The following interview with Michelle Latimer has been a collaborative effort over the past several months between Ottawa-based Nelson Jack Davis (President & CEO of Makatok Pictures) and myself (see below for our bios). Nelson, whose own work focuses on Aboriginal, First Nations and Indigenous stories, was kind enough to come on board to share his knowledge and contribute questions to this interview, and for that I thank him most graciously!!! He was a tremendous help. Aboriginal film and filmmakers is a topic that is at best under-discussed, but at worst, ignored, and we’re both happy to introduce this special interview with an important figure within the Aboriginal film community (in Canada and beyond!) On behalf of Nelson Davis and myself, I’d like to offer a sincere “thank you” to Michelle Latimer for taking the time to engage with us and with readers on this crucially important topic.
MICHELLE LATIMER is a Métis filmmaker based in Canada. She is a writer, producer, director and actress who has been involved in a number of projects focused on Aboriginal peoples. For more information about her work, please see the list of links following the interview.
Her Film: What is the situation for First Nations women filmmakers in Canada today? How has it changed over the years?
Michelle Latimer: That’s a difficult question, as I truly believe that everyone’s situation is individual and specific to his or her experience. To remark on an overall situation for all women filmmakers who are First Nations would be to lump them all together, and I fear that this is an external view that has perpetuated past stereotypes. However I can say, based upon my own experience as a Métis filmmaker that I am consistently struck by the depth of talent and strength emerging from deep within our community. There seems to be a creative renaissance happening. And I think, now more than ever before, the community is gathering together to support one another in an organized type of way. It seems to me that this has contributed to a confidence that transcends the medium of film and has enriched the work we’re producing.
The First Nation’s community is expansive – we occupy a massive piece of land that separates us both geographically and, in some instances, culturally, so it’s not always easy to connect with one another. But I would say that our films tend to have a vastness in scope and theme that’s reflective and authentic to this experience. However, I believe that connecting and supporting one another has been key to the work getting out there in the world. Personally, I’ve drawn much inspiration from the female filmmakers who forge ahead. In fact, I had a real ‘eureka’ moment last week when Sundance announced the inaugural Indigenous Film Showcase at this year’s festival. We have three First Nations films represented from Canada. And all three films have all been directed by women! I think I’m still basking in the after-glow of that!
“…I am consistently struck by the depth of talent and strength emerging from deep within our community.”
Oh, yes, you asked me what I think has changed over the years….well, I can’t say for certain, but I can say that things have changed. How can they not? I guess the Sundance announcement is a reflection of some of those changes. But, on a larger and more significant scale, I believe that when you engage in storytelling from a truthful place you’ve enacted change just by speaking the words or capturing the images. There’s tremendous power in that.
HF: You’re the programming director for imagineNATIVE film and media arts festival that celebrates work by indigenous artists. What role does imagineNATIVE play within the larger Canadian and international film industry?
ML: ImagineNATIVE is the largest Indigenous film festival in the world. So, just by sheer size, we are considered the premiere festival to showcase indigenous work from Canada, as well as international, indigenous filmmakers. But, on a broader scale, what inspires me most about ImagineNATIVE is the festival’s uncompromising support of groundbreaking and innovative cinema and new media. We are always looking to program work that pushes the boundaries of the medium, and we’re very conscious of supporting emerging artists. I would venture to say that some of the most interesting work submitted to the festival is within what would be classified as experimental cinema that breaks the confines of form and expectation. I love to see work that challenges the medium of film and takes storytelling to the next level. In this way, the tools of cinema can be expanded, sculpted into what becomes the best way to convey a story. It’s quite incredible that ImagineNATIVE can provide a platform where these types of films can be seen and celebrated. And I think the exhibition of this work has contributed to the progressive evolution of expression that is often remarked upon when it comes to Canada’s contemporary, indigenous cinema. We are leading the way globally, and our films are breaking new ground, pushing beyond traditional stereotypes of what a ‘native’ film is thought to be. Aside from the creative expression, ImagineNATIVE is also integral to our industry’s growth on a professional, business level. The festival brings international buyers, commissioning editors, and international festival programmers together with filmmakers from all around the world. In this way, our filmmakers can benefit by getting their work out there. They can connect with other like-minded artists and draw inspiration from one another. For an emerging filmmaker, having your work bought and/or screened internationally can be a huge contributing factor to getting your next film made. I know that when I made my first short film, all I wanted was for people to see it at the festival. I wasn’t thinking about actually selling it or having it seen outside of Toronto. Essentially, I made it to learn and had given very little thought to the business side of things. But, attending ImagineNATIVE with my first film opened up a whole new world to me. As I learned more about the industry, I realized that I could sustain myself by doing this for a living. And that realization gave me the confidence to focus on the craft of filmmaking in a more precise and dedicated way. That kind of influence can profoundly change a person’s artistic trajectory. Speaking from experience, if I had not dedicated myself to making films, who knows where I might be right now!
HF: An article ran in the Honolulu Weekly in August  that discussed the native Hawaiian filmmaking community and the responsibility that filmmakers often feel toward their communities when telling stories about native Hawaiian culture. What are your thoughts on the issue of responsibility toward one’s ethnic and cultural community as it relates to indigenous filmmaking?
ML: I would say that my own work delves into synonymously universal and specific themes of identity and connection to place and nature. But I think that’s reflective of my experience growing up with mixed heritage, and less about a responsibility I must fulfill. It’s where I come from when I approach a film and that sense of place is what makes my films unique to my own experience. A wonderfully talented writer friend of mine once said to me “you must create from your place of obsession”. And I suppose, as an artist, that’s about all you can do – dig deep inside your own wonder while striving to communicate the truth within moments. As far as responsibility goes, I believe that the only responsibility an artist can have is to be rigorous and focused in that quest. That is ultimately what resonates with people, no matter what one’s background is. In the end, we all have the same human desires, needs, and inclinations. So recognizing this authenticity of voice within filmmaking (or any other form of art) is something that brings us together in our humanity. And I think that goes a long way towards cultivating understanding.
HF: In August, you curated a screening of films by First Nations women directors called Keepers of the Earth, at the Winnipeg Film Group. How did you become involved with the WFG and can you describe the process you went through to decide which films would screen? What is the significance of the title of the series?
ML: ImagineNATIVE has been working with WFG for a number of years now, and I think it’s been a very positive partnership that continues to grow with time. We often show our “Best of the Festival” films in Winnipeg. Also, this year Dave Barber [WFG Cinematheque Programming Coordinator] asked me to sit on WFG’s programming advisory board. Through this partnership, I curated a number of film programs that are slated to play over the next three years as part of WFG’s public screening series. So that’s what we’re working on now. He’s very committed to showcasing First Nations work, and I’m thrilled to be a part of that plan.
The Keepers of the Earth program was more specific, as Dave had approached me to put together a program of works by emerging, female First Nations directors. We called it Keepers of the Earth because that’s how women are viewed within First Nations culture. Before European ways were introduced within Canada, many of our communities operated based on a matriarchal social structure. Women were and still are seen as the ones who carry the voice for that which cannot speak – the earth, the vulnerable, etc. Actually, the name of the program emerged as I was writing my curatorial notes for the catalogue. When Dave asked me to come up with the program, I immediately began compiling a list of films that we’d previously showcased at ImagineNATIVE. When programming, I like to pull out the films that had a strong impact on me. Then I start to lay them out together to see what themes emerge. It’s amazing how clear this becomes once you’ve narrowed down the films and can begin to look at things associatively, consider what resonates between films, and draw ideas out through structuring a program just so. Ultimately, selecting films for a program is a very organic process. It’s not just about picking the strongest work, but also about how the works compliment each other. Do they flow together? Does the program start in one place emotionally and end in another? These are all things I’m looking at when I curate. One of the greatest thrills I get from programming comes when I experience how individual films can elevate one another, both thematically and emotionally, when they are presented together in a well structured program. I would say it’s akin to hearing an orchestra performing….each instrument doing their part to bring to life a singular piece of music. That’s how I view film programs. It’s about the individual film, coming together with others to support a larger idea. As a programmer, that’s something I find extremely satisfying.
“Film has the power to reveal new ways of seeing the world…”
HF: Producer Marilyn Thomas and director Kate Kroll adapted a children’s book, Shi-Shi-Etko, into a short film, which has won many awards, including imagineNATIVE 2009. How important is it for Aboriginal woman filmmakers to tell the stories, experiences and culture of First Nations in a traditionally male-dominated medium? Can you provide us with some Aboriginal woman filmmakers making waves in Canada?
ML: I think film is a very powerful medium in that it allows us to observe life from another perspective, and the act of participating in this collective observation changes what the outcome is. For example, if you and I were to sit down and watch a film together, what I glean from it is probably going to be different from what you experience. And I’m sure our observations are different, again, from the filmmaker’s. We can’t help but approach the work as different beings, coming from very different experiences. Film has the power to reveal new ways of seeing the world, and our individual future actions will inevitably change to reflect our new understanding. But, in the end, we’ve shared an experience just through watching the work together. And perhaps the changes within each of us will be small or seemingly insignificant, but I like to believe that it’s the imperceptible differences that contribute to a larger collective consciousness. So, to answer your question, I think it’s very important that we continue to tell our stories from our individual perspectives, as our films have the power to precipitate change on a much larger scale than what we are aware of.
Shi-Shi-Etko is a great example of what I was talking about earlier with regards to authenticity of voice. I have seen many films about residential school, but what really made Shi-Shi-Etko stand out was its ability to interpret the emotional state of the central character. This deep and complex character work, coupled with beautiful cinematography literally transported me into her world, and made me see the situation through that little girl’s eyes. It’s a very moving and authentic film. And I would say it’s a quietly brave film. There’s an understated confidence in its simplicity, and that confidence is definitely an attribute that’s growing amongst the work I’ve seen coming from our female, First Nations filmmakers. We have fantastic and diverse women forging ahead in the medium right now. I guess if I had to name a few of the filmmakers I’m inspired by, I would say that I really admire the works of: Ariel Smith, Cara Mumford, Danis Goulet, Terril Calder, Caroline Monnet, Lisa Jackson and Shelley Niro. And, of course, none of us would be where we are if it weren’t for the intrepid Alanis Obomsawin. But I know that I’m going to wake up tomorrow and say ‘why didn’t I mention that person?” I guess it’s a great thing that I can think of so many amazing women filmmakers who are creating exciting work. I can honestly say that I’ve drawn inspiration from far more women than I’ve briefly named here. Every time someone in our community makes a film, we’ve accomplished something together. And that’s what makes us stronger.
HF: Since the creation of the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network and the introduction of various Aboriginal audiovisual workshops and courses across Canada (i.e. NSI), including specific funding mechanisms created specifically for Aboriginals (i.e. Telefilm), do you believe that Aboriginal filmmakers and artists have a better chance of having their voices heard and seen in the mainstream media, or do you believe they are marginalized and segregated from such opportunity?
ML: APTN gave, and continues to give our community a tremendous gift. Not only do they offer a place for professional filmmakers to have their work seen and heard, but they also have contributed to a very meaningful and important cultural preservation. APTN airs work in traditional indigenous languages. These are the languages of our ancestors and, unfortunately, they are the languages that are becoming lost. So by airing films that celebrate language and culture, APTN is integral to keeping a way of life alive in our communities. Also, I think that APTN has positively enriched our cultural landscape as a whole. All Canadians benefit from diversity of voice and an enriched understanding of other cultures and traditions. I think it’s also about understanding where we come from, what are cultural ancestry is. The First Nations people of Canada were the first people to populate this land, and I believe that this has influenced the values and social framework that are inherent to Canadian values. It’s not a coincidence that Canada upholds the right to universal health care or supports social welfare initiatives. This sense of taking care of one another, of adopting the belief that our nation is only as strong and as healthy as the weakest among us – this is an inherently Aboriginal concept that stems from communities working together to survive under incredibly challenging circumstances. Every time APTN airs a program created by an Aboriginal producer, they are furthering the understanding and practice of these value systems. They are furthering our understanding of what it means to be of this nation.
Also, I think that you can’t ask people to tell their stories or meaningfully participate in contemporary society if you don’t equip them with the tools they need to do so. APTN has given our television creators and storytellers the tools and the platform to tell their stories from their perspectives and, in that way, they have allowed our voices to be heard on a scale that is changing the way our industry embraces Aboriginal culture. It’s not just about reclaiming our culture, it’s also about respecting how we mentor one another and grow an industry that is healthy, authentic and honest to our experiences as indigenous peoples.
HF: On the topic of marginalization, Hollywood historically portrayed Aboriginals in certain forms and figures: the native princess; the wise medicine man or chief; the bloodthirsty warrior. These depictions have survived for decades. In 2010, do you believe that Aboriginal roles and artists are breaking away from these images? Or are we still living the same stigma but in a different context or era?
ML: I guess it goes back to what I’ve been saying about authenticity of voice. I think that in order to gain perspective into a situation, you need people to rise up from within that to tell their side of the story. The magic of cinema is that we have an opportunity to see things in many different ways – it’s all about how you present something, how you structure a narrative, the time you take to see the images presented to you, how you associate story and image to create a meaningful expression of ideas. If we look at past representations of Native people in cinema, we are seeing an external view of what it meant to be aboriginal at that period in time. But I do believe that things have changed significantly since then. Now, with the emergence of accessible and affordable technology, almost anyone can pick up a camera and shoot a scene or document a situation. The internet alone has connected us in a way we’ve never before experienced. Remote communities that were once separated by massive distances are becoming connected via technology. We are able to encourage dialogue and interaction on a global scale. And our methods of distribution are growing daily. This has all contributed to the prevalence of film and media that is being generated from “inside” communities. It’s less about an external perception or interpretation and more about an authentic retelling of story and experience. I like to call it “films made from the inside out.” For instance, a kid in Moose Factory [Ontario] can shoot a UTube video this afternoon and have it posted for the world to see in a matter of minutes. I think that this kind of accessible technology is a huge and positive contributing factor to breaking down the stereotypes of the past. As long as people continue to tell personal stories, as long as they continue to strive for truthful exchanges, we will continue to see work that elevates all people beyond stigma. That may seem simplistic or a bit naive, but I believe that at the core it is that simple. I know that it’s sometimes hard to cultivate and retain idealistic thinking but, for me, it’s integral to what propels me to continue to create films. We need to head toward the light more, you know?!
“I would like to continue to give back to my community by supporting the younger generations who are embarking on this path of storytelling.”
HF: What does the future hold for Aboriginal (women) filmmakers in Canada and for yourself?
ML: Oh, I wish I could look into a crystal ball and predict the future so clearly. I’m certainly not sure what the future holds for me. Every time I venture a guess I seem to be wonderfully surprised by how far off I am. The surprise is part of the magic, right?!
I suppose my wish is that Aboriginal women continue to have the courage and strength to share their voice with the rest of the world. It’s a difficult industry, and I would say it can be more difficult for women. So it’s important that we stick together and support one another in our creative efforts. I hope that we see more work from emerging talents and that our films continue to find a place among film festivals and networks so that others can enjoy what we have to say.
As for myself, I am truly grateful for the opportunities I’ve had up to this point. I would like to continue to give back to my community by supporting the younger generations who are embarking on this path of storytelling. I also hope that my films can bring people together – in thought, in dialogue, in enjoyment. That in some, small way my films are contributing to a greater good. It’s my hope that my work achieves that on some level….I guess you could say it’s the thing that keeps my pilot light burning!
To read more about Michelle Latimer, her work, and Aboriginal and First Nations film, please visit these links below:
IMDb page for Latimer
Sundance Film Festival 2011 page for Jury Prizes for short films (Latimer’s short film Choke received Honorable Mention)
Telefilm page for Choke
Indian Country Today Media Network article on Choke
Jackpot film website
Reel Injun film website
About the interviewers
Kyna Morgan is the author of the Her Film blog and is an independent film publicist. She has a background in marketing & publications as well as film studies, and in her spare time she focuses on screenwriting & film research. She is currently finishing a Certificate in Publicity & Public Relations (University of Toronto) & a Certificate in Entertainment Administration (University of British Columbia). Film is her passion!
Nelson Jack Davis is President and CEO of Makatok Pictures Inc. (www.Makatok.com), a media company specializing in Aboriginal, First Nations and Indigenous content. Nelson graduated with Honours from Toronto’s Humber College of Applied Arts & Technology and is a past recipient of the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television’s National Apprenticeship Training Program (Producing). With almost 15 years working in the Canadian cultural industry, he has worked both on set and behind the scenes on major Hollywood productions, in small to large entertainment companies and with respected Canadian Producers. In the last several years, he has worked for numerous programs and policy groups under the Department of Canadian Heritage’s Cultural Industries Branch, including the Canada Magazine Fund, the Canadian Audio-Visual Certification Office, and the Canada Book Fund. Nelson, his wife and two children, are proud to call Ottawa, Ontario, their home.