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The bold future of Indigenous documentary cinema

On a bitter winter day in 1969, members of the Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne, near Cornwall, Ont., began blocking a bridge on the reserve that linked Canada and the United States: the protesters complained that Canadian customs agents were imposing duties on their shopping as the natives moved across their own territory. Michael Kanentakeron Mitchell, a young Mohawk activist working with the National Film Board of Canada's Challenge for Change community film program, knew a story when he saw one. He contacted the NFB, which sent a camera crew to the blockade. The result, directed by Mitchell and Mort Ransen of the NFB, is the seminal 36-minute documentary You Are on Indian Land.

The film, in which Mitchell figures prominently addressing the crowd and getting arrested, is mainly a real-time record of the protest as police haul away proud young rebels, outraged middle-aged women and mischievous children. You Are on Indian Land is often considered the beginning of Indigenous documentary in Canada, an object lesson on how to use the camera to expose wrongs or make a case for rights. The film can be streamed for free at NFB.ca but a remastered version with Mitchell now given top billing as director is also being unveiled at Vancouver's DOXA festival in May.

If that is where Indigenous documentary has come from, The Road Forward represents the bold and optimistic position where it now stands. That film, a musical history of native nationalism by Dene-Métis playwright Marie Clements, will be featured both at DOXA and at Toronto's Hot Docs festival next week. As the spring documentary season opens, Canada's reconciliation with its aboriginal peoples is in the air.

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Mitchell stuck with politics, not filmmaking – for many years, he served as Grand Chief of Akwesasne – but the tradition of powerful aboriginal documentary was maintained at the NFB, most notably by Alanis Obomsawin, director of Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance and more recently, We Can't Make the Same Mistake Twice, about federal funding of on-reserve child welfare services. These films represent an activist tradition that trades in hard facts and strong viewpoints; Clements's film, meanwhile, opens up a whole new chapter.

In one of its early and most convincing moments, The Road Forward features the sound of the powwow drums emerging seamlessly from the pounding typewriters that are producing stories for The Native Voice newspaper in 1940s British Columbia. The film goes on to alternate between interviews with elders recalling events in the struggle for native rights and musical sections evoking such sorrows as the residential schools or the missing and murdered women. These interludes, with the ethereal quality of music videos, are performed by various artists of native ancestry, including composer and blues artist Wayne Lavallee, actress and singer Cheri Maracle, hip-hop artist Ronnie Dean Harris and Métis fiddler Jeremy James Lavallee.

As a detailed history of native politics on the West Coast, the results are sometimes hard to follow; the film began life as a live show at Vancouver's Touchstone Theatre and its non-linear mix of documentary and music may have seemed a lot more natural on stage. On film, the results are uneven, but the mix is provocative: As the ensemble gathers for a final number, song seems to be replacing speech and poetry replacing rhetoric. The clear implication of Clements's film is that reconciliation will come from the arts.

But that's the big picture. Another way to look at aboriginal experience is to focus down to the very specific. In the aftermath of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in an era where much has been said about the impact of the residential schools, there are two films at Hot Docs that offer other reflections on that period and its legacy.

One is Birth of a Family, a documentary by Tasha Hubbard, about four adult siblings who are meeting for the first time: Betty Ann Adam, a reporter with the Saskatoon Star Phoenix (and co-writer of the film) was adopted into a white family as a three-year-old, part of the so-called Sixties Scoop marked by the controversial practice of placing native children in non-native homes. Adam eventually found her Dene birth mother and one sister but never had contact with a second sister and a brother.

It is only now, in their 50s, that the foursome is finally meeting, taking a trip to Banff National Park and visiting a First Nations museum where they try to learn about the culture of which they were deprived. The doc is full of poignant moments but, relying entirely on the siblings' current conversations and interviews, has little background about their original family, the circumstances in which they were taken or even how they feel it affects their current lives. If anything, Birth of a Family calls for a second chapter, a less personal, more factual doc about the Sixties Scoop itself.

The second film is Bee Nation, a cheerful CBC doc about Cree kids on Saskatchewan reserves who are beating the odds. Clearly, the loveless regime of the residential schools damaged many survivors' ability to parent their own children, while media reports from impoverished reserves may reinforce defeatist attitudes in both aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities. Bee Nation serves as an antidote with its optimistic story about kids who are flourishing thanks to good schools, committed teachers and, most of all, nurturing parents.

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The film, directed by Toronto documentarian Lana Slezic and chosen by Hot Docs for its opening night, follows a half dozen children as their schools get involved in a national spelling contest, marking the first time First Nations students from Saskatchewan have participated, creating their own regional division representing their province. Tension builds as three local winners, kids who have rarely left the isolated reserves where they live, earn spots at the finals in Toronto.

It pains him to say so, but the principal of one of the schools tells viewers the hard truth about his priorities: It's English and math that will help these kids get ahead, not their lessons in Cree. Meanwhile, all the kids say they love the freedom and the sense of community on the reserve but know they will have to leave; every parent interviewed stresses the importance of further education.

So, for all that Bee Nation focuses narrowly on the codified achievements of correct English spelling and a feel-good message about youth empowerment, you can sense a dilemma looming as these children consider how to enter the world beyond the reserve without losing their culture. They are the grandchildren of the residential school generation and they, at least, seem much better prepared to negotiate the right fit for themselves and to enjoy a healthier relationship with the rest of Canada.

Perhaps reconciliation will be facilitated by the arts; certainly it is going to be tracked by documentary film.

Hot Docs runs April 27 through May 7 in Toronto (hotdocs.ca).

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About the Author

Kate Taylor is lead film critic at the Globe and Mail and a columnist in the arts section. More

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