Here is Seventh Row’s guide to essential Indigenous films told by Indigenous people from coast to coast across the territories known as Canada.
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Over a month ago, the remains of 215 children were found buried at the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc residential school in British Columbia. Since then, hundreds more children have been found in other sites across the country, and this is just the beginning of these discoveries. As Indigenous children’s rights lawyer Cindy Blackstock wrote in Macleans, “Residential school survivors knew where the children were buried because some of them had dug their graves. They told their truths to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and gave the country a national plan in their 94 calls to action for ending the injustices facing this generation of First Nations, Métis and Inuit children, and to ensure nothing like this happens again. Some of us heard them, but what they said was too confrontational for most—so people called them “stories” and looked away. The survivors must have felt they were screaming into silence.”
It’s no secret that the Canadian government has committed — and continues to commit — genocide of Indigenous Peoples in this territory now known as Canada. The last residential “schools” only closed in 1996, and as reports showed since the beginning, they were sites of unchecked disease, child abuse, forced labour, and reeducation; children were forcibly separated from their parents, their homes, their culture, and their language, and taught to be ashamed of their origins, all in dubious assimilation effort. Even when fewer residential schools were still operating, children were forcibly removed from their parents in droves in the (Nineteen-)Sixties Scoop, and Indigenous children continue to be overrepresented in foster care.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of the atrocities committed by and still being committed by the Canadian government. What seems different about this recent discovery is that the horrors of it are sticking in the minds of settlers who are finally learning what we never were taught in schools: that Canada was built on and continues to benefit from the genocide of Indigenous Peoples. As non-Indigenous people begin to reckon with these atrocities, we recommend reading the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Reports, including the recommended Calls to Action from 2012, very few of which have already been implemented.
Additionally, film can help create greater cultural understanding. We recommend catching up with some of the best films by Indigenous People from the territories now known as Canada. These films bridge the empathy gap with settlers, introducing us to Indigenous cultures, struggles, and joys, and are also among the best films made in this land in its entire history. For Indigenous Peoples, this history is everyday reality, but as many of the filmmakers have told us, they made their films for Indigenous audiences so that they could see their struggles, joys, and lives reflected on screen.
Whether you’re Indigenous or non-Indigenous, these films are meant to generate conversation and empathy, offering perspectives from across the territory now known as Canada, its many Indigenous nations, and their stories. In alphabetical order by title, this list covers films from the west (e.g., Monkey Beach) to the east (e.g., Blood Quantum) through both fiction (e.g., Rustic Oracle) and non-fiction (e.g., the many films of Alanis Obomsawin). The films feature Indigenous languages such as Inuktitut (Angry Inuk and One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk) and Haida (Sgaawaay K’uuna), and cover nations, including the Inuit (Angry Inuk), as well as the Anishinaabe, Kanehsatake, Mi’kmaq, and Haisla First Nations.
Angry Inuk (Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, 2016)
From the introduction to our interview with director Alethea Arnaquq-Baril: “’I had to give the audience a chance to fall in love with the Inuit culture and the people,’ said Inuk writer-director Alethea Arnaquq-Baril. She does this and more in her passionate, thought-provoking documentary, Angry Inuk. The film is an insider’s look at seal hunting: how integral it is to Inuit culture, how it’s the best source of sustainable nutrition in the Arctic, and how international seal hunting bans are having devastating consequences for the Inuit economy and the environment. After winning the People’s Choice Award at the 2016 HotDocs Film Festival, Angry Inuk was selected as one of Canada’s Top Ten Films of 2016. ‘I’m really excited,’ said Arnaquq-Baril, ‘that out of the Top 10, two of the features are directed by Inuit.’
Many Inuit depend on seal hunting as a source of local, sustainable, fresh food, and on the pelts as a source of income. Cost of living in the Arctic is extremely expensive: non-local food has to travel far, which inflates costs, and there’s heating, gas, and more to pay. A case of Coke can cost $80. Seal meat is one of the healthiest dietary options, and it’s a good source of meat for the community. Plus, nothing goes to waste. Seal pelts, sold on the international market, provide crucial income for Inuit, especially since job options are scarce. However, international legislation banning seal hunting and commercial seal pelt markets has created a stigma around its sale, which has been a huge economic blow for the Inuit community.” Read the full interview.
Angry Inuk is available to stream free on the NFB website and CBC Gem. It’s streaming on AMC+, Tubi, Kanopy, and Film Movement Plus in the US. It’s streaming on Prime in the UK, and filmzie.com internationally.
Blood Quantum (Jeff Barnaby, 2019) & Incident at Restigouche (Alanis Obomsawin, 1984)
From the introduction to our interview with Blood Quantum director Jeff Barnaby: “How do you get young people to watch the films of Canadian indigenous documentarian Alanis Obomsawin? For Jeff Barnaby, the answer is to hook them with a genre film that works as an alternative history to one recounted in Obomsawin’s films. Shot largely in the Restigouche reserve, Blood Quantum repeatedly evokes Obomsawin’s documentary Incident at Restigouche (1984), about when settler police invaded the reserve to limit their fishing rights, without ever placing limitations on commercial fishing. Appropriately, Blood Quantum opens with a dead fish coming back to life, auguring the zombie apocalypse, and hearkening back to this important event in Mi’kmaq history.
As an Indigenous, and specifically Mi’kmaq, filmmaker, Barnaby’s zombie story is filtered through a Native perspective. In this film, if you have ‘blood quantum’, and are thus Indigenous, you are immune to zombification. Barnaby’s largely Indigenous cast of characters are thus not so much afraid of zombies as they are afraid of white people who turn into them and are trying to invade their safe haven. It’s a blunt-force metaphor for colonialism — they keep coming, and coming to destroy you, forever outnumbering you, until they eat your brains — but it’s a solid and original one. In a way, Blood Quantum allows Barnaby to pose the question, What would have happened at Restigouche if we didn’t let the white police in? Or perhaps, more accurately, if we didn’t let the colonizers in centuries ago? By making Indigenous people immune, they’re empowered, but they still have to face this enormous, suffocating force.” Read the full interview.
Blood Quantum is streaming on Crave+ in Canada and Shudder in all other English territories.
The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn, 2019)
From the introduction to our interview with co-directors Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn: “The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open is a rare film: not only does it centre women’s often invisible experiences, but it also features a cross-cultural encounter between two Indigenous women from different nations and socio-economic backgrounds. We first meet Áila (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) in a doctor’s office where she’s having an IUD inserted; we stay with her as she changes into a gown, goes through the procedure, and prepares to leave — finding meaning in the empty spaces and minutiae, which will define the film. On her way home, Áila spots Rosie (Violet Nelson) a young, pregnant Indigenous woman, on the street who is barefoot and distressed.
Áila invites Rosie home to offer her shoes, clothes, and comfort, and the film follows the pair in real-time during this encounter. As a Sami woman, Áila feels connected to Rosie’s experience as an Indigenous woman, but Áila also has much more privilege: she’s middle class rather than just out of foster care, and she’s also white-passing. This makes Rosie distrustful of her, no matter how sincerely Áila wants to help; to Rosie, it’s too reminiscent of her experiences with white settlers. Because Rosie is a survivor of abuse, Áila wants to help her get out of her unsafe domestic situation, but effecting change is more complicated than Áila first anticipates.” Read the full interview.
The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open is streaming free on CBC Gem in Canada and on Netflix worldwide (except in Canada).
Call Me Human (Kim O’Bomsawin, 2020)
From the intro to our interview with Kim O’Bomsawin: “Through telling the story of renowned Innu poet Joséphine Bacon with her documentary Call Me Human (Je m’appelle humain in the original French), Abenaki filmmaker Kim O’Bomsawin is actually telling a very personal story to her. That’s not just because she adores Bacon and her work, an affection we instantly share as soon as we meet Bacon in the film. It’s because, like Bacon, O’Bomsawin’s sense of identity is split between two places: Montreal, where she lives, and her home territory. While Bacon was divorced from her land, her language, and her family because she spent fourteen years in a residential school, O’Bomsawin shares similar intergenerational scars because, as a Residential School Survivor, her grandfather never shared his culture with her, including the language.
In Call Me Human, O’Bomsawin and Bacon take us on a tour of the lands that are dear to Bacon: the streets in Montreal, and the Innu territory that she adores. In each place, Bacon talks to O’Bomsawin by looking into the lens or to a friend who is also on camera, narrating her connection to the land. Bacon’s own stories are complemented by archival footage of each of the places she visits, which includes footage of Innu people on the land from the time when she was growing up.” Read the full interview.
Call Me Human is available on VOD in Canada and is still seeking international distribution.
Falls Around Her (Darlene Naponse, 2018)
From the introduction to our interview with director Darlene Naponse: “Anishinaabe Kwe filmmaker Darlene Naponse sees a strong parallel between a toxic personal relationship and the colonialist approach to land use in Canada: both take and take, and there’s no end in sight. That parallel undergirds her beautiful new film, Falls Around Her, which follows Mary (Tantoo Cardinal), a famous but middle-aged musician who decides to stop touring and return to her grandmother’s home on a First Nations reserve.
Mary returns to the land to retreat from the vultures of the music business, sometimes including her fans, and to rediscover internal balance. Reintegrating into her community leads Mary to become involved with its inherent political activism : protecting its land from the local mining industry after the water was poisoned by a mine constructed without proper consultation.” Read the full interview.
Falls Around Her is streaming on CBC Gem and Hoopla in Canada and Prime and Hoopla in the US.
Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (Alanis Obomsawin, 1993) + Rocks At Whiskey Trench (Alanis Obomsawin, 2000)
Alanis Obomsawin made four films about the 1990 Oka Crisis/Kanehsatake Resistance. Between July 11 and September 26 1990, Mohawk people in Kanehsatake protected their land from the proposed expansion of a golf course by blockading access to the area. In solidarity, the nearby Kahnawake reserve blockaded the entry to the Mercier Bridge on their territory, which delayed the commute between the island of Montreal and Montreal’s South Shore suburbs. Obomsawin was on the blockade lines for 78 days to capture the standoff between the resistance and the Quebec police and Canadian army. Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance focuses on the Oka standoff itself while Rocks at Whiskey Trench captures the horrific racism and violence against the Kahnawake people by the non-Indigenous community around them. Brett Pardy
Rocks at Whiskey Trench is available to stream free on the NFB website in Canada, and Prime in the UK and Australia.
Monkey Beach (Loretta Todd, 2020)
From the introduction to our interview with director Loretta Todd: “Monkey Beach tells the story of Lisa (Grace Dove), a young Haisla woman who gets visions of loved ones dying before it happens. Ever since she was a child (her child counterpart is played by Zoey Snow), she’s been plagued by one vision, in particular, of her younger brother, Jimmy (Joel Oulette, and the younger Oliver Tru Sison), who is also a high level competitive swimmer, drowning. Having watched so many loved ones die and been powerless to do anything about it, she left her home of Kitimat for Vancouver to drink and party and try to forget. When the film begins, Lisa returns home after two years away, to rekindle her relationships with her family and friends — and talk to dead loved ones, another gift. When Jimmy goes missing on a fishing trip, she becomes obsessed with saving him, but what that ends up meaning shifts as the film progresses, and as Lisa comes to terms with her gifts and her grief.
Peppered throughout the film are flashbacks to Lisa’s childhood, where we get to know her Uncle Mick (the amazing Adam Beach) and her grandmother, Ma-ma-oo (Tina Lameman), both of whom were incredibly influential on her identity as an Indigenous woman and her politics. Just like Robinson’s novel, Todd’s film treats theat past, present, and future as inherently intertwined, and the dead as always nearby, if invisible to most people. Robinson’s story of grief and loss and finding a way to make peace with it is what drew Todd to make the film and persevere through all these years.” Read the full interview.
Monkey Beach is now streaming on Crave+ in Canada.
nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up (Tasha Hubbard, 2019)
In 2018, a Saskatchewan farmer was acquitted by an all-white jury in the shooting death of Colten Boushie, a young Indigenous man. As director Tasha Hubbard illustrates, such injustice has long been the norm of Canadian-Indigenous relations. Despite broad calls for “reconciliation,” Indigenous activists are still in the position of needing to fight for basic human rights.
By weaving in a personal story, Hubbard elevates this documentary from a summary of the case to a poignant exploration of how to maintain Indigenous identity in a settler society An adoptee of a white farming family, Hubbard has reconnected with her Indigenous birth family as an adult.She talks to both families about each community’s connection to the land. Hubbard captures both the beauty and horror of this region through awe-inspiring deep focus shots of the prairie landscape and unflinching depictions of settler bigotry, including a town hall meeting with local police, which shows Canada’s hyped tolerance can be illusory. BP
nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up is free to stream on the NFB website in Canada. It is available to rent on VOD in the US and UK, including on Amazon and iTunes.
One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk (Zacharias Kunuk, 2018)
Based on the real encounter between Inuk leader Noah Piugattuk and a Canadian government official in the 1950s, Zacharias Kunuk’s film is the story of colonialism in process. The centrepiece of the film is an hour-long exchange, which involves communication barriers with things lost in translation between the two men. Kunuk’s blocking renders this verbal jousting match a battle for power, and offers the terrifyingly depressing sense that the battle was won, before it began, by the white official. Alex Heeney
One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk is now streaming on CBC Gem in Canada, and available on iTunes worldwide.
Our People Will Be Healed (Alanis Obomsawin, 2017)
Our People Will Be Healed is the penultimate film of a five-film cycle (also including The People of the Kattawapiskak River, 2012; Hi-Ho Mistahey!, 2013; We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice, 2016; Jordan River Anderson, the Messenger, 2019) that Obomsawin made about the struggle for Indigenous children’s rights in Canada. In the film, Alanis Obomsawin interviews students, teachers, parents, and elders of the Cree community of Norway House, about the Helen Betty Osborne Ininiw Education Resource Centre, a Nursery to Grade 12 school for over 1300 students in Manitoba.
Obomsawin’s focus is on how the local school is lifting up the entire community. Unlike many schools in northern reserves, this one has a similar budget as the province’s non-Indigenous schools, which has enabled the school to invest in programs to make it more culturally relevant to the community. The school’s success, the film suggests, demonstrates that if only given an equitable chance, indigenous communities can heal from decades of abuse and neglect. This message rebuts common conservative arguments in Canadian media that government funding in indigenous communities perpetuates social problems by feeding a cycle of dependence. BP
The Road Forward (Marie Clements, 2017)
From the introduction to our interview with Marie Clements: “Métis/Dene playwright, lyricist, and filmmaker Marie Clements’s The Road Forward is a genre-bending musical documentary about the Civil Rights Movement in Indigenous history in the territory now known as Canada from the 1950s to present day. Clements focuses on the British Columbian newspaper The Native Voice, which was founded in the 1930s by the Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood Associations. The paper created a platform for Indigenous activism and brought together Indigenous nations across US and Canadian borders to fight for their rights and freedoms.
The film uses archival footage of these Indigenous activists, like George Manuel, but also intersperses reenactments set to music, sung directly to the camera, about the newspaper and its formation. These original songs are by Clements with different leading vocalists in each historical segment, including Shakti Hayes, Ronnie Dean Harris, Jennifer Kreisberg, Cheri Maracle, and Michelle St. John.” Read the full interview.
The Road Forward is streaming free on Prime and the NFB website in Canada.
Reel Injun (Neil Diamond, 2009)
Neil Diamond (Cree), Catherine Bainbridge, and Jeremiah Hayes’ film uses a road trip structure to examine the history of Indigenous representation on screen. Along the route, the film addresses the long history of Indigenous resistance to racism on screen, the power of representation, and celebrates key figures in Indigenous filmmaking. Reel Injun is a great introduction to issues of Indigenous representation. BP
Reel Injun is streaming on Hoopla in Canada and the US.
Rhymes for Young Ghouls (Jeff Barnaby, 2013)
Métis writer Chelsea Vowell wrote “I strongly believe that every adult living in Canada should watch this film (though there are more trigger warnings for this film than I can count, so please take care)” because it was a “a glimpse into something none of us really want to see but must face.” In a time when political art is so didactic, Rhymes for Young Ghouls stands out for its brilliant use of genre film language, mixing horror, grindhouse revenge, and post-apocalyptic imagery to express the very real horror of Canada’s colonialism. What sets Rhymes apart from many “revenge fantasy” films is that it remains mindful of how violence affects characters and produces and reproduces trauma that flows through generations. BP
Rhymes for Young Ghouls is streaming on CBC Gem, Hoopla, Fandor, and Crave+ in Canada. In the US, it’s streaming on Fandor, Hoopla, and Kanopy. In Australia, it’s streaming on Shudder.
Rustic Oracle (Sonia Boileau, 2019)
From the introduction to our interview with Sonia Boileau: “Rustic Oracle is about a Mohawk mother and daughter, Susan (Carmen Moore) and eight-year-old Ivy (Lake Delisle), coping with the aftermath of Ivy’s teenage sister, Heather (McKenzie Deer Robinson), going missing. Set largely in the 1990s, in the time before social media, Susan and Ivy go on a road trip to personally try to find Heather after the police have provided little assistance. Told through Ivy’s perspective as an adult looking back on her childhood, when she didn’t fully understand what was happening, the film weaves a complex and heartbreaking story of family bonds, grief, and the effects of systemic violence on the community.
As a single mother, Susan was already struggling to keep things together and support her family, and when she loses her daughter, she becomes so stressed that it’s difficult to still be a good mother to her remaining daughter. Meanwhile, Ivy hasn’t just lost a sister, but her main support system. The film follows Ivy and Susan as they look for Heather and find a way to regain the closeness between them that they’d lost because of all the trauma they experienced.
Although Rustic Oracle deals with dark and difficult subject matter, the film is never gratuitous in its depiction of violence — in part because Boileau didn’t want to retraumatize Indigenous viewers who might be watching the film. It’s much more about the psychological effects of this systemic problem — not on those who go missing, but on those who have lost loved ones.” Read the full interview.
Rustic Oracle is available on VOD worldwide and on Prime Canada.
Sgaawaay K’uuna (Edge of the Knife) (Gwaai Edenshaw and Helen Haig-Brown, 2018)
From the introduction to our interview with director Gwaai Edenshaw: “Sgaawaay K’uuna (Edge of the Knife) is the first feature film made entirely in the endangered Haida language, currently spoken by less than 20 people. Set in the 19th century on the Haida Gwaii islands off Canada’s pacific coast, the film tells the Haida legend of ‘the Wildman’. Adiits’ii (Tyler York) joins his friends Kwa (William Russ) and Hlaaya (Adeana Young) and their young son (Trey Rorick) at their summer island fishing village. The boy idolizes Adiits’ii and follows him everywhere, even out fishing in a storm, which results in the boy’s death. Distraught, Adiits’ii isolates himself in the forest while the rest of the community leaves for the winter. This isolation turns him into a Gaagiid (wildman) as he loses his humanity and grasp of reality. When his community returns the next summer, the elders take it upon themselves to find him and help him heal, as well as help Kwa and Hlaaya find it in themselves to forgive.
Edge of the Knife is co-directed by Tsilhqot’in filmmaker Helena Haig-Brown and Haida carver and jeweller Gwaai Edenshaw. The film is produced by Isuma productions, an Inuit company dedicated to preserving Indigenous cultures and languages; Isuma also produced the groundbreaking film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (Zacharias Kunuk, 2000).
Edge of the Knife builds on Isuma Productions’ emphasis on putting Indigenous stories first, and not in conversation with Western approaches, as is usually the case. In fact, the film is set even before the Haida Nation had any contact with European colonizers (also known as ‘pre-contact’). This choice allows the film to showcase Haida history and culture on its own terms rather than through the way it was altered by Western invasion. This approach also assumes the audience is either familiar with the cultural context, or can quickly learn by watching — the film doesn’t sidetrack to explain traditional Haida practices.” Read the full interview.
Sgaawaay K’uuna is streaming free on CBC Gem in Canada, as well as on Crave + in Canada. It is available to rent/buy on iTunes worldwide.
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