An Indigenous New Wave of Film


We’re living in the midst of a new wave in international cinema: the Indigenous New Wave. Unlike past new waves like the French New Wave or New Korean Cinema, this new wave isn’t limited to one national cinema. It’s a global movement empowering Indigenous artists to tell their own stories and reshape cinema in their own image. 

The term Indigenous New Wave was coined by Jesse Wente, director of Film Programming at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and pop culture critic for CBC’s Metro Mornings, in an effort to explain the global coalescing of Indigenous artists finding new expression in cinema over the past decade and a half. We spoke to Wente as well as Daniel Northway-Frank, Manager of Festival Initiatives and Programmer at imagineNATIVE, to help us understand the history of the Indigenous New Wave and what it holds for the future.

First things first: what is the Indigenous New Wave? Northway-Frank describes it as “new interest in the style that Indigenous filmmakers are putting into moving images.” He says that it’s Indigenous filmmakers “picking up and honouring the past work that’s been made and really forging in new directions beyond stereotypical notions of Indigenous ways of expression.” For the majority of cinematic history, Indigenous peoples were relegated to the margins of film storytelling. If an Indigenous character appeared in a film, it was mostly as a stereotypical supporting character, and typically in western films. Indigenous artists had no control over their cinematic depictions. The vast majority of actors playing Indigenous peoples weren’t even Indigenous. Finally, in the 1960s and ’70s, Indigenous artists took up cameras for the first time and began to reclaim depictions of their peoples on screen. 

The Indigenous New Wave is what came next. The successors to the Indigenous cinematic pioneers began to reshape cinematic storytelling to better reflect Indigenous history and traditions. All new waves in film are a reaction to traditional cinematic sensibilities. Wente points out that just as the “French New Wave was artists reacting to traditional French cinema,” the Indigenous New Wave is Indigenous artists reacting to western cinema as a whole. It’s a matter of Indigenous artists all across the globe regaining control of their cinematic image and forwarding the vocabulary of cinema. Northway-Frank also emphasizes that “the New Wave is the processing of making a film. Not just what’s on screen, but the way it’s being made,” with the phasis on the fact that the artist driving the film is Indigenous.

It’s important to note that there were key Indigenous films prior to the Indigenous New Wave. Wente explains that films like Lee Tamahori’s Once Were Warriors, Chris Eyre’s Smoke Signals, and the films of Tracey Moffatt are all important precursors to the Indigenous New Wave, laying the foundation for the cinematic movement that was to come. “You see a history of Indigenous cinema that has allowed a new generation of filmmakers to look back on that tradition and to sort of grow with that tradition,” Wente says.” But Zacharias Kunuk’s Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner from 2001 is “really ground zero,” according to Wente. “It’s important to understand the works that precede it and there’s a lot of history that allowed that film to happen.... But I think that movie has been tremendously influential in the cinema we’ve seen produced by Indigenous artists ever since.”

Being the first Indigenous epic by an Indigenous filmmaker, Atanarjuat opened up the cinematic possibilities for Indigenous filmmakers. Its artistic and commercial success showed international audiences were interested in material that was aimed squarely at Indigenous viewers. The film was a grandly celebrated artistic statement of Indigenous storytelling. Also coinciding with Atanarjuat was the rise of digital filmmaking, which democratized film production equipment and put cameras into the hands of more Indigenous artists than ever before. Daniel Northway-Frank believes that digital cinema is natural to oral Indigenous storytelling in a way that celluloid or written literature isn’t. He references the words of poet and activist Duke Redbird, who has worked with imagineNATIVE in the past, saying that Redbird believes that “Film is a European way of looking at things and video is Indigenous because the image is always evolving and moving. Video is inherently Indigenous, he said.”

However, unlike Atanarjuat, the majority of films in the Indigenous New Wave are more focused on telling contemporary stories than historical epics. Wente thinks that “that’s largely because a lot of those filmmakers making fiction films had seen their people or elements of their people portrayed by others over the course of a hundred years of cinema history.” Indigenous filmmakers in the New Wave seek to correct the errors of these depictions and show Indigenous life as it exists now in the contemporary climate. As well, they build on the cinema of their forebearers. And this New Wave is happening all over the world, not just in one country or continent.

“It’s a global movement,” Wente says. “Indigenous cinema, unlike other national cinemas—if we want to group it in there—isn’t actually bound by traditional borders because it grew rather organically all over the globe all about the same time and all the artists very much have very similar concerns and they’re doing very similar things. Things like film festivals where they actually gathered and saw each other’s work fed that cycle. So you see a real global Indigenous cinema movement stretching all the way back to the ’70s, but now encompassing the New Wave that’s happening not just in Canada and not just in the States, but all over the world.”

In Canada, a film like Jeff Barnaby’s Rhymes for Young Ghouls is a key example of the Indigenous New Wave. The film follows a teenage girl growing up on a Mi’kmaq reserve in the 1970s, dealing drugs with her uncle to make ends meet and avoiding the manipulations of the abusive Indian agent who seeks to throw her in residential school. Not only does the film shed light on the barbarity of the residential school system and colonial Canada’s systemic mistreatment of Indigenous peoples, but it offers a look an Indigenous self-identity in the midst of an oppressive over-culture. Northway-Frank believes that “Jeff Barnaby is really a visionary. The whole film is a really unique perspective and image of his opinions on his own culture and its place in the postcolonial world.” The film personifies key elements of the Indigenous New Wave: Indigenous self-expression about Indigenous contemporary life.

However, not all Indigenous New Wave films are necessarily as political as Rhymes for Young Ghouls, nor as fixated on self-examination. Modern Indigenous life takes many forms, and the films of the Indigenous New Wave reflect this diversity. Films as varied as Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah from Australia and Taika Waititi’s Boy from New Zealand belong in the movement. Waititi’s 2010 film, for instance, was a breakthrough film for Indigenous cinema, becoming the highest grossing film ever in New Zealand and an independent hit worldwide. The film is a coming-of-age tale about a young Maori boy growing up in a coastal town in New Zealand in 1984. While not as fixated on Indigenous identity as a film like Rhymes for Young Ghouls, Boy nevertheless embodies the vision of the Indigenous New Wave.

Films of the Indigenous New Wave don’t so much conform to traditional filmmaking mode as remake filmmaking modes to reflect traditional Indigenous storytelling. Wente explains that with the Indigenous New Wave “you begin to adapt traditional cinema language to Indigenous storytelling. You stop adapting Indigenous stories to cinematic language. You do the reverse.” Sterlin Harjo’s Mekko is a good example of this sort of adaptation in the current filmmaking environment. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year and was the opening night film at imagineNATIVE 2015. According to Wente, Mekko “is very much a great exemplar of what we’re talking about. It’s a contemporary-set story made in the community of Tulsa among the homeless community. There are many non-professional actors involved in the production. It uses traditional Indigenous storytelling and myths in the film. It speaks the traditional language.”

The festival environment is increasingly important to the Indigenous New Wave. Not only does it give these filmmakers the opportunity to view and learn from each other’s work, but it brings these films to a wider audience. ImagineNATIVE has been screening Indigenous films and media for 16 years, highlighting films from across the globe for the diverse Toronto audience. Northway-Franke also points out that this year’s Berlin International Film Festival had a marketplace for Indigenous film, “creating a market for a new niche area of contemporary cinema that people are just beginning to understand.”

What this broadening exposure for the Indigenous New Wave will lead to is a normalization of Indigenous depictions of life on screen. While cinematic new waves historically take over traditional filmmaking, becoming absorbed by the film establishment, it remains to be seen whether the Indigenous New Wave will follow a similar course. Jesse Wente instead thinks that “we’re seeing another generation of filmmakers begin to emerge who are embracing more of the genre history of cinema and beginning to look beyond history and contemporary ideas and are a little bit more future thinking. They are positioning the stories in a different way.” He goes on to say that “we’re seeing artists who have not only grown up on Indigenous cinema but have also grown up on Blade Runner. They’re just as informed by Star Wars and all those sorts of things as they are the history of Indigenous cinema.” Indigenous filmmakers are going to push out of the niche of Indigenous filmmaking and bring their unique voices to mainstream cinema as a whole. An example of this is Taika Waititi having reportedly signed on to direct Thor: Ragnarok, the Marvel blockbuster due out in 2017. However, Wente is careful to clarify that this expansion isn’t Indigenous New Wave. “It’s pushing more into engaging with that type of representation and ideas on screen. The New Wave informs that and helped us get there, but that’s something different—a different stage for Indigenous cinema.”

Daniel Northway-Frank also emphasizes the changing mediums of Indigenous cinematic expression, pointing out the expansion into collective filmmaking, virtual reality, and animation, such as the work of Amanda Strong, whose short, Mia, played TIFF 2015. “I feel like animation is really becoming quite the outlet for Indigenous artistic expression. Even if it’s somebody retelling an oral tradition or myth, it can be told so well through animation to really get the nuances that you’re trying to evoke through a verbal story.” As well, he sees Indigenous cinema continuing to push boundaries and broaden horizons. Like African American or LGBTQ cinema before it, Indigenous cinema is continuing to normalize. The Indigenous New Wave is helping to make Indigenous stories “more tactile and universal and appealing...and something that anyone can connect with,” Northway-Frank says.

The end result of the Indigenous New Wave might be “a more populist stage for Indigenous cinema, which, quite frankly, would be a fist,” Jesse Wente says. And an exciting first at that.

This article was originally published at the now-defunct Toronto Film Scene.