imagineNATIVE 2012: Indigenous Film, Music and Media Arts Take Centre Stage

Since its inception in 1998, Toronto’s imagineNATIVE Film & Media Arts Festival has grown to be the largest festival of Indigenous film and media arts in the world. The annual celebration was held October 17-21, 2012. Melody McKiver was the grateful recipient of a delegate pass for Indigenous musicians sponsored by Slaight Music. Here’s her exclusive festival recap for RPM.

DAY ONE: Wednesday October 17th

I last attended the festival when I lived in Toronto in 2009. Returning home to see that most imagineNATIVE screenings and workshops are now held in the TIFF Lightbox (Toronto International Film Festival) is a welcome development, and a testament to the major impact this festival has made on the international film, media, and Indigenous arts communities.


The sole film screening held off-site was Wednesday’s opening gala and world premiere of The People of the Kattawapiskak River. Acclaimed Indigenous filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin, along with many community members from Attawapiskat First Nation including Chief Theresa Spence, were present, and received standing ovations following the film. Preceding the main feature was Christmas at Moose Factory, Alanis Obomsawin’s 1971 debut film. Despite the 41-year gap between the two films, both share a gentle portrayal of the realities of life in remote Northeastern Ontario and a focus on Omushkego (Swampy Cree) youth. Obomsawin was on the ground in Attawapiskat as news of the community’s state of emergency went viral in late-2011. As mainstream media coverage quickly devolved into factually inaccurate stereotypical reporting, Obomsawin masterfully took vitriolic commentary from Sun Media conservative ideologue Ezra Levant, and presented community members’ responses to his unfounded accusations.

The film began with the community at the peak of the housing crisis, then showed community members celebrating newly-built housing six months later, and concluded with the court case that absolved Attawapiskat First Nation of any financial misdoings—and illustrating the callousness of the federal government’s response to the crisis.


Following the film, imagineNATIVE provided buses to an after-party that offered a happy reunion for many members of the Indigenous arts community. RPM and festival favourite, DJ Bear Witness (of A Tribe Called Red), spun a wide range of reggaeton, Latin, reggae, hip-hop, and his own powwowstep. At 80 years young, Alanis Obomsawin showed off her spirit and vitality by owning the dance floor late into the night.

The party was also an appropriate send-off for DJ Bear Witness, who was set to meet his ATCR brothers at the Toronto airport less than 12 hours later to fly out to perform at the WOMEX Festival in Thessalakoni, Greece.

DAY TWO: Thursday, October 18th


I began my day at the Music in Film & TV: A Guide for Filmmakers and Musicians industry panel, where a diverse and accomplished roster of panelists were invited: Brent Bain of FACTOR; Elizabeth Klinck of E Klinck Research; Paul Stillo of SOCAN; Jeremy von Hollen of Instinct Entertainment, and RPM favourite cellist/composer, Cris Derksen. The audience was filled with film, music, and dance professionals, culminating in a lively question period. For my own soundtrack work, the workshop was more than worthwhile, answering some long outstanding questions I’ve had regarding the nuances of licensing new recordings of existing songs.


With a slight overlap between the end of the industry panel and the beginning of the Unsettling Sex screenings assembled by Chickasaw artist and curator John G. Hampton, I snuck into the movie theater. Although I missed the screening of Dance to Miss Chief by Cree Two-Spirited iconoclast Kent Monkman, I recently saw the piece in a gallery and can testify that his mash-up of disco and powwow music is well worth a listen for powwowstep fans.

Dear Diary and Target Girls by Cree/Ojibway/Roma/Jewish filmmaker and video artist Ariel Smith lacked dialogue, but paired score and sound design by Ottawa band Crush Buildings with vivid black and white imagery. ‘Unsettling’ was an apt description for Target Girls especially: the cinematography was reminiscent of German expressionism, while the soundtrack was reminiscent of 1950’s bubblegum American pop with decidedly un-bubblegum lyrics.

Also featured in Unsettling Sex was Mars-Womb-Man and I am the art scene starring Woman Polanski by Cree/Métis artist James Diamond and About Town by Métis filmmaker, writer, and artist Marnie Parrell. The screenings were shorter than usual in order to give curator John G. Hampton time to read his paper on the series. His written work draws heavily on recent developments in Queer Indigenous studies, while also emphasizing that the films screened should not be essentialized to any single descriptor of queer, Indigenous, sexuality, or feminism.


When not at the TIFF Lightbox, many imagineNATIVE attendees could be found nearby at the 401 Richmond artist complex, which houses a number of small galleries, while others found their way to exhibitions and artist talks including: Concealed Geographies: New Media Exhibition featuring the works of KC Adams, Jason Baerg, Merritt Johnson, Cheryl L’Hirondelle, Justine McGrath and Nigit’stil Norbert, De Nort: New Media Exhibition by the ITWÉ Collective of Kevin Lee Burton, Caroline Monnet, and Sébastien Aubin, and Wbomsawinno: Les estampes de/ The Prints of Alanis Obomsawin.


I made my way to RESONATE – Indigenous Youth Showcase, where a variety of print media and video art was on display by youth artists Nishka Turner, Leslie McCue (Ojibway), Asivak Koostachin (Cree), Cecily Jacko (Ojibway), Kyle Burton, Jared Robilliard (Dene), Damien Bouchard, Cheyenne Scott (Coast Salish), Nigel Irwin-Brochmann, Emily Jones, Alice Thompson and Alana Mcleod. A reception complete with frybread followed that emphasized the tight-knit nature of the community and everyone from newborns to kookums were in attendance.


That evening, I made the difficult choice to break from imagineNATIVE to catch the wrap party of the 5th annual Indigenous Writers’ Gathering and launch of MUSKRAT Magazine, where I caught up with Cree cellist Cris Derksen, who wowed the crowd with recent material not heard on her album or 8th Fire soundtrack, along with some older favourites. An all-star lineup of Indigenous writers, including Lee Maracle, Richard Wagamese, and Marilyn Dumont read from their work. Daniel Heath Justice’s (Cherokee) new poem, which dealt with lies told about Indigenous people, was a personal stand-out, as its unflinching honesty and emotional intensity were reminiscent of Ryan Redcorn’s acclaimed poem Bad Indians. And, of course, event hosts Sid Bobb and Wab Kinew kept the crowd entertained throughout the night.

DAY THREE: Friday, October 19th


On Friday I caught two documentaries that were part of an International Spotlight on the Mapuche Nation I. Each year at imagineNATIVE an Indigenous nation from around the globe is featured, and this year’s invited guests were representatives of the Mapuche Nation from what is also known as Chile. Indigenous resistance to colonialism, capitalism, dispossession of land, and loss of language were recurring themes in the two documentaries screened, En El Nombre del Progresso (In the Name of Progress), and Wallmapu – but also a profound resilience and fierce pride in their culture and nation. I would revisit these themes later in the evening, when I performed as part of the afterparty for the Mapuche delegation.


Immediately after the International Spotlight screening I saw the Turning Points: Shorts Program I. Showcasing a wide variety of creative projects, shorts programs are my favourite parts of film festival programming, but they often force you to make difficult viewing choices. Plus, I knew I would have to run to soundcheck midway through the program. But the opening film, Throat Song, directed by Miranda de Pencier, was a standout. Set in Iqaluit, the 18-minute film follows a young Inuk woman as she seeks an escape from an abusive relationship. The acting and the technical production were superb and throat singing, as the title suggests, played a major part in the film’s soundtrack and sound design. This incredible form of singing propelled the action through dreamy sequences of running and hunting across the tundra that owed much to Zacharias Kunnuk’s groundbreaking work in Antanajuarat: The Fast Runner.


As I ran out early to set up my drums for soundcheck at The Central, I was honoured to participate in the celebration of the Mapuche Nation and perform under their flag. The evening began with a selection of hip-hop and heavy metal music videos curated by director Danko Mariman, whose En El Nombre del Progress (In the Name of Progress) screened earlier in the day. The feature of the screenings was the 2008 film Cortometraje “Che Üñum, Genta Pájaro”, a 22 minute short by Mapuche video artist Francisco Huichaqueo (huichaqueo.cl). The dreamy film opened with a quote which, in English translation, read “When somebody has to move, he has to start all over again and open his eyes and look another way”. Movement was an ongoing theme, with a number of the performers, wearing helmets that suggest the mandibles of ants, engaging in near-impossible displays of parkour throughout the urban landscape of Santiago, Chile. The third movement was particularly mesmerizing, with the introduction of the song Anarky Plastic by Mario Z propelling the action forward and building the sound design from the first two movements to incorporate traditional Mapuche horns. The shift to electronic music in the final movement suggests that this contemporary mix of electronic and Indigenous sonic aesthetics is truly an emerging global sound (as we explored in RPM’s Electric Pow Wow podcast – which included artists Cris Derksen and Bear Witness, who also performed during this year’s imagineNATIVE).


Following the film screenings, live music took the stage. Toronto-based Mapuche MC La Bomba opened things up with her reggae-influenced band, Amazonica Sound Force. All of the band’s members are veterans of the hip-hop en espanol and reggae communities, and performed a tightly polished set. ASF were a tough act to follow, but my band Red Slam Collective took the stage. Red Slam represents a diverse number of Indigenous nations from across Northeastern Turtle Island and our brand of live hip-hop draws from a diverse set of influences including reggae, hand drum songs, spoken word, and funk. It was a true pleasure to play in front of such an inspiring Indigenous audience.

DAY FOUR: Saturday, October 20th


On Saturday the International Spotlight on the Mapuche Nation continued with more documentaries. First up was the North American premiere of Francisco Huichaqueo’s 2012 film Kalül (Reuniôn de Cuerpo / Reunion of the Body) which brought his dreamy cinematographic style, as seen in the previous night’s Cortometraje “Che Üñum, Genta Pájaro”, to document a Mapuche performance art intervention in a shopping mall in Santiago. This was followed by the international premiere of Diez Veces Venceremos (We Shall Overcome Ten Times) by director Cristian Jure. Diez follows the political exile Pascual Pichún, as he attempts to return from his journalism studies in Argentina to his Mapuche homelands in occupied Chile. The title of the film is drawn from a protest song often sung by Pascual and his supporters. Protest songs are an integral part of the narrative of the film, sung by Pascual in exile in Argentina, and by his supporters in his home community.


The Beat is a hotly anticipated part of imagineNATIVE that shifts the festival’s focus from film to music for a Saturday night celebration. Demonstrating the strong connection between film and music, each year The Beat opens with a collection of the past year’s best Indigenous music videos.

This year’s line-up represented Indigenous nations from around the globe, including: This Is My Time Everyday directed by Michelle Latimer, Leivänmuruseni (Breadcrumbs) directed by Oskari Sipola, Ghost House directed by Zoe Hopkins, Mr. Milkman directed by Laura Milliken, Dirty Games directed by James Kinistino, My Blood My People directed by Martin Leroy Adams, and Waardeur directed by Eugene Hendriks. I was proud to contribute drum tracks to this year’s Best Music Video, Sides directed by Mosha Folger, an Ottawa-based Inuk writer, performer, playwright, and member of the Counterfeit Nobles.

Nick Sherman (Ojibway) opened up the evening’s live music component with a commanding solo set. The Sioux Lookout-based singer-songwriter performed seated on his suitcase, which doubled as a bass drum. For the final portion of Nick’s set, he invited up the visual artist and musician Arthur Renwick (Haisla). The two men had only recently began playing together at the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals a few weeks ago, but impart a familiarity that I hope will lead to many future collaborations.

George Leach (Sta’atl’imx) was the evening’s headliner, performing a mix of old favourites and new tracks from his eagerly anticipated new release, Surrender. Audiences at The Beat got a chance to purchase copies of the new album prior to the official release, and I can confirm that it sounds as great as his live set. George Leach and his band pumped up the mood in the room, switching gears from the quiet reverence of Nick Sherman’s set to a full-on Saturday night rock’n’roll party.

They played a high-energy set, proving that nobody in Indian Country rocks a double-necked Gibson SG quite like George Leach.

DAY FIVE: Sunday, October 21st


On Sunday, I made my way to the closing night gala screening of The Lesser Blessed directed by Anita Doron and based on the Richard Van Camp (Dogrib) novel of the same name. Shot in Sudbury but based in the Northwest Territories, the film was gorgeously rendered and scored. The film’s protagonist Larry Sole, a Tlicho youth played by Joel Evans in a stellar acting debut, comes to terms with his traumatic past as he deals with high school bullies. The film premiered earlier this year at the Toronto International Film Festival, and is well worth seeing as it screens more widely.

The 13th annual imagineNATIVE Indigenous Film & Media Arts Festival wrapped up with an awards gala at The Mod Club hosted by actor Billy Merasty, who donned this year’s circus theme and put on his top hat as the ringmaster. The crowd was tired but happy after a week jam-packed with festival events and networking that always ran well into the night.

To take part in the festival as a musician truly demonstrated to me how interconnected Indigenous arts practices are: what’s a film without a soundtrack, or a musician’s single without a music video?

At the end of the festival, my only regret is that I can’t go back and catch everything I missed the first time around. Aho!


Melody McKiver is an Anishinaabe musician, media artist and researcher who splits her time between Ottawa and Toronto. She is currently completing an MA in Ethnomusicology at Memorial University where her research interests include Indigenous electronic music, artistic processes of decolonization, urban Indigeneity, and Two-Spirited studies. For more on Melody’s work, follow her on Twitter @m_melody or visit melodymckiver.com