Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Présence Autochtone

El Regreso
I've been in Montréal for a few days, at the Festival Présence Autochtone, or First People's Festival, run by my Innu friend André Dudemaine.  I've known André by email for some time - he wrote the piece on Alanis Obomsawin for the very first Origins programme book - and met him properly at Planet IndigenUs in Toronto in 2012.   He's very kindly invited me to his Festival both last year and this.  It's always incredibly helpful to see how other indigenous festivals operate - how they make their meaning felt in public space.

Public space seems to have been the big issue for André this year.  Although this is the 24th annual festival, it has been a struggle to get it properly funded - Canada, like so much of the world, is cutting back its public sector and shifting towards a "market" model, which of course is pretty hopeless for a festival designed to highlight the presence of a minority in the face of an over-arching cultural diet of blandness and mass-produced monotony.  As André put it in his email inviting me over: "It was like a western but with a happy ending: the Indians won  :)."  Aside of funding, public space is also a thematic preoccupation of the festival, which after all proclaims "présence" in its very title.  In Canada, it's all too easy to forget that the indigenous people are even there - particularly as the "rez" system remains so significant here (and the festival combines its Montréal presence with programming on the Mohawk reservation of Kahnawake).  The festival takes over the central Place des Festivals with an installation, concerts, traditional dance, a parade, information tents, food stalls, and a fun piece of street theatre based on a traditional story of the sun being put out and restored, with a clear lineage from the Bread and Puppet Theatre.  

Street theatre - the sun

This is the "fun" side of the festival - and it's very effective, particularly in bringing a younger generation of First Nations musicians into the public arena.  On Saturday night, when I arrived, Beatrice Deer was playing in the Place des Festivals.  She looked out at the audience and commented that there were more people there than lived in her home village in Nunavik - population 370.  The audiences in general seem much larger than they were last year - apparently as a result of a big social media campaign.  The mainstream press in Montréal has given the festival very limited coverage for 24 years - but now the new media are allowing different channels of communication to open up, and young Canadians seem genuinely to be embracing the indigenous stories of the country.

The other key focus of this festival is indigenous film - and the scope here is global rather than simply Canadian.  André has strong links all over the world, particularly in the Americas - but his programme also ranged as far as Tibet, with a fascinating documentary film about spiritual practice, A Gesar Bard's Tale.  A personal highlight was a feature from Venezuela, called El Regreso, in which a young indigenous girl becomes separated from her tribe as a result of a paramilitary attack, and somehow survives in the city.  There are echoes of Rabbit-Proof Fence, not least in the amazing central performance by a child - but this is also a very gritty urban drama.  Insurgentes from Bolivia is essentially a dramatised chronicle of the nation's history in costume-drama style - apart from a few moments of pure magical realism, when the world's first indigenous President, Evo Morales, himself appears in the film - at one point sitting in a cable car above La Paz, passing the heroes of historical struggles as they go the other way.  

Some of the Canadian films I saw were quite troubling, especially in the light of André's difficulties in getting the festival supported this year.  Maïna is a film about Innu and Inuit before the colonial period - and lays claim to authenticity because it uses indigenous actors and languages, even though the main narrative is a voice-over by the central character in the main language of the audience (which last night was French).  The effect, of course, is to distance the indigenous people, not to make them closer, and to compound the exoticism which is already present in the story and the style of filming, with all the familiar Hollywood tropes (wise Elders who die early in the film, children lost to their tribe, wise women uttering obliquely, love "across cultures", Inuit rubbing noses, fighting off polar bears....).  It's clearly made with an eye to the mainstream, and it compromises the indigenous cultures very drastically in the process.  The Healing Winds is a much more sincere piece of work - a portrayal of the traumas resulting from the Residential Schools - but again I felt a bit uneasy, particularly as the film concentrates so much on psychotherapy, seemingly passing the responsibility for dealing with the trauma onto the survivors, without really engaging with the larger political context, which is where true responsibility lies.  As with the Truth commissions, you can't help feeling that there is a failure to engage the bigger picture.  

The best Canadian films I saw were shorts - an evening commemorating the tenth anniversary of the wonderful Wapikoni initiative, which facilitates film-making by young people from indigenous communities.  One young man who spoke at the event explained that he had been "doing nothing", and had never been off the rez, until the programme enabled him to make his first film, which has done well at international festivals, and has led to him getting a university place and making more films.  The great thing about this is that it isn't simply a social development programme - the films themselves are very good.  One or two, for example Kevin Papatie's We Are, are quite superb.  My one niggling concern is why Kevin is still making films via this programme, when he should be seen as a major talent in artistic / activist video: we screened his powerful short The Amendment in the very first Origins, as long ago as 2009. 

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