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The Aboriginal Voice: the National Film Board and Aboriginal Filmmaking through the Years

The Aboriginal Voice: the National Film Board and Aboriginal Filmmaking through the Years

Through its singular and long-standing commitment to Aboriginal filmmaking, the National Film Board has been instrumental in providing Canadians a rich cultural resource and legacy: a comprehensive body of films inviting us all to share in the Aboriginal experience. Throughout the course of a number of NFB initiatives, the Aboriginal Voice has evolved.

In 1968, as part of the Challenge for Change program, the Indian Film Crew was established at the Board’s Montreal headquarters. This marked the beginning of Aboriginal films being made by Aboriginal people at the NFB (and most likely in the rest of Canada).

During the late ’60s, I was aware that an Indian film crew was working at the NFB. I just didn’t realize how important they would be to the future of Aboriginal filmmaking.

“There was a strong feeling among the filmmakers at the NFB that the Board had been making too many films “about” the Indian, all from the white man’s viewpoint. What would be the difference if Indians started making films themselves?” [Letter from George Stoney, executive producer, Challenge for Change, January 3, 1972]

The Indian Film Crew was jointly sponsored by the Company of Young Canadians and the Department of Indian Affairs. They spent five months being trained in various aspects of filmmaking and then worked on community development projects and research for future films. Incredible as it now seems, there was actually some controversy within the Board about whether the Indian crew would produce “Indian content films.”

The Indian Film Crew did indeed produce Indian content films, starting with These Are My People and The Ballad of Crowfoot. They also collaborated as advisors and on-camera subjects in a third film, You Are on Indian Land.

In 1972 Willie Dunn co-directed a film that was remarkable in its presentation of Aboriginal voice and perspective and in its politics. The film is The Other Side of the Ledger: An Indian View of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

In 1971, the Indian Film Crew project evolved into the Indian Training Program. Led by Mike Mitchell (an alumnus of the ’68 initiative), the trainees divided their time among several areas of the Board’s operations, gaining an all-round knowledge and experience of film production and distribution.

The period between the Indian Training Program and the next major initiative in 1991 saw a mini surge in Aboriginal documentary filmmaking. It was during this time that a number of films marked the beginning of the distinguished career of Alanis Obomsawin. In addition, other Aboriginal directors began working with the Board on a freelance basis.

In June of 1991 Studio One was born, established with one overriding objective: only Aboriginal filmmakers would make Studio One films.

In part, the Oka Crisis of 1990 played a role in the establishment of Studio One: “The events which shook Canada through the summer of 1990 highlight the need for better communication between the non-aboriginal and aboriginal communities of this country, and among the First Nations themselves.” [“Our People...Our Vision: An Aboriginal Studio at the NFB”]

The executive producer of the NFB’s North West Centre at the time, Graydon McCrea, was committed to the establishment of Studio One: “Non-Native people have documented what they perceived to be the mystery and romance of North America’s Indian, Inuit and Métis people since the earliest days of filmmaking…it is no longer acceptable for Native people to be portrayed as only others see them – they must be portrayed as they see themselves.”

There was a concern among the Aboriginal filmmaking community that Studio One, headquartered in Edmonton, was not accessible to Aboriginal filmmakers living and working in other regions of the country. As a result the Board launched the Aboriginal Filmmaking Program (AFP) in 1996 as a replacement for the Studio One structure. The AFP was a well-funded program intent on expanding filmmaking opportunities for Aboriginal peoples. The success of the Program can be seen in the prevalence of AFP films in the CVs and resumés of most of the Aboriginal filmmakers working today.

In early 2005, the NFB's English Program announced the inauguration of First Stories. Through this new program, young Aboriginal filmmakers from Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba were invited to a series of intensive film seminars during which proposals were submitted for the production of short 5-minute films. Four films were made in each province. As a follow-up, the Second Stories program gave those 12 new filmmakers the opportunity to propose more complex, in-depth half-hour documentaries. Three were chosen and recently produced, two of which have already had festival screenings.

From my own experience with an early film like Foster Child and the more recent Totem: the Return of the G’psgolox Pole, I am very much aware and appreciative of the fact that these films could only have been made by the National Film Board of Canada. As Aboriginal people and filmmakers, we are blessed that the NFB’s commitment to Aboriginal filmmaking is one that continues to this day.

Gil Cardinal

Gil Cardinal (1950-2015) was a director and writer based in Edmonton, Alberta. Of Métis descent, his documentary and dramatic work relates to Aboriginal issues and themes.

  • Foster Child
    1987|43 min

    In this documentary, filmmaker Gil Cardinal searches for his biological family to try and understand how he ended up in foster care as an infant. In his search, Cardinal encounters frustration and loss, but eventually finds answers and a new appreciation of his Métis culture.

  • Circle of the Sun
    1960|29 min

    Circle of the Sun marks the first time the Sun Dance ceremony of the Blood Indians of southern Alberta is documented on film. Directed by Colin Low, it begins with a ‘Voice of God’ narration, typical for films of that period. But then, the featured character of the film, Pete Standing Alone, takes over telling the story… and perhaps for the first time, the Aboriginal voice is heard, telling its own story.

  • You Are on Indian Land
    1969|36 min

    This film documents the protest demonstration by Mohawk Indians of the St. Regis Reserve on the international bridge between Canada and the United States near Cornwall, Ontario. The story is told from an Indian point of view, with Mike Mitchell of the NFB’s Indian Film Crew himself a primary subject of the film. Mike narrates as well, and the Aboriginal voice is central to the storytelling. Hearing a narrator using terms like “we,” “many of us,” “our land, our people” is much more intimate and inviting than the detached, observational, anthropological narration that can only say, “the Indians...”

  • The Other Side of the Ledger: An Indian View of the Hudson's Bay Company
    1972|42 min

    Following on from scenes of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s 300th anniversary celebration, with Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip in attendance, the film bears down on applying the Aboriginal voice to a rather blunt indictment of a history of inequality in the trade relationship between the HBC and their Indian and Métis suppliers. Co-directed by Willie Dunn of the NFB’s Indian Film Crew.

  • Is the Crown at war with us?
    2002|1 h 36 min

    As the confrontation between Mi’gmaq fisherman in Burnt Church, New Brunswick and federal fishery officers comes to a head, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ boats violently ram and run over the much smaller boats of the Mi’gmaq fishers. Watching the footage, I’m reminded of the brutal scene during the Oka Crisis where the Kahnawake Mohawks are stoned as they cross the Mercier bridge [see Alanis Obomsawin’s Rocks at Whiskey Trench].

  • Totem: The Return of the G'psgolox Pole
    2003|1 h 10 min

    In this film, the Haisla of Kitamaat Village, B.C., tell the story of their efforts to reclaim a cultural heirloom: a mortuary totem pole taken from their ancestral lands, eventually discovered in a museum in Stockholm, Sweden. In broadcasts of the film on Swedish television the Haisla Aboriginal voice was heard and responded to. The people of Sweden put pressure on both the museum and the Swedish government to return the pole. [The pole’s return is documented in the follow-up film, Totem: Return and Renewal.]

  • The Ballad of Crowfoot
    1968|10 min

    Notable for being one of the first films produced by the NFB’s Indian Film Crew, The Ballad of Crowfoot is also remarkable for its haunting archival images set to an impassioned ballad written and performed by director Willie Dunn: “Crowfoot, Crowfoot, why the tears? You’ve been a brave man for many years, Why the sadness? Why the sorrow? Maybe there will be a better tomorrow.”