The 2022 ImagineNative Film Festival was a showcase for new talents: Dr. Jules Koostachin’s Broken Angel and MisTik, and Gail Maurice’s ROSIE.
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As the world’s largest Indigenous film and media arts festival, ImagineNative is both a fantastic showcase for Indigenous artists and a festival with a bit of a conundrum. What should count as “Indigenous” when programming for the festival? As the biggest festival of its kind, it has to fill out its slate somehow. This year, the festival screened 19 feature films and 101 shorts. And isn’t it important to showcase Indigenous talents, even if they happen to be in settler-made movies? At the same time, the festival has taken heat in the past for programming films by settler filmmakers about Indigenous people. There are no easy answers. It’s pretty much impossible to talk about without putting your foot in it, but it was something on my mind during this year’s festival.
One of the great Indigenous talents coming out of so-called Canada, Jeff Barnaby, passed away unexpectedly at age 46, just a couple of weeks before ImagineNative 2022. He was both championed by the festival — they screened all of his shorts and features — and was right at the eye of the storm when the festival had prioritised settler-made stories over Indigenous-made ones. Baranaby’s ground-breaking first feature Rhymes for Young Ghouls, received a standing ovation at the festival, but was passed over for awards by the ImagineNative jury in favour of the settler-made crowdpleaser Satellite Boy, which featured the great Aboriginal Australian actor David Gulpilil.
Arguably, Rhymes was too innovative, too ahead of its time, and too confrontational to have appealed to a jury (or any awards body) at the time. Films that change the world tend not to be beloved and championed more broadly when they debut. But looking back, it feels like a huge mistake that Barnaby’s landmark film had to compete with a settler-made film that hasn’t had nearly the same impact on its country or on Indigenous filmmaking more broadly. Barnaby had a love/hate relationship with the festival, championing it for programming so many films by women and calling the festival out for rewarding non-Indigenous people at an Indigenous film festival. Similarly, ImagineNative is one of the highlights of my festival calendar each year, acknowledging that no organisation this ambitious can ever be perfect.
Fortunately, the 2022 ImagineNative Film Festival’s features were all, to my knowledge, directed by Indigenous creatives, it felt to me like some films were interested in offering basic explainers on colonialism, while others were less interested in garnering settler audiences. The New Zealand film We Are Still Here, an anthology film that premiered at TIFF, which begins with a title card explaining that it’s a response to two-hundred years of colonialism, feels like an explainer for settlers. Marie Clements’s Bones of Crows, a pared-down-for-film version of her five-hour miniseries, is likewise a primer on the horrors and intergenerational trauma of residential “schools” targeted at settlers.
By contrast, Darlene Naponse’s glorious Stellar is blissfully uninterested in catering to or explaining for settler audiences: it’s an avant-garde end-of-the-world film that expects settler audiences to do the work and catch up, while telling a story, which seemed to me to be, for Indigenous people. For me, though, the highlight of the festival was the celebration of two major emerging Indigenous talents: writer-director-actress Gail Maurice and writer-director-actress Dr. Jules Koostachin.
As writer and director, Gail Maurice (who also co-wrote Québexit) screened her first feature film, ROSIE, at ImagineNative, after its world premiere at TIFF. (I named its settler lead, Melanie Bray, one of the most exciting emerging performances at TIFF.) Maurice also has a crucial role in Bones of Crows, in which she speaks truth to power about Indigenous trauma and the fight that’s happening in a post-Truth and Reconciliation Commission world.
I’ve been excitedly anticipating Dr. Jules Koostachin’s feature debut, Broken Angel, since talking to her son, Asivak Koostachin (who appears in the film), last year, in which he told me he learned everything he knows about storytelling from his mother. ImagineNative screened both Broken Angel and a short by Dr. Koostachin, MisTik, her first works in fiction. Both films star or feature her son, Asivak, in key roles.
There’s enough ideas and material in Broken Angel to fill several seasons of a television series, and I hope Dr. Koostachin gets opportunities to expand on this promising debut feature. I know from Asivak that the film was shot on a shoestring budget, in less than two weeks, and it’s obvious that the budgetary constraints don’t quite match the ambition of the project. As much as we like to champion the many new exciting Indigenous talents in Canada, from Danis Goulet (Night Raiders) to Zoe Leigh Hopkins (Run Woman Run), the funding just hasn’t kept up adequately with the talent that’s ready to tell great stories.
That’s not to say that Dr. Koostachin doesn’t use her ninety-minute runtime well to tell the story of Cree woman Angel (an excellent Sera Lys McArthur), a survivor of partner abuse from Earl (Carlos Marks), and her attempt to escape her bad situation. The house they lived in belonged to their incarcerated father, and housed traumatic memories from Angel’s childhood, relating to her mother Gracie’s untimely death. Dr. Koostachin cleverly evokes Angel’s ghost with emotionally resonant low-budget tactics, so that the house feels haunted in more ways than one. The low-fi special effects actually help here, because you never really feel like Gracie is an apparition, but someone still very much alive in the house’s memory and Angel’s mind.
After support and badgering from her teenage daughter Tanis (Brooklyn Letexier Hart), who understands how bad the abuse is that Angel excuses away, Angel and Tanis escape one night. They head to a women’s shelter on the reserve where Angel grew up. There, Angel is reunited with her old flame, Joshua (Asivak Koostachin), who maturely copes with the revelation that he has a daughter (Tanis) he didn’t know about. Angel was fostered by Joshua’s mother, Dorothy (played by Dr. Koostachin), and their reunion is warm and nurturing. But Angel and Tanis expect to be pursued by Earl, who won’t take no for an answer, and they are waiting for the last shoe to drop, proving even here, they still aren’t safe.
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The film also features Asivak Koostachin, the son of Dr. Jules Koostachin, who appears in both MisTik and Broken Angel
Broken Angel is at its best in the tender scenes between Angel and Tanis, including when Tanis tells it like it is to Angel, no matter how much she doesn’t want to hear it. Though mostly in the background, Dorothy and Joshua’s newfound relationship with Tanis, as they try to repair their relationship with Angel and help her to safety, gives some of the film’s best scenes. I’ve been championing Asivak Koostachin as a major talent since Red Snow, and he proves his ability to express a great depth of emotion and maturity with few words once again in Broken Angel. I wished we had more time to spend with these characters, exploring and deepening their relationships, which are what make the film feel so weighty and absorbing.
It’s unfortunate that, in the service of telling a feature-length story, so much of the action depends on Earl as a threat. It’s something that plagued Barnaby’s Blood Quantum, too: there were so many interesting characters that it became a disappointment when we had to spend so much time dealing with plot, instead.
Still, if Blood Quantum is any indication, the flaws and signs of a first feature in Broken Angel will become less and less noticeable or bothersome with time. What it does so well will be its legacy. It’s a film that announces a new directorial talent with a particular skill for ensemble work — one of the hardest things to direct. There are also wonderful moments in Broken Angel where we see Angel and Tanis reconnecting with the land and their culture — so much of which was lost after spending years living amongst settlers — and starting to heal because of it.
By contrast, Dr. Koostachin’s atmospheric 26-minute short MisTik has very little plot and a lot of space for Dr. Koostachin to explore her visual ideas. Set in a sort of post-apocalyptic landscape where the air isn’t quite safe to breathe, MisTik is the story of two Cree twins named Niipii and Siipii (Pawaken Koostachin-Chakasim and Tapwewin Koostachin-Chakasim) who are travelling across the land in search of somewhere safe to call home. They wear elastomeric masks, and carry some of the last remaining healthy trees in their backpacks as their oxygen supply*.
Whereas Broken Angel was a film packed with characters, dialogue, and plot, MisTik is much more sparse. We understand the bond between the twins through gestures, and the despair of the dying land through wide, long shots that show us the boys in an uninhabited and inhabitable landscape. The story jumps ahead in time to Niipii (played by Asivak Koostachin), in his mid-twenties, having lost his brother and coping with the loss as he continues on the journey he began as a child, which is starting to seem like a fool’s errand. Cinematographer Martin Reisch captures the land in all its dying glory, helping Dr. Koostachin capture the characters’ relationship to the land. The smaller scale of MisTik allows Dr. Koostachin to explore her visual style more deeply, and it’s a beautiful film.
*An unfortunate consequence of the pandemic and my heightened awareness of how indoor air quality and masking works, a tree in a backpack wouldn’t actually produce enough oxygen to power a person. It’s a common misconception that having a bunch of plants in your home will actually reduce your carbon dioxide levels in your home. But MisTik is so gorgeously realised, and the trees are really more symbolic than anything, so I didn’t mind!
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