Indigenous filmmaking began to take shape in the early 1980s, when portable video became available. Before that, relatively few people had access to the tools of filmmaking. It could be a question of money, location, or the complications of handling cumbersome equipment. Working with actual film at the time meant carrying many reels, which had to be sent off for processing after they’d been exposed, and separate tape recorders, and so on. None of this paraphernalia was available to people in remote places with no money, no training, no cultural apparatus or context for making films.
So, indigenous people could be the subjects of films, but not the authors of films. One of the early proponents of indigenous filmmaking, Vincent Carelli in Brazil says that he grew sick and tired of seeing filmmakers from the outside world come into the Amazon region, gather images of people and leave – making that filmmaker’s vision the supposed truth about whatever Amazon village she or he had filmed. So, when portable video became available, Carelli brought cameras to those Amazon villages, showed people how to use them and watched as they told their own stories. And the world of indigenous filmmaking has grown.
The guiding principle of the Denver Indigenous Film and Arts Festival is to showcase authentic voices of indigenous people from all over the world. Over its five days, there are films from Hawaii, Canada, the Navajo Nation, Australian aborigines and New Zealand Maoris. Almost none of these movies will ever land on a screen in a multiplex, so the festival offers encounters with sounds and sights many of us rarely have the chance to see.
The title of Ka Piko, a short film from Hawaii, by Bryson Kainoa Chun, refers to a traditional ritual of taking the umbilical cord from a newborn, wrapping it in leaves, and placing it in a mountain lake. In just nine minutes Ka Piko shows how hard it is in the contemporary world for displaced people to hold on to what’s meaningful to them. It’s an unexpected plain language poem of a movie. A young widower and his father-in-law struggle over doing the ceremony. At the start, a newborn lies in a hospital, surrounded by the familiar, sterile rigmarole of modern medicine. The characters live in homes with appliances; the young man rides a motor scooter; the older man drives a pickup truck. All these common elements militate against traditional practices, but as the film shows, community, family and identity demand that the two find a way to transcend the gadgets and, as they chant, restate for themselves who they are. Ka Piko is an understated, deceptively modest tribute to what matters.
The short Canadian film Wakening, by a Cree-Metis woman, Danis Goulet, looks at environmental destruction. It's a dystopian dream set in a profoundly damaged urban landscape marred by military occupiers. Wesakechak, a Cree woman, walks into a derelict movie palace, which radiates a sense of demoralized people and dreams gone bad. The light feels like swirling gray mush. There, Wesakechak confronts, then acknowledges the help of an ancient bear-like figure. If Wakening is a horror movie, and if this figure is the monster, the film has the depth to let the audience dwell on it, like Wesakechak, to feel the being's presence, and to see through its menace to its necessity for righting a world gone off the tracks.
The best film I’ve seen in the festival, Three Thousand, by Isabella Weetaluktuk, mixes abstract animations that hint at native art and traditional designs, and silent archival documentary footage from the 1920s – snow blowing across a pure white landscape, an igloo, close-ups of a sled dog and of children, an elk migration, kayaking. And other images -- sailing a western-style vessel, learning to write from a white man, and later footage of fishing with an outboard motor. The archival images resist nostalgia. They don’t lament bygone days; instead they embody the richness of a still growing tradition.