The 20th ImagineNATIVE Film Festival in Toronto featured great Indigenous films from around the world. Highlights included: Vai, Top End Wedding, and Blood Quantum.
The 2019 ImagineNATIVE Film Festival was a landmark year for the world’s largest Indigineous Festival, which is held in Toronto. In its 20th year, the festival boasted the largest lineup of Indigenous features in its history (to my knowledge) both from Canada (seven) and the rest of the world, while also offering screenings of shorts and interactive media works, plus a multi-day industry conference full of discussion about Indigenous screen content to connect creatives and generate discussion. All in all, the festival presented 126 film and video works in 30 languages from 18 countries and 101 Indigenous nations.
Among the festival’s Canadian slate, the majority of films had already played a major Canadian film festival, suggesting that Indigenous films have started to penetrate the mainstream festival circuit to a larger extent. The festival’s opening night film, One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk by legendary Inuk filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk, had already screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, alongside ImagineNATIVE selections Jordan River Anderson, The Messenger (Alanis Obomsawin, 2019), The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn, 2019), and Blood Quantum (Jeff Barnaby, 2019). Meanwhile Tasha Hubbard’s nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up had the opening night slot at HotDocs earlier this year. ImagineNATIVE thus offered a second chance to see these great films and to see them alongside those from Indigenous filmmakers around the world.
Here are some short reviews of some of the highlights of my festival viewing.
Vai (Becs Arahanga, Amberley Jo Aumua, Matasila Freshwater, Dianna Fuemana’s, Mīria George, ‘Ofa-Ki-Levuka Guttenbeil-Likiliki, Marina Alofagia McCartney, Nicole Whippy, 2019)
From the producers of Waru, a film with eight vignettes about how the community copes with the death of a young Maori boy, comes a similar project, Vai, set in the Pacific Islands surrounding New Zealand. Once again, eight women each direct one of eight single-take shorts, shot handheld, and following the protagonist’s perspective. But while Waru looked at a single community on a single day, Vai looks at multiple communities in multiple countries with multiple languages. Here, the connective tissue is that each of the protagonists are named Vai, and each is about 10 years apart in age; the film starts with the youngest character and ends with the eldest.
Because the subject matter is lighter, Vai is brighter and more vibrant, rich in the landscape’s natural colours: greens, blues, and reds. Each of the shorts tends to centre around cultural rituals — a birthday party, a ceremony — and features women who are torn between the opportunity offered abroad, usually in New Zealand, and their ties to their family and the land of their remote island nations. Taken together, the films paint a picture of the dominating influence of New Zealand — the biggest country in a sea of small ones, all far from the rest of the world — and the importance of local culture and ritual, but also the increasing importance of education and the precarity of life on the land (one of the shorts is about collecting drinking water). Life isn’t easy for any of the Vais in this film, but they persevere and offer hope for the future.
Top End Wedding (Wayne Blair, 2018)
Wayne Blair’s Top End Wedding is a conventional crowd-pleasing getting married comedy with some surprisingly profound insights about how easy it is to lose ties to your culture when it’s not the dominant one. Miranda Tapsell (who also co-wrote Top End Wedding) stars as Lauren, a high-powered Tiwi urban lawyer who has never been to her Tiwi mother’s home nor learned her language. Her mother ran away from home to Darwin as a young adult and never looked back, meaning she never passed on her traditions or language. When Lauren decides to marry her white boyfriend Ned (Gwilym Lee) in a hurry, she discovers her mother has disappeared, leaving her white father disconsolate. This sets Lauren and Ned on a mission to find her mother so they can get married in the presence of her family.
Although Top End Wedding is rife with cliches and plot points that make no sense, including the fact that Lauren’s scary boss (Kerry Fox) agrees to hop on a plane to Darwin to plan Lauren’s wedding, it does have some stunning emotional moments. The relationship between Ned and Lauren is sweet; he’s supportive but keeping a big secret, and the hole in Lauren’s life where her Tiwi family should be is starting to tear them apart. Ned is well-intentioned and kind, but colonialism still stands between them, and he learns he has to put in extra effort to bridge that gap.
Lauren undergoes an identity crisis as she starts to realise how cut off she is from her heritage, and she and her mother work to heal their relationship to both each other and their culture. It’s lovely to see Lauren embraced by family she never met, though the film spends little time helping us understand why her mother felt like she had to run away in the first place if Lauren’s grandparents are as gentle and welcoming as they are presented in the film. The film also avoids the complexities of the trauma Lauren has faced because of these lost ties. Nevertheless, it’s nice to see a warm Indigenous story centreing a woman that’s about celebration rather than exclusively about the horrors of colonialism.
Blood Quantum (Jeff Barnaby, 2019)
Jeff Barnaby’s first feature, Rhymes for Young Ghouls (2013, which made Seventh Row’s Top 10 in our list of our favourite 50 films of the decade), was so beautiful, original, heartbreaking emotional, and yes, educational about Canadian Indigenous history that almost any follow-up feature would have a hard time competing. Unfortunately, Blood Quantum falls into that trap: a zombie movie with a thoughtful if blunt-force metaphor that has entertaining blood and guts but inchoate ideas and undercooked characters.
The premise is that zombies are taking over the world, and only Indigenous people are immune to their bites; they can still be killed, but they won’t turn into zombies themselves. The result is that the Quebec reserve where the film is set becomes the last bastion of humanity, a refuge in danger of being overwhelmed by the brain-eating zombies who just come and come and come and even if you kill them, there’s more where they came from (like, you know, colonialism!). The community, meanwhile, is torn between offering refuge to white people because they’re able to and avoiding the risk and just trying to save themselves. This is complicated by the fact that the local sheriff (Michael Greyeyes) is expecting a grandchild from his teenage son (Forrest Goodluck) and his white girlfriend (Olivia Scriven).
Barnaby introduces us to many characters I wanted to get to know better, but doesn’t have enough time to really delve into their relationships. The young lovers from across cultures were compelling and supportive, but we didn’t get enough of them. Meanwhile the sheriff and his ex-wife (Elle-Maiíjá Tailfeathers), a no-nonsense nurse keeping things together, were another compelling relationship: people who still love each other, but shouldn’t be together, except maybe at the end of the world? I even wanted to get to know characters like the local guard (Devery Jacobs) who only shows up for about five minutes, but is such a cool bad-ass, I was ready for her spin-off. Barnaby excels at introducing meaty characters, but has so much going on in this taut 90-minute film that he doesn’t have time to develop them. Ultimately, I was left thinking about the better film Blood Quantum could be, and disappointed that it never quite got there. Perhaps, a mini-series would have been a better way to delve into all of these stories and to find more resonance in the film’s central metaphor..
Discover Canadian Indigenous films
In our biennial paean to Canadian cinema, we have dedicated a full part to Indigenous Canadian film.
Discover these great films through conversations with the filmmakers, guided by the Seventh Row editors in our inaugural annual book, The 2019 Canadian Cinema Yearbook.