This theme focuses on the ways in which Aboriginal peoples have been represented in NFB documentaries. Film excerpts illustrate how the representation of Aboriginal peoples has evolved over the last fifty years.
Cinema and Representation
by Carol Geddes
The evolving images of Aboriginals in film and video have matched the evolution of the political situation of Aboriginal people in Canadian society. One must understand the power of images in mass media, generally, in order to appreciate how influential these images were to the world. Further, how Aboriginals were represented in film and other media had a direct impact on how they understood their own realities.
During the late 1960s, as social unrest and change swept the North American continent— and indeed the world—the rights of so-called “minorities” came to the fore. Just as the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. focused on equal rights for women and African Americans for their freedom from unjust laws, so did the climate of the times extend to the civil rights of American and Canadian “Indians,” as they were then known. Often with the direct assistance of American activists, Canadian Aboriginals suddenly felt more power to protest and take civil action in order to begin to resolve many injustices which to that period had not been addressed in public policy.
Until those times of social change and reexamination of roles, Canadian media producers often took their cues about depictions of Aboriginals mainly from American models. Therefore, when Indians were shown as movie characters, they were often reflected in popular movies as uncivilized primitives on horses who threatened the efforts of noble pioneers to settle the West. On another front they were often depicted as nothing more than the sad residue of a colonial past with a whole range of social problems arising out of their maladjustment to society and seeming inability to be absorbed into mainstream culture. Needless to say, Indians were never hired as actors to depict themselves. Instead mainstream actors such as Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood were put in heavy brown makeup to represent Indians.
Therefore, when social consciousness began to rise, and people became more sensitive to cultural differences, Aboriginals began to be depicted in different ways.
Two notable popular films of the early 1970s, Little Big Man and Soldier Blue, attempted to address the historical inaccuracy of the role of Indians in the evolution of North American society. These films were written from a strongly sympathetic view of Indian history. The stories told, in graphic and wrenching terms, about famous battles in which Indians were mercilessly slaughtered and their societies decimated by untold cruelties on the part of representatives of the governments of the day. These and similar films were a shock and a revelation to audiences who had been steeped in stereotypes for so long that there seemed to be one acceptable popular version of the settling of the West.
Such films added to discontentment on the part of consciousness-raised Aboriginals who found themselves with little access to the means to tell their own stories. As welcome as the two noted films were in shedding new light on a real part of 19th-century history, they nevertheless remained exactly what they were—products of the minds of Hollywood screenwriters. Therefore, instead of the depictions of Indians as creators of mayhem, they were simply portrayed as sad, innocent children of nature victimized by the cruel military machine of colonizing governments. For the purposes of drama, the acts were seen as unreasonable and arbitrary, lacking a context in which to understand them. Had there been discussion about land and resource issues that the colonizing governments wanted to wrest from Indian hands, the films would have been more useful as tools of understanding.
This newly revived archetype—that of the child of nature and noble red man helpless against the onslaughts of modernity—was, of course, an erroneous image and almost as much a disservice to the acceptance of the very fact of Aboriginal people as the previous view of the Indian as aggressor. The notion of the Aboriginal as passive victim left audiences with a certain amount of sympathy but did nothing to enlighten audiences about the realities of Aboriginal existence in 19th-century North America.
There were other, isolated depictions of Aboriginals at this time and previously. They consisted mostly of National Film Board of Canada and CBC productions that either addressed the First Peoples as anthropological subjects of some quaintness and oddity or focused on the sad plight of Aboriginals as they struggled with social, political and health problems. In these media depictions, the theme often consisted of presentations suggesting that Canadians needed to find solutions to the “Indian problem.” Well-meaning as these suggestions sometimes were, there was little thought that Aboriginal people themselves could and should be consulted as to solutions.
It is against this background of depictions of Aboriginals; that is, from the truly terrible, to the well-meaning, to “reality” documentary, that Canadian Aboriginals themselves began to have a desire to represent themselves in all the complicated versions of their own stories as they knew them.
During this same period, due to a changing consciousness in public policy, there were attempts by the NFB and CBC to reflect a deeper understanding of Aboriginal realities. Beginning in the mid-1970s, the NFB hired an all-Indian film crew to gather footage of Aboriginal events. Approximately a dozen people benefited from travelling with an NFB crew to learn the fundamentals of filmmaking, mostly through the NFB’s Challenge for Change series.
Yet public funding and support policy in film and television had little accommodation for truly indigenous storytelling. Although a number of these NFB-trained people wished to remain in the field, opportunities for them to make a film were not made available and they drifted into other occupations—some related to media—over the years. One film that was made during this time, however, reflects the new consciousness that was rising among young Aboriginals. The NFB’s The Other Side of the Ledger was an astonishing film for Canadian audiences. For the first time, they heard Aboriginal voices explaining a very important part of their history. For many of these young people, the film solidified their conviction to continue the struggle for individual rights.
The NFB has an Aboriginal filmmaker, present since the 1970s, who has made a career out of presenting the realities of Aboriginal Canadians to a remarkable degree. Alanis Obomsawin learned and honed her craft at the NFB over the course of 30 years. A multi-award winning director, Ms. Obomsawin continues her filmmaking at the NFB in 2006. Other Aboriginal filmmakers began to make films on a sporadic and individual basis. Several arose due to their attendance at film schools, some from the broadcasting industry, and some made their way through their experience as actors. A body of work began to be produced during the 1980s that truly reflected the views and opinions of those Aboriginal filmmakers themselves. In the early 1990s, an initiative arose which saw the instigation of an all-Aboriginal studio—Studio One—as it came to be known. The Studio began as an Edmonton, Alberta “home” for Aboriginal filmmakers who would find a place to support their stories and learn the art and craft of filmmaking. Studio One produced seven films/videos and directed a training program in video on behalf of the Department of Communications of the Canadian Government. The Studio remained alive for almost three years then quietly expired due to a lack of funding and internal support.
Since that time, the NFB has supported Aboriginal filmmakers on an individual basis through a dedicated Aboriginal Filmmaker Program. Films and, by extension, filmmakers are chosen by a panel of NFB staff and an independent board of Aboriginal consultants. The result has been the advent of many films of a diverse nature made by Aboriginal people.
In the early days, the films were mostly concerned with social documentaries—stories that reflected the realities of their communities. Due to an increased sensitivity on the part of policy developers in Canada’s cultural institutions, there now exists a network of opportunities for Aboriginal filmmakers. Further, the launch of the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) in the 1990s worked in tandem with government institutions to increase broadcasting opportunities to a large degree. The result of these initiatives which support Aboriginal filmmakers working today is that their numbers and the diversity of their storytelling in media have increased enormously.
One of the benefits of the new, dynamic atmosphere of the new millennia for filmmakers is that there is now a large variety of Aboriginal programming. Documentary, drama, experimental, industry broadcasting programs, and various forms of animation and new media now abound. As a result, there is a choice of productions for people to see. Many filmmakers are now entering the brave new world of critique and satire of their realities. This reflects a kind of production that would not have been seen in those early, earnest days when all Aboriginals wanted was a chance to represent their take on their own lives in order to offset racist stereotypes or simply to stop being filtered through foreign lenses.
As with all people in advanced societies, Canadian Aboriginals desire the opportunity to express themselves in the true mosaic of experiences and realities that they know exist. Through a more subtle understanding of Canada’s First Peoples, we have now entered a time when we have the opportunity to experience other voices in a rich and complex way.
Born in Teslin, Yukon, Carol Geddes graduated from Carleton University (Ottawa) with a B.A. and obtained an M.A. in Communications from Concordia University (Montreal). After being involved with Aboriginal politics as executive assistant to the Council for Yukon First Nations Grand Chief, she entered the media field. Her first major film, Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief, won an award at the Educational Documentary Festival in San Francisco and set her on an international career that has resulted in many accolades. Since then, Geddes has produced twenty-five documentary films. She was the head of the NFB’s Studio One in 1991 and 1992.
Whether writing or producing, her prolific and celebrated output has highlighted the stories and struggles of Aboriginal life in both the Yukon and other parts of Canada. Picturing a People: George Johnston, Tlingit Photographer has won several prizes and received a Gemini nomination. Geddes’ most recent film is Two Winters: Tales From Above the Earth, a live-action animation about a true event in northern life. This film has won nine national and international awards at major film festivals and has been widely broadcast.In 2002, Geddes was awarded a Queen’s Jubilee Medal in recognition of her contribution to the Canadian cultural community.