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Arts & Culture ᐊᔨᐦᑐᐧᐃᓐ

ImagineNATIVE festival returns with a hybrid edition

BY Patrick Quinn Oct 9, 2021

Building upon last year’s successful virtual presentation, the 22nd Annual imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival returns with expanded digital programming October 19-24. The 2020 online version allowed the festival to reach far beyond its Toronto base, attracting nearly 30,000 viewers across Canada and around the world.

“2020 was a year of unprecedented firsts and we were touched by the vibrant and engaged community who supported us during the first digital festival,” said imagineNATIVE executive director Naomi Johnson. “We recognize that we are in a privileged position in having the opportunity to build off our online space – to create a place for us to gather and present these artistic works.” 

Founded in 1998, in part to correct the lack of self-representation in films about Indigenous peoples, imagineNATIVE has grown exponentially to become the world’s largest presenter of Indigenous screen content, providing an invaluable platform for Indigenous artists to express their unique perspectives.

Over 145 works representing 51 Indigenous nations and at least 26 languages will be presented at this year’s festival, along with various exhibitions, industry panels and other events. Niki Little, imagineNATIVE’s artistic director since 2019, observed they received many more short films last year, as artists presumably pivoted with pandemic protocols, while this year’s balance has shifted back to feature films.

“It feels amazing to pay artists well and see the work people are producing,” Little told the Nation. “We’re a pretty niche destination festival, coming after TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) in the festival season. Last year we saw a wonderful increase in our audience outside the Greater Toronto Area – my parents on reserve in a fly-in community were able to watch.”

As the festival’s team worked to improve their platform’s internet bandwidth before the online launch, Little was completing the necessary editing and closed captioning. Reflecting the film industry increasingly moving online, an innovative partnership was formed with Netflix a few years ago to support year-round professional development for Indigenous filmmakers.

The imagineNATIVE Institute commissions industry reports, mentorship opportunities and international marketing activities throughout the year. During the festival, the Institute presents a series of “Industry Days” and “Micro Meetings” that provide priceless opportunities for writers, directors and producers in any stage of their careers.

“We do micro meetings, so filmmakers get one-on-one meetings with industry leaders to pitch their projects,” explained Little. “We’ll be featuring panels on the writer’s room that is very timely. We’re doing more practical stuff we haven’t done before like how to find an agent, finding those people in your artistic network or community to grow your team.”

This year’s Industry Days series features keynote speeches from filmmakers Oriwa Hakaraia (New Zealand) and Aka Hansen (Greenland), a conversation about creating animation, a competition to pitch an APTN web series, and a panel on the new hit television series Reservation Dogs, which has been breaking ground with its Indigenous creative team and subversive spirit. 

As the festival gains stability and accessibility with partners like the Canada Media Fund, the films it showcases have evolved to reflect the growing agency and narrative sovereignty of their creators. While a fundamental mandate has always been to challenge stereotypes and expand cinematic possibilities, empowered Indigenous filmmakers are increasingly shifting genre limits. 

“There are still those personal stories around historical trauma, but also a phenomenal articulation of Indigenous cinema,” Little asserted. “For example, feature documentaries from an Indigenous lens are pushing the boundaries of what the expectation of documentaries as an art form are expected. There’s an interesting Indigenous perspective that embeds a lot of humour and, whether it’s a Cree or Maori director, you’re seeing how specific Indigenous distinctions play on the screen.” 

Among this year’s documentaries, Little recommended Landon Dyksterhouse’s Warrior Spirit, which follows Nicco Montaño’s journey as the first Native American UFC champion, and Honour to Senator Murray Sinclair, Alanis Obomsawin’s tribute to the former head of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“We curated a short film program grounded to amplify values associated with the seven directions of the medicine wheel,” said Little. “Terril Calder has a new animation called Meneath that is really amazing. She’s not only pushing her own artistic boundaries but does an interesting allegory between the seven deadly sins and seven teachings.”

Another notable documentary showing is Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy, which draws connections between colonial violence and substance abuse on director Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers’ Kainai First Nation in Alberta. Interestingly, Tailfeathers also stars in Cree-Métis director Danis Goulet’s post-apocalyptic thriller Night Raiders, which will be screened at the opening night gala.

“It’s going to be an in-person screening at TIFF with a live Q&A afterwards that will be nationally broadcast through our platform to get that cinematic feel of all of us in a theatre but also reach a national audience,” Little shared. “The opening night party will be really fun with special guests we haven’t announced yet. We have the art crawl with performances, artist talks, and video commissions.”

Through an exciting new Cineplex partnership this year, two first-time features by Canadian artists will screen in four cities on October 21. Rhayne Vermette’s Ste. Anne will screen in Winnipeg and Montreal while Bootlegger by Caroline Monnet will play in Vancouver and Halifax. 


“We’re also doing a drive-in this year at Ontario Place on October 21, showing Beans by Tracey Deer,” said Little. “It premiered at TIFF last year. A drive-in is not only a safe way to gather – we’ve done a couple that were fun – but also a way to experience that film particularly in that space.”

While imagineNATIVE looks forward to bringing people safely together, Little thinks they will continue online programming to expand their audience to highlight the work of Indigenous filmmakers. 

“There are wonderful moments happening in terms of no longer becoming a niche in the genre,” Little affirmed. “It’s becoming more accessible and dispelling stereotypes, which was one of our main goals, and showing the breadth and nuances in an Indigenous narrative.”

by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.