A platform for Indigenous artists: ImagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival celebrates individuality

2019 ImagineNATIVE + Media Arts Festival
The 2019 ImagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival Photo courtesy of Brooke Bennett-Del Bono.

Over 100 Indigenous artists from around the world participated in a six day film and media arts festival last week in celebration of Indigenous storytelling.

From Oct. 20 to 25, ImagineNATIVE, a one of a kind, Indigenous-run organization hosted their 21st annual ImagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival. The event is the world’s largest representation of Indigenous screen content, based right here in Toronto.

The festival took on a digital format this year due to COVID-19 restrictions, with the ImagineNATIVE team planning for this turnaround since March. Immediately, they began brainstorming the best possible methods of transitioning to online programming and which platforms would be ideal for showcasing the art.

Although the community could not get together in person this year, by transitioning the festival to an online platform, more people were able to interact with the event’s festivities. 

“The platforms look great… and we have new publics we didn’t have before. Our ticket sales and discoverability is also higher,” says Niki Little, the artistic director of ImagineNATIVE. 

The setbacks caused by the pandemic did not slow their commitment to dispelling Indigenous stereotypes represented in the media. Through the showcasing of authentic multimedia works, Indigenous voices were given a platform to be recognized and appreciated.

“The people who are going to be the most affected by Indigenous creation is another Indigneous person. It’s being able to understand where they’re coming from, learning where they’re coming from, and see how they’re related,” says Kaitlynn Tomaselli, a digital and interactive coordinator with ImagineNATIVE. 

Unlike other festivals, ImagineNATIVE features works that range from virtual reality, video games, online interactives, exhibitions, audio, and feature documentary films. The event creates an international network where artists can share a space of creativity.

A photo of Áísínai’pi (Writing on Stone).
Áísínai’pi (Writing on Stone)
Photo courtesy of Government of Alberta via creativecommons.org.

Virtual reality works like Áísínai’pi (Writing on Stone) feature one of the greatest collections of First Nations rock art, located in Alberta, along the Milk River. Viewers are taken to the sacred site through a virtual journey and gain the opportunity to learn why many believe it to be a place that connects the physical and spiritual world as one. 

The narration is done by Saa’kokoto, a Blackfoot elder, who eloquently explains that “ it’s difficult sometimes to really explain the magic and mysteries of where we are.” 

A side-by-side photo of Kim Wheeler. On the left, she is younger. On the right is a picture of her grown.
Kim Wheeler (Indigenous Journalist, Blood Money)
Photo courtesy of CBC Radio.

Another way attendees got to spend 30 minutes meaningful was by listening to Blood Money, an audio documentary done by Mohawk/Anishinaabe CBC journalist Kim Wheeler. By no surprise, it won the best audio narrative work in this year’s festival. 

Wheeler shares her personal story as a survivor of the Sixties Scoop, a dark time in Canada’s history where Indigenous children were forcibly taken from their families and placed into the child welfare system. As her story tells the loss of her family and culture, she brings to light a part of Indigenous history that is still relevant to this day, noting that many survivors still await compensation. 

The very nature of this festival is significant in reshaping the relationship between the Indigenous community and the media. Historically, Indigenous representation within the media has been “slanted,” according to a Toronto Star article by Hayden King, an Anishinaabe from Beausoleil First Nation writer and educator at Ryerson University. 

King’s article states that 73 per cent of Canadians pay attention to Indigenous news, however, 34 per cent have never read anything about residential schools. These statistics question how people consume Indigenous news and if Indigenous issues are properly addressed in the media. 

A still from Sky Hopinka's maɬni – towards the ocean, towards the shore.
Sky Hopinka – maɬni – towards the ocean, towards the shore
Photo courtesy of Vox Magazine.

Sky Hopinka, a filmmaker and director who showcased his documentary film, małni – towards the ocean, towards the shore, discussed his approach to his art.

Hopinka’s storytelling is directed to specific Indigenous communities, as they are able to discuss their community struggles without having to educate others on Indigenous history. 

“What does it mean for an Indigneous person to pick up the camera and point it at whatever they want to point it at? To tell the stories they want to tell without the burden of explanation or the burden of representation that is imposed by Western understanding of filmmaking,” said Hopinka. 

When Indigneous artists share their stories, whether through cultural traditions or through experimental cinema, like Hopinka, they reclaim their identity that is often misconstrued in the media. 

“It doesn’t have to be all these things, it should be or what people assume it is… it’s emotional, it’s talking about human things and it’s interesting in terms of people looking at it with a critical view, artistic view, it is stunning, structural good work,” says Little.

ImagineNATIVE is also hoping to keep a hybrid approach to the festival in the coming years. While they will also gather with the community, Little sees the possibilities of making the festival more accessible for those who otherwise would not be able to participate. 

Due to the resiliency and dedication brought forward by the ImagineNATIVE team, the festival was able to operate on schedule, highlighting Indigenous voices and offering a platform to showcase their works.