ImagineNATIVE Film & Media Arts Festival Review

 Photo: Anna Brindley-Pantalone

Photo: Anna Brindley-Pantalone

After viewing almost two hours of successive screenings of international shorts films at the imagineNATIVE Festival this year, I felt both utterly emotionally drained and inspired. The eight short films, as with all the media showcased at the festival, are either written, produced, or acted out by indigenous and First Nations individuals. They highlight some of the difficult realities of indigenous life both currently and historically, as well as the powerful collisions of these past and present struggles. The pieces strive to celebrate diversity and dispel stereotypes.

In the eight short films I had the pleasure of seeing, I was treated to stories of aliens and parallel fantasy worlds, family healing after suicide, the gritty reality of prostitution, the difficult discovery of a racist and violent familial past, the grieving of a sibling through the supportive lens of a young queer Inupiat couple, and coping with a divorce in a foreign country, to name just a few. The individual stories were incredibly powerful and flung you from one emotional reverie to the next.

One of my favorite pieces, Soup For My Brother, was filmed not far from where I grew up in Western New York. As soon as the opening shot flashed on the screen I felt instantly connected. Though the abandoned backhoe, worn out house, and rural setting are practically another world compared to the concrete and glass of downtown Toronto, the message still hits home no matter where you’re from. Simply narrated, without dialogue, and shot primarily at a picnic bench in a man’s yard, the film enthralled me and did not release me until the following film forced me to refocus. The work is a short and plain video of a middle-aged man making soup for his brother on the one-year anniversary of his unexpected passing.

There’s nothing fancy about the old crock pot, the red picnic bench, or the slightly overgrown lawn. It is incredibly simple but in its simplicity it hits a deep chord. Its almost harsh ‘everyday-ness’ forces the audience to confront the uncomfortable fact that death happens in real life to average people and is not just some outcome alluded to in a glossy, edited film on the screen. Terry Jones (Seneca), who wrote, directed, produced, narrated, acted in, and edited the film, was at the screening to answer questions following the presentation. Personal touches such as these added so much to the stories told at this festival.

ImagineNATIVE is more than just the film festival, though. Officially named The Centre for Aboriginal Media, imagineNATIVE is a registered charity whose vision statement explains that they are “inspiring and connecting communities through original Indigenous film and media arts.” And what better place to champion that cause than in the multicultural hub of Toronto? The festival was originally the brainchild of Cynthia Lickers-Sage and V-Tape (Kim Tomczak and Lisa Steele) in 2000. Since its conception, the festival has already won the prestigious Premier’s Award for Excellence in the Arts twice and given hundreds of aspiring and established indigenous artists an unparalleled platform to showcase their talents and have their stories told.

The festival is unique both nationally and internationally in its commitment to indigenous art and media. Being based in Toronto allows featured artists to reach a broadly diverse audience here in the city, as well as throughout Northern Canada during the video tour. The films screened at imagineNATIVE also have a higher propensity to be incorporated into the TIFF and HotDocs lineups for further screenings and exposure. In conjunction with the organization’s internal awards, the festival lets the audience give their opinions through the Audience Choice Award poll. The winner is chosen by its popular rating and is later shown as an entertainment option on Air Canada flights.

While imagineNATIVE is fiercely dedicated to granting influential career opportunities to indigenous artists through exposure at the festival and beyond, the pure heartfelt messages of the films are still, without question, at the heart of the event. They are what drive the creators and collaborators and what inspired the festival in the first place. Diverse topics from diverse communities both here in Canada and abroad are afforded their rightful time in the spotlight and realities that are too often ignored are now unapologetically brought to the surface and discussed. And while the festival focuses officially on indigenous experiences, the overarching themes are earnestly universal and mirror realities seen throughout Toronto’s highly multi-ethnic population.

The motifs of tradition, racism, hope and hopelessness, family, death, acceptance, and reconciliation know no cultural bounds and help bring audiences from all backgrounds together. Which, unsurprisingly enough, perfectly fulfills imagineNATIVE’s mission statement of “inspiring and connecting communities.” My experience at the 2016 imagineNATIVE festival was nothing short of incredible, but don’t just take my word for it! Check out the imagineNATIVE website (imaginenative.org) for upcoming events, workshops, tours, and to learn more about their Tech Library. Feel free to get in touch with administrators if you are interested in contributing to the organization or the festival. But most importantly, don’t miss the 18th annual imagineNATIVE Festival next year in October 2017!