point of view, not an anthropological point of view, it really changes how you move forward in your life. It allows us to rewrite the narrative.
When I went to grade school, I didn’t even learn about the history of my people. It was almost erased. And we’re not erasing it anymore. We’re actually upholding it and saying “Here, we exist. Here are some of our stories.”I’ve always had to perform mostly outside of my Indigenous community. It’s been like living two lives or walking in two worlds.Click To Tweet
Sarain Fox (SF): I was raised by an activist single mom. I was also raised traditionally: ceremony and being involved with community is really close to my heart. I’m also in the entertainment business. But I’ve always had to perform mostly outside of my Indigenous community. It’s been like living two lives or walking in two worlds. RISE was the first opportunity where I felt like I didn’t have to compromise any part of me.
7R: The three episodes that are showing at Sundance focused on communities in the US at Oak Flat and Standing Rock. Is the whole series about American stories?
ML: The series is conceived as a global series. But we did choose to focus on more North American stories for the first season. We did an episode in Winnipeg, which has the highest urban Indigenous population in Canada. That’s a really strong episode called the “Urban Res”.
We went to Brazil, the site of the Krenac people’s community, as well. They live along the Rio Doce river, which is effectively dead. It was killed by a mining disaster, the largest environmental disaster in Brazil’s history.
7R: With Sarain as our guide, we get to see conversations that we wouldn’t necessarily get if you had just put a camera in front of people and started asking questions.
SF: With Indigenous People, for so long, our stories have been told for us, and for so long, it’s been non-Indigenous people coming into the community and wanting to engage.
Because I’m Indigenous and Michelle is Indigenous, and we had an Indigenous team, we were able to really engage with the community and build trust. You can’t pressure the story. We were very aware that we weren’t there to exploit the story. We were there to be part of the community.
I think we’re creating a new narrative, a new dialogue, and a new roadmap for other people to do this kind of work. I think it takes patience and understanding and a real commitment to following Indigenous protocol.
You see real conversations in RISE. You don’t see talking heads. That’s the difference. We were engaging in a sharing, in a partnership.We like to lump Indigenous people together, like a big soup. But we’re actually very different across cultures.Click To Tweet
ML: We like to lump Indigenous people together, like a big soup. But we’re actually very different across cultures. With RISE, having Sarain being of Anishinaabe descent and going into a Krenac community in Brazil, yes we relate as an Indigenous people, and there are some things that are synonymous, but there are other things that aren’t. It allows for some awareness of that because it’s so easy to be lumped as the “Africa is one big country”.We’re also telling the story of the land. It’s a character in the film.Click To Tweet
7R: The series is very much about the relationship between the community and the land. How did you think about showing that in the filmmaking?
ML: When we were creating the look for RISE, the land is as important for me as the people’s stories we’re telling. We’re also telling the story of the land. It’s a character in the film. Therefore, it needed to be approached creatively from a very specific standpoint.
That’s why we decided to use aerial photography. Particularly in the last Standing Rock film, the river shot keeps reappearing. It’s a reminder that this is a living, breathing embodiment of being in this story. So it was a conscious creative choice to try to film the land, to give agency and voice to it.
I saw a film called Petropolis. The film is completely a helicopter view of the tar sands in Canada. It was the first time I’d ever seen the tar sands, the expanse of the degradation of the earth. That really affected me, and I remembered that feeling when I watched the film. I thought, “I want RISE to have that.”I want us to see the land in all its glory and exaltation. I also want us to see it in its destruction.Click To Tweet
I want us to see the land in all its glory and exaltation. I also want us to see it in its destruction. I think that helps us understand the impact that some of these mining companies, that play such a part in RISE, what that does, and to let people have that emotional impact. A lot of people who are viewing RISE, they might not ever getting to Brazil or Standing Rock. But to allow them to see and feel it, I hope that we achieve that with the series.
SF: As an Indigenous person, I think I’m inherently connected to the land. For me, the land was my first way to approach the stories. When we were in Krenac territory, all I had to do was see that river. Once you see that river, it changes how you engage with that community. I never had to ask them what their struggle was because you just see. One of the most profound things I’ve ever seen is an entire community that is steps away from a river, and it’s so hot, and they can’t go in it. There are water trucks spraying water just to relieve the kids. I really now have a very vivid idea of what the fight is on the ground, what people are fighting for. Once you see the loss, you want to protect what you have.
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7R: How did you pick the music in RISE?
ML: Almost all of the music throughout the series is [by] Indigenous artists. We often think of Indigenous music as pow wow music or traditional music. I had a rule: no pan flutes in RISE. Some of the coolest music happening in our communities is this fusion: traditional music mixed with dubstep mixed with hip hop mixed with experimental violin. Particularly, for the last Standing Rock film, I went to a Standing Rock fundraiser in New York, and this incredible woman, Laura Ortman, got up and took out her violin. I thought, “I have to have her music in the film.” It was just an organic process of finding music.
The music tells another narrative about our adaptability as Indigenous people. We’re making our own music with all these influences from our own culture and from outside. It’s almost a metaphor for how we’ve adapted and persevered.Arts has always been a way that Indigenous people have been able to overcome and tell our stories.Click To Tweet
SF: A lot of people see us on the front line and they have this romanticized image of who we are. They only see that and the ceremony. But it’s way more than that. There are incredible Indigenous artists that are making really important art that is part of the messaging and part of the nonviolent direct action. That is what’s helping Indigenous struggles rise above all over Indian country. It’s the music and the art.You can silence our voices, but you can’t silence our art.Click To Tweet
Arts has always been a way that Indigenous people have been able to overcome and tell our stories. You can silence our voices, but you can’t silence our art. You can see it all over the world. People have always been attached to native art. It’s been the one thing that they can accept about indigenous people. So if you can hone in on that and flip it on its head and allow that to be another platform, it’s a wonderful way to push and showcase Indigenous film to the mainstream.
7R: The second Standing Rock episode has a different form compared to the other two. There are a lot of interviews and talking to people about the history.
ML: We were in and out of Standing Rock for six months. In that time period, I would start to hear other stories about the history of the land and what people had gone through. It was a complete awakening for me. I had this feeling of, “how much more can people take?” I thought that if people see Standing Rock as a pipeline story, a resistance story for sovereignty against a pipeline, it’s a missed opportunity. It’s so much more. Everything I’d read didn’t have the context. When you understand the past, it allows you to understand why we are where we’re at now. I hope that brings some awareness and understanding for the fight.
What was so cool about RISE is that each film speaks to a larger narrative. They complement each other. I can have that story in Brazil about the death of a river. Then, you see Standing Rock, and you’re like, “OK, that river hasn’t died yet, but this is what could happen.” The story becomes so much richer because all the stories build on this collective story.
7R: There was a short Indigenous Canadian film at TIFF 2016 called Nothing About Moccasins, which was about the difficulty of telling Indigenous stories through film, which is an inherently colonialist medium. How do you grapple with that problem?
M: Our last episode, episode 8, is about Savage Family. They’re a hip hop group that’s all about decolonizing youth. We play with the form. We start to break the fourth wall. You start to see the crew in the shots. Or, you see them talk to us instead of to Sarain. We deconstruct the idea of film. I was thinking in my head the entire time, “This is a colonial medium. This group is all about decolonizing. So let’s just take it there. Let’s use the form and let’s deconstruct it.” That is taking filmmaking to a new level.
7R: Did you encounter concern when you were talking to people that they didn’t want to be part of the film because it’s a colonialist medium?
ML: Of course! It’s VICE. Inherently, this movement is anti-capitalist, anti-corporation. Absolutely, you have all these Indigenous people being like, “Why am I going to be in a film for VICE?” We encountered it all the time. But my mantra is you tell the truth as well as you can tell it, and it will prevail. I tried to honor the stories. I can’t change the story. I can only take the story that’s gifted and put it out there. It’s not like making a series about food. There’s a weight. There’s a social responsibility when you’re telling stories that don’t often get told.There’s a quote that I love: 'We were in Standing Rock before Brooklyn got there.' Click To Tweet
SF: There were a lot of community members who would say things like, “We’re leaving our story in your hands. We really hope that you take really good care of it. We’re trusting you.” I never took that lightly. That’s a really, really big deal, especially because we have seen so many people capitalize on Indigenous people’s stories.
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We arrived in Standing Rock two weeks after the sacred stone camp was started. It was the end of April. There’s a quote that I love: “We were in Standing Rock before Brooklyn got there.” There was a moment in Standing Rock when it got to the media, there were so many people trying to capitalize on the story. There were so many GoFundMe pages that were made by non-indigenous filmmakers who got money to support them to come out of Standing Rock. It makes this showing at Sundance, and our premiere on the 27th, so important. When people see the work, that it’s an Indigenous narrative, that it’s an Indigenous voice, I think that’s going to be really powerful.
7R: What has your experience been within the community of Indigenous filmmakers? It seems like there’s been a huge increase in exposure to Indigenous films in the last few years.
ML: I programmed for years as one of the main programmers for the ImagiNative festival, the largest Indigenous film festival in the world. In those years that I programmed, we saw a progression, especially our short filmmakers making it on the international stage: being shown at Berlin, at Cannes, here at Sundance. That’s really helped our storytelling, to have that kind of international stage, to see our films be recognized.You’re reading everywhere that there’s no female directors. At ImagiNative, up to 70% of the films that were submitted to us were female-directed.Click To Tweet
You’re reading everywhere that there’s no female directors. At ImagiNative, up to 70% of the films that were submitted to us were female-directed. That is not the kind of numbers that we’re seeing in the Indigenous community. Women are actually telling stories very often in our community. I’m really excited to be part of that community. TIFF is calling it the Indigenous New Wave of cinema.
You grow up, and you don’t see anything about your people. And then you’re making something! It’s about time. So many Black Civil Rights films, including I’m Not Your Negro, reference the Native Civil Rights struggle. But they never go into it. I always wondered, “Why has nobody made that film?” I thought it must be because our footage doesn’t exist or no one ever recorded it. But then I started digging in the archives, and I’m finding stuff on the American Indian movement and occupation. It’s all here! We just need to put it into a film! It’s exciting to be breaking new ground.
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