Aboriginal Filmmakers Reframe NFB Archive in 'Souvenir'

Moving Forward / High Steel
Four Aboriginal filmmakers rewrite Canadian history in Souvenir, which plays as part of the mixed-media exhibit Gazing Back, Looking Forward, at the Aboriginal Pavilion during the 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games in Toronto. The exhibit runs for the next little while and Canadian film fans (or interested parties in general) should see these four innovative works that deconstruct myths created in film. This project features four films from Jeff Barnaby (Rhymes for Young Ghouls), Michelle Latimer (The Underground), Kent Monkman (Group of Seven Inches), and Caroline Monnet (The Embargo Project) in a series that mines the archives of the National Film Board of Canada and reworks fragments of old films to reframe historical representations. The project, produced by Anita Lee (Stories We Tell), challenges the filmmakers to tell their own stories using only the NFB archives and music from artists Tanya Tagaq and A Tribe Called Red. In a collective act of remembering, Souvenir brings a voice that’s been missing from classic Canadian film.

Jeff Barnaby’s Etlinisigu’niet (Bleed Down) boldly confronts ye olde docs that propagate images of Aboriginals as a roadblock to the creation of a “civilized” Canada. The film begins with a title card introducing “The Red Man in Canada” (how PC!) and then offers a series of scenes in which Aboriginals are trucked before a doctor, who examines them in a proud display of progress for the camera while inevitably dehumanizing them in the process. Barnaby reframes the images, too, by showing the greater devastation on land and the environment, and soon the proud doctor returns to treat new illness that the tribe hasn’t seen before. The image of the White Man treating the ills he created is powerful irony in this haunting film.

This play on an image of nationalism created through mass culture gets another take in Michelle Latimer’s Nimmikaage (She Dances for People). The film’s poetic juxtaposition plays three images against one another to create layers of meaning: a woman dances in a field, a crowd claps in a theatre, and a bird soars high in the sky. When the first two shots play in succession, the dancing woman becomes like King Kong: a novelty, a marvel, and a sideshow. Something personal becomes something public, and the astute associative editing highlights the performance of culture that creates an ‘us’/’them’ audience/freak show dynamic that still sells tickets in the cheap seats today. The performer speaks back, however, as the beautiful throat song by Tagaq finds a freeing complement in the image of the flying bird, which grows from a lone sailor and to a powerful flock. It’s a buoyant and lyrical work.

The power of the herd continues as Kent Monkman honours the ghosts of the Residential Schools in Sisters and Brothers, which likens the hunting of bison with the devastation on generations of Aboriginals through the school system. The film features the familiar anthems of A Tribe Called Red to inject a contemporary urgency to the film, but the final title card, which bears a quote from the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Committee, makes a strong plea to honour and remember the more than 6000 children who died in the Residential Schools. The film cuts images of children being contained in the schools with shots of the bison stampeding through the prairies. Monkman contrasts containment with freedom, assimilation with annihilation, and structure with nature as connections between people and the land are severed, but then tied back together in the reconstruction of the film. This bold stroke likens a chapter of Canadian history to large-scale game hunting.

Perhaps the most powerful of the four, however, is Caroline Monnet’s Moving Forward. This short uses the music of Tanya Tagaq as a driving force as it moves forward in history and looks at the introduction of technology and industry to Aboriginal communities. Much of the film samples footage from Don Owen’s doc High Steel, which follows Mohawk steel workers high in the sky in the city. Monnet cuts the images together at a rapid pace and moves from rural communities to the city, from tradition to modernity, as one woman explores life in the concrete jungle. The propulsive tempo of the film charts a walk through progress as the characters enjoy traditional life in the beginning and wander the urban streets of the 60s with trepidation. The traditional music becomes more pronounced and involving as the film barrels towards the future and the characters find themselves in a culture clash. The beat of the film is very engaging and creates tension through the rhythm of sound and images, asking how one moves forward when one feels as if one doesn’t fit in. The four strong works of this installation ultimately confront the question of looking at the past to move head, but the sense of agency the filmmakers bring to these old works is a great leap forward.

Gazing Back, Looking Forward will be on display until September 27, 2015 at the Fort York National Historic Site’s Visitor Centre.