TORONTO – When it came to choosing a director for her new Indigenous-focused drama “Through Black Spruce,” Cree producer-actor Tina Keeper says she felt fortunate to land Toronto filmmaker Don McKellar.
Keeper says she’s known McKellar since she was young in the industry, is a great admirer of his work, and considered him a “brilliant” choice to helm the story — even though he’s not Indigenous himself.
“We haven’t had the capacity, we haven’t had the opportunities, we don’t have a huge arena of directors and producers,” Keeper said of the Indigenous filmmaking community in a recent interview.
“People act like, ‘You’re not doing things exactly right,’ but the setting hasn’t been there for us to do things exactly right until now and I think it’s shifting. I’m really proud of our collaboration.”
The topic of whether a non-Indigenous director should be telling Indigenous stories for the big screen has been making headlines and stirring up debate on social media, with other examples including “Indian Horse,” which is helmed by Montreal-raised Stephen Campanelli and hit theatres in April.
Then there’s “The Grizzlies,” from Toronto-born director Miranda de Pencier, which was shot in Nunavut and is screening at the Toronto International Film Festival.
“Through Black Spruce,” which is based on the novel by controversial author Joseph Boyden, is also at the festival. Indigenous actors Tantoo Cardinal, Brandon Oakes, Graham Greene and Tanaya Beatty star in the story of a family reeling from the disappearance of a young Cree woman who hails from Moosonee in Northern Ontario.
Keeper said she became friends with Boyden and optioned the film rights to the novel before his claims of Indigenous ancestry were questioned after an investigation in 2016 by the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.
“When the story broke, we had already cast the film, we were looking to start pre-production, but we had made a decision,” she said, adding she believes Boyden and was offended by the controversy.
“Through Black Spruce” resonated with her because her mother is from that cultural region of Canada, Keeper said. The issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women has also had “a profound effect” on her life, she added, noting the film touches on many important subjects affecting Indigenous communities.
During the development of “The Grizzlies,” which is based on the true story of Inuit youth playing lacrosse in a small Arctic community, de Pencier was curious and collaborative, say producers.
“When she made mistakes, we pointed them out and she listened,” Inuk producer Alethea Arnaquq-Baril told a recent TIFF press conference.
“Her determination to include our community in the making of this film at the time was truly not common.”
Arnaquq-Baril said the team did a widespread search for cast members across the Arctic, workshopped the script with Inuit actors, and had a crew that was more than a third Indigenous.
“‘The Grizzles’ marks a collaboration between Hollywood, Toronto and the North, and Miranda linked us all together in a way that was mutually rewarding,” Arnaquq-Baril said.
“As a vocal advocate on issues of representation in film, I’m proud to say that I see myself in this film, I see my community in this film. I’m proud of the film itself but I’m also proud of how it’s made.”
“The Grizzlies” co-writer Moira Walley-Beckett said she and de Pencier worked on the film for 10 years. De Pencier travelled to the North repeatedly throughout that time and worked in conjunction with the Inuit producers to make sure she and Walley-Beckett were telling the story accurately and in a way that felt right to the Inuit community.
“They’ve been intimately part of our creative process, and so we’ve all been really together in the making of ‘The Grizzlies’ and the crafting of ‘The Grizzlies,'” Walley-Beckett said.
“Every step of the way, the community has weighed in on how we’re telling the story and how they want to be represented, and they’ve been a part of that process.”
Other Indigenous-focused films at TIFF this year that do have Indigenous directors include Gwaai Edenshaw and Helen Haig-Brown’s “Edge of the Knife,” the first feature-length film made in the endangered Haida language.
There’s also Darlene Naponse’s “Falls Around Her,” starring Cardinal as a world-famous Anishinaabe musician.
Keeper is hopeful more Indigenous directors will start helming these types of films as the industry changes.
“Canada has an Indigenous Screen Office now and is making an effort towards developing capacity,” she said.
“So we’re in a shifting landscape and I think we need to celebrate all accomplishments and all collaborations and we need to keep our eye on the prize going forward. I think that’s really the nature in which we need to work.”