Indigenous cinema | Canada

“The camera is our weapon”

Odile Joanette and Gloria Morgen make films with indigenous populations. What happens when people tell their own stories? 

A portrait picture of two middle-aged indigenous women with dark hair. Both are smiling at the camera.

Odile Joanette and Gloria Morgan

Odile Joanette, you are the CEO of Wapikoni Mobile, an NGO that brings filmmaking tools to indigenous communities all across Canada. Why filmmaking?

OJ: I think film is a little bit like the original storytelling. That's what all of our nations used to do around a fire: We share stories, we share values, and we share it through oral tradition. I think that film is a great contemporary way of transforming that oral tradition.

GM: Making or watching a film together is like a stone thrown into the water: It creates ripples. Because you speak about it with others, or you show it to your community.

Gloria Morgan, you took part in the project. How does it work and what made you participate?

GM: For quite some time I had this idea to make a movie called “Grandma’s Hands”, it is about passing my knowledge on to the younger generation. I’m 66 years old and had never made a film before. One day I saw a big truck with a sign saying “Wapikoni” stopping in my community in British Columbia. I went up there and asked what they are doing. And jumped right in.

OJ: We pack a truck with all the filming equipment. Between May and October, these trucks do stopovers with a team of five all across Canada in small indigenous communities. They stay at one stop for four weeks and develop short films with people from the community.

What does it mean for the participants to hold a professional camera in their hands and start filming?

OJ: I always say the camera is a powerful, positive weapon of construction. To me, making films is all about constructing ourselves, our identities. Making peace, getting out of this anger. It means tackling our invisibility through creation.

What do you mean by invisibility?

OJ: The sense of shame and stigma that comes from a feeling of not being worthy. Indigenous people in Canada have gone through a whole lot of pain. The racism, the discrimination, the marginalisation over centuries – that created an intergenerational trauma. I think that’s why many of us thought that to survive, we had to be invisible because the powers around us were too strong.

GM: Many of our young people in smaller communities have a sense of hopelessness. Because there are many problems: the high rates of suicides, the drug abuse, the violence, the missing and murdered women and girls. All of this makes us not feel safe. When I go into a room, I like my back to be to the wall. Most of us do, you’ll notice.

What needs to happen for indigenous people to feel safe?

GM: Healing needs to take place. And I think that’s were Wapikoni comes in. Building self-esteem, sharing stories, and by that I mean sharing the good stories and the bad stories.

OJ: Not every country is ready to talk about reconciliation. The first thing is to at least acknowledge what happened. And that's not easy. When you acknowledge that there is an imbalance of rights and privilege in your country, then you have to start to deconstruct it. And you have to start with the education system, that does not include indigenous knowledge. And the hierarchy of the teacher student relationship does not work well with many of our people.

How does your teaching methodology differ at Wapikoni?

GM: Our way of learning is so different. It’s learning by doing and seeing and touching, and that’s not what we’re seeing in mainstream education.

OJ: Deconstructing industry standards, for example. It's about acknowledging that talent can arise from alternative journeys of excellence than academic success. Believing in collective creation. At Wapikoni, there is no agenda, no fixed times, no hierarchy. It’s about sharing knowledge. And it works! We have over a hundred new short films emerging and more than 500 new participants every year. It’s crazy. And the short films are shown at international film festivals such as the Berlinale.

What do participants take away, after they made a movie?

OJ: Aspiring capacity, a sense of belonging, a sense of worth. It’s really about finding that sparkle to understand, that your contribution is worthy. Being loud and proud.

The interview was conducted by Gundula Haage