Telling Indigenous Stories on the Big Screen

What a “New Wave” of Indigenous filmmaking teaches us about truth and reconciliation

Film still from the short film, OChiSkwaCho (2018, director Jules Koostachin). The film’s title refers to a sacred being, known as a spiritual messenger. Kokoom, an elderly Two-Spirit woman, has to decide whether to stay with her grandchildren or follow the OChiSkwaCho.

Photo: Courtesy of Jules Koostachin

In the years since Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was active, a “New Wave” of Indigenous filmmaking has taken off, bringing more Indigenous voices to the big screen, often for the first time.

“Just in the last 15 years, there has been a surge of creativity and opportunity, creating an almost perfect storm for Indigenous dramatic filmmaking in Canada,” says Tyson Stewart, an Anishinaabe (Temagami) film and media scholar, who is a program co-chair and assistant professor in the department of Indigenous Studies at Nipissing University.

With the support of a SSHRC Insight Development Grant, Stewart is studying the evolution of Indigenous filmmaking in Canada and bringing greater attention to new films and their significance in understanding the TRC as a cultural and political phenomenon.

“Politically, socially, the country has a lot to process—past affronts and injustices, and just becoming aware of Indigenous rights and cultures and perspectives and history. There is a kind of transition period that is reflected in the filmmaking, too,” he says.

Publicity poster for Biidaaban (The Dawn Comes) (2018, director, Amanda Strong, based on the writings of Leanne Betasamosake Simpson). A stop-motion short film in which Biidaaban, a young Indigenous non-binary person, and Sabe, a 10,000-year-old shapeshifter, set out to continue the Anishinaabe tradition of harvesting sap from sugar maple trees in their contemporary urban Ontario environment.

Photo: Courtesy of Amanda Strong

Prior to the TRC, Stewart says there tended to be comedic elements to Indigenous-created content, making it more digestible for mainstream audiences. That tone has radically changed. Indigenous filmmakers today are tackling themes like the “urban Indian,” Two-Spirit people, interracial relationships and mixed-identity children, and women’s resilience. These films celebrate Indigenous identity and don’t shy away from difficult subject matter.

For example, Stewart calls Rhymes for Young Ghouls (2013) an early classic of this New Wave. In this haunting breakout hit at the Toronto International Film Festival, Mi’kmaq filmmaker Jeff Barnaby tackles suicide, addiction, and sexual abuse, culminating in a residential school heist on Halloween that is a reclaiming of residential school system history and imagery.

“I think there is a kind of critical, almost a productive form of anger that is beneath a lot of these stories,” Stewart says. “These recent filmmakers have been putting their cards on the table and really not concealing their view of Indigenous-settler relations.”

When Stewart describes this kind of anger as “productive” he’s thinking about how powerful it would have been to see movies like this when he was a teenager.

“It’s good to see the dark and the light when you’re young. It’s a formative thing. And we want to be able to watch stories that reflect something of our own family history in our own lives.”

Through his analysis of these films, Tyson has identified a unifying message: a call for true reconciliation, meaning actual implementation on the ground, not just lip-service to the concept.

One way Indigenous filmmakers are pointing at the persistent gap between words and actions is in their depiction of the ongoing criminalization of Indigenous Peoples. For example, in director Amanda Strong’s Biidaaban (The Dawn Comes) the Indigenous main character goes out under cover of night in her southern Ontario neighbourhood to try and revive the ancestral tradition of tapping maple trees for syrup. Inanimate suburban objects like a garden hose and a fence come to life to try and stop her.

Researcher Tyson Stewart with (from left to right) his cousin Mary Laronde, his aunt Caroline Pridham, and his grandmother Marjorie Roy, at the July 2022 Indigenous film screening and lecture series presented by Tyson Stewart at the Bunny Miller Theatre in Temagami, northern Ontario, in conjunction with Living Temagami.

Photo: Courtesy of Tyson Stewart

“So, in this sense, the character is viewed as criminal by the settler society, just for expressing their indigeneity and for practising their culture,” Stewart says. “What filmmakers are resisting is a kind of fake reconciliation.”

Despite his overall enthusiasm, there are aspects of this recent upsurge in Indigenous filmmaking that concern Stewart. For example, his research asks tough questions about how some Indigenous films (and mainstream media outlets) have used archival photos from residential schools. His concern is that these photographs of orderly children sitting at their desks were created as propaganda—and when they’re shown in new media, this unintentionally repeats the original aims of the photographs: perpetuating a fiction about what the schools looked like on a day-to-day basis, absent the real context.

“I wanted to see a film where an authority of the school or government official was coming into a school and getting the children to pose and create this imaginary, ideal situation. That is the kind of narrative I would have liked to see.”

The doors that have opened to Indigenous filmmakers, supported by training and government funding, is consistent with one of the TRC’s Calls to Action around media and reconciliation. Call no. 84 urges the federal government to support Canada’s public broadcaster, CBC/Radio-Canada, in reflecting the diverse cultures, languages, and perspectives of Indigenous Peoples.

“When you compare it to the US, for example—which has a largely private funding model—you can really see how much government support and public interest has been beneficial to Indigenous filmmakers in Canada,” Stewart says.

The next step is for these films to be viewed more widely, by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous audiences, at film festivals and public screenings. Stewart strongly believes in the healing power of a good story contributing to reconciliation.

“How do we get Canadians to take notice and even Canadian critics to start covering Indigenous film more widely and have a serious discussion of what these films are saying?” he says.

For such conversations to take place, wider accessibility of the New Wave of Indigenous films is essential. Meaningful change is underway with these films now available on platforms like APTN lumi, CBC Gem, and And Netflix has recently partnered with ISO, ImagineNATIVE, and Wapikoni to train and support the next generation of Indigenous filmmakers.

In the summer of 2022, Stewart hosted a series of community screenings in Temagami, where one short film—OChiSkwaCho by Jules Koostachin—led to a discussion about death and spirituality.

“I’ve seen these films bring people to tears, and leave settlers speechless, because they’ve learned something new about another culture that they were not aware of. And that’s why I’m still doing this. That’s the motivation.”

Learn more

To learn more about Tyson Stewart’s work, read his piece on Truth and Reconciliation Cinema based on his SSHRC-funded research project and watch for his forthcoming book, also based on SSHRC-funded research, The World is Upside Down: Truth, Reconciliation, and Noir.