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Past, Present, Futures – Indigenous Futurism by Youth Filmmakers

November 18th, 2017     by Jackie Mlotek     Comments


The only way to survive is to imagine futures, but it’s even better to create them. Visualizing futures is power. Giving shape to future worlds that aren’t separate from the past, but inextricable to them is what can get us through. This is the gift the young filmmakers at imagiNATIVE explored through their films.

imagiNATIVE is an annual film festival held in Toronto every October. imagiNATIVE’s vision is about showcasing, promoting, and celebrating Indigenous film and media arts.

Three Thousand created by Asinnajaq/Isabella Weetaluktuk begins with a dark starry sky and luminescent blues if you were to look at star stuff through the palms of your hands. It takes you under a microscope, putting your face to icy cells, to synapses firing, to deep red blood cells. Swimming through texture, colour, time, and bodies, human and otherwise. The music and throat singing is perfectly paced and constant.

Much of the film’s transition from time and place feels propulsive, the luminescence marking shifts. Black and white archival footage pulled from the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) selectively by Asinnajaq, of what constituted and continues to make up a life for many Inuit: holding puppies, smoking, gutting fish, cleaning pelts, cuddling, a child wearing a pink hat and coat zooming by on a boat, water rushing. A baby pokes a fish’s eye and licks her finger.

“I saw a need in the world for a film that could exist that showed Inuit coming from the land, from what’s more stereotypically known, you know people still asking if you live in a igloo, people who need to know more about life and Inuit and where we come from to take us from the starting point…wind, cold snow, igloo, to contemporary times and it’s still us. We come from here but we live right now”, Isabella says.

And again, we’re pushed to a shock of neon and we’re falling. There’s giggles, an aurora, bodies of particles. Three figures with cheeky smiles. A sudden stream of light emerges from the centre of the collection of neon igloos, which turns on its head. Past, present, future. It all happens at the same time.

I asked Isabella about her process in making this film and on that she says, “I thought of a short film that would really visually take you from that time to now. I looked at the archives and what was really great was that I was allowed the space and time and able to stick with the original idea, and adapt the film to what I was seeing and what felt important. I was trying to figure out how is it going to end everyone trusted me I would come up with it. I was going to visit Echo (filmmaker of Shaman) in Nain and thinking and all of a sudden I was singing that song and looking at the snow and let it come to me. That happened a lot throughout the film: allowed to trust myself, observe, see what comes. I got to collaborate with a lot of people on sound, animation, editing, really a lot of people to trust and talk to and work with.”

As a settler on this land, one thing I can do is acknowledge the land that I live on. Vivek Shraya in her book, even this page is white, says “is acknowledgement enough?/ i acknowledge i stole this/but i am keeping it social justice/or social performance/what would it mean to digest you and yours and blood and home and land and minerals and trees and dignities and legacies/to really honour no/show/gratitude no/word for partaking in violence in progress.”

Vivek says there’s no word for partaking in violence in progress. I think we have to make one, and there is already so much incredible work and art being done.

The space between acknowledgement and action is separated by an approach to thinking about the future that doesn’t replicate the dynamics of the world we live in, because it’s not working. This is not an original idea. The future is fraught in too many ways to count, but we’re imagining.

Isabella Weetaluktuk/Asinnajaq said in a phone interview with me, “I think the most important thing about the future is rediscovering our own values and encouraging people to live in ways they think are best. Respecting each other and the land, and if we move in that direction, whatever the future is, it’s going to build itself and be what it should be.”

Lindsay Nixon says, “Indigenous peoples are using our own technological traditions—our worldviews, our languages, our stories, and our kinship—as guiding principles in imagining possible futures for ourselves and our communities.”

Imagining futures in ways that don’t replicate stories we’re already living in are thriving. So much of dystopian imaginings are people with privilege envisioning what life would be like on the margins, and there’s a bigger resurgence than ever of people creating worlds that acknowledge what it’s like to live now and map out survival.

The Marrow Thieves is a recent YA sci-fi novel about our futuristic world destroyed by climate change - one where people have lost the ability to dream. The only people still able to dream are North America’s Indigenous people, and, it is their marrow that is being forcefully taken by “recruiters”, which holds the cure for the rest of the world. The significance of this is substantial.

Using science fiction and blending past, present, and future are of course, very old ideas. Speculative fiction is associated and can be rooted in white supremacy and colonialism (as does most genres and like, our world) but it has never been without resistance and creation.

“Shaman” by Echo Henoche

Echo Henoche’s short film, Shaman, is short, dreamy, segmented animation inspired by the legend of the Polar Bear in the Rock. The legend is set in the white stone atop Mount Sophie, just across the harbour from her home of Nain, Nunatsiavut, on the North Coast of Labrador. The stone is said to be all that remains of a ferocious polar bear that once terrorized the villagers. Legend has it that with the help of a powerful shaman, the community was able to save a young mother and child from the polar bear’s rampage, turning the beast to stone.

Echo has said that she loved hearing her grandfather retell this particular legend and she’s rendered it beautifully. In an online interview, Echo has said, “I do what my heart tells me. Art is the way I feel, the way I touch and the way I am moved by nature.”

On her process, Echo says, “I am an artist but I had never created animation before. It took a lot of time and effort to create my first film. I made the film over a period of two years, travelling from my home community of Nain to Montreal 10 times, at the beginning for stays as short as three days only, and then for as long as 10 weeks! When I watched my film at its premiere in Toronto at the imagineNATIVE Film Festival last month, I had a huge lump in my throat, trying not to cry. I imagined Karrie Obed, my teacher in high school and the drummer on the film’s soundtrack, looking down from heaven, so proud of my accomplishment.* I’ve also been invited by the Labrador Creative Arts Festival and the NFB’s AABIZIINGWASHI (#WideAwake) Indigenous cinema tour to bring my film to six Labrador communities: Happy Valley Goose Bay, Rigolet, Hopedale, Postville, and back home to Nain, between November 19 and 28. I really look forward to sharing my film with people of all ages.”

For young filmmakers/artists, Weetakluk says, “I think it can be hard to look into yourself. I learned to trust myself and that’s really important. Lots of people give you advice on film, and I listened to some of it, but I always trust myself first. A lot of people think “good advice” in film is trusting what they’ve seen before and not something new.”

Echo says, “I’d like to tell young artists to never give up on doing what they love the most. I never gave up my dream; I’m still heading towards it. Art is my life. And always remember that you’ll make a difference in someone’s life because of the beautiful art you’ll make. Looking at different art from all over the world has changed my life; it makes me proud that I am a young Inuit artist from Labrador.”

I bought Diane Obomsawin’s graphic novel, On Loving Women, for one of my friends after literally stumbling onto it in Librarie Drawn & Quarterly in Montreal a few years ago. I read it on my way to give it to them and remember feeling so rejuvenated reading sweet, queer love stories told by queer people.

“I Like Girls” by Diane Obomsawin

Obomsawin’s short film, I Like Girls, has that same rejuvenating, funny, charming quality about it. It features four women on their first loves. It’s intricately animated and timed. Its continuity and growth in its characters is tender and affirming.

“The question I asked in the film and the graphic novel was not when was your first love, but when was your first attraction,” Diane said on making the film.

Elisha Lim’s [100 Crushes]( has a similar quality: exploring the spectrum of queer love stories and crushes in all the manifestations they can take. I Like Girls showcases those little moments that make crushes so sweet and terrifying: talking until the sun comes up, going to pride together, seeing yourself on screen however briefly.

Obomsawin said as a message for young artists, “Don’t be afraid, and don’t be afraid of the future. Focus on what’s important and what’s in your heart, and always choose what your body and heart tells you.”

“It’s really important for young people to see this representation, and from a very young age. The more we talk about it, the more it becomes [better] integrated and people find it’s okay. We have to talk about it. And it’s been such a long time and we can’t talk too much and the reality of girls liking girls.”

Credits roll on fresh sheets hanging in the wind and you’re reminded of how stories of the past, present, and future allow us to continue.

Check out these films at the following festivals:

Three Thousand: RIDM (Montreal), Nov 11, 2017 California’s American Indian and Indigenous Film Festival (San Diego), Nov 4, 2017

Shaman: American Indian Film Festival (San Francisco), Nov 9, 2017

I Like Girls: Barcelona Independent Film Festival, l’Alternativa, Nov 13-19, 2017 Cork Film Festival (Ireland), Nov 16, 2017 New York City Short Film Festival, Nov 18, 2017 Interfilm (Berlin), Nov 20-26, 2017 London International Animation Festival (UK), Dec 6, 2017

And check out the CBC’s The Current with Anna Maria Tremonti, where they discuss how Indigenous and black artists are using science fiction to imagine a better future.

*Please note an earlier version of this piece erroneously noted that Echo’s Grandfather had passed away instead of Karrie Obed, the drummer on Shaman.

Jackie Mlotek Jackie Mlotek is a peer sex educator, bookseller, and writer. Her writing has been published in Metatron, Seafoam Mag, Shameless Magazine, and Spy Kids Review. You can find out more about her work at

Tags: advice, art, indigenous, youth

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