“You have to be careful of the stories you tell, and you have to watch out for the stories you are told.”-Thomas King
Inconvenient Indian is another documentary I saw at the VIFF. It was another documentary that had something to say.
The film begins with an Indigenous man wearing body makeup and a traditional headdress is on top of a horse in grassland just outside Toronto. He looks onto the buildings of the city. He is not happy. The story then goes to Thomas King in a vintage taxicab driven around downtown Toronto. The theme is the same in both scenes: stolen land. His driver wears a coyote headdress and occasionally glances at the camera. This is a scene that will return many times as the legend moves forward throughout the documentary. During its scenes, it will include King’s parable about a cunning coyote who envies a flock of ducks and plies them with promises, only to continuously ask for more.
We see King at his destination: a vintage cinema. King seats himself in the middle row alone, popcorn in hand. As King watches the screen diligently, many young Indigenous people also enter the theatre soon after. What they see on screen is beyond displeasing, but infuriating. They see past depictions of Indigenous people that are rude, mocking and insulting. They see Nanook Of The North, which was really a fake documentary where the Inuit played stereotypes. They see various scenes from old ‘Cowboys and Indians’ movies from Hollywood’s Golden Age where the Indigenous person is always seen as the bad guy to fight. The lines from the films are especially abhorrent to hear like ‘Indian on the warpath,’ or ‘The only good Indian is a dead Indian!’
King reminds us: “History is a story we tell about the past.” We’re reminded that elements of popular culture are part of a war against the white powers that be in North America. It’s a battle that goes back centuries when people left the ‘old country’ to create settlements in the New World. They set up their settlements often by fighting Indigenous tribes through wars over their land. I don’t have to explain what happened to their land. One thing to note is that various types of Indigenous people’s ways of life died off. Some tribes of Indigenous peoples died completely. King even regards Indigenous artifacts in museums as, “voiceless objects from the past, unthreatening and without agency.”
Even if it’s not the wars and stolen land, it’s also about a National Government’s past attempts to suppress Indigenous peoples’ identities, languages, heritages and ways of life. The most infamous being the Residential School system. For those outside Canada who don’t know, the Residential School system was a Government-run system where Indigenous children were taken from their homes and brought to white-run schools where they were taught to speak English and live the way of white Canadians. The schools were run by religious clergy: mostly priests and nuns. The children who didn’t do away with the Indigenous language or traits, or found it hard to, were subject to physical and verbal abuse by the teachers. Many children suffered neglect over their well-being (including fatal neglect) and many were also victims of sexual abuse. I myself have come to see residential schools as a form of apartheid.
Problems still continue. The Indian Wars and Residential Schools are a thing of the past, but we’re now dealing with the aftermath. Today you’ll see in the news stories of Indigenous peoples try to battle police and politicians over developments or plans to be done on their land with their protest blockades. Residential Schools created an aftermath of people unable to parent well because they were taken from their homes. The countless abuse they suffered led many of them to alcoholism, drug abuse, crime and suicides. The last twenty years have brought the past of Residential Schools to the forefront of national discussion and efforts for reconciliation to be made. Present problems still continue with lack of clean drinking water and additional poverty on reserves, continued high crime rates and substance abuse rates, and a higher-than-average dropout rate in schools. The documentary reminds you of this.
The documentary also shows you something else. It shows you young Indigenous people in the arts who are taking their culture and the pasts of their people, and even their own pasts, and adapting it into their own artistic expressions. The artists in focus are a Metis cultural painter, a Cree artistic painter, an Innu filmmaker and documentarian, an Inuit filmmaker and VR creator, and a rap duo of various First Nations:
- Christi Belcourt – Metis artist who specializes in beadwork art and floral patterns. Her patterns carry on the traditions of the Metis and First Nations people, but they’re not all just to please eyes. Some of her art have political messages. She herself is the daughter of a Metis activist and has published some books on First Nations/Metis issues.
- Kent Monkman – A Cree painter who specializes in painting historical narrative from his point of view. In the film, he speaks his anger of how his people have been treated since European settlements and especially of the creation of Canada in 1867. The paintings in his 2017 exhibition, a response to the Canada 150 celebrations, resemble Baroque or Renaissance Era paintings, but they speak of his anger and wrath of the past history and of the mistrust he has towards today’s powers that be.
- Alethia Arnaquq-Baril – An Inuk filmmaker. Her films range from short animated films to feature-length documentaries to live-action storytelling. Her films speak volumes of the discrimination, struggles and hardships of the various Indigenous peoples. One of her films, The Grizzlies, played at the VIFF two years ago. Devoted to keeping tradition alive, the film shows her getting a traditional Inuk tattoo applied on her forehead.
- Nyla Innuksuk – Inuit Film maker and VR creator. Past films include short fiction like a hunter using traditional skills to survive and a short documentary with singer Susan Aglukark. VR work includes work on a VR series allowing the viewer to envision Indigenous life in the future with futuristic characters. The film shows her working on her first feature-length film: a sci-fi story of teen Inuit girls fighting off an alien invasion.
- A Tribe Called Red – A rap duo whose members are of the Mohawk and Cayuga nations. Rap has always had a reputation of being the voice of the voiceless and A Tribe Called Red use it to speak their voices. Their songs mix modern hip-hop and dance sounds with traditional Indigenous music and beats. Their songs also carry a political message. They themselves are also Indigenous activists who were part of the Canadian Pipeline and Railway Protests from February of this year.
The stories of the above artists and their works are mixed in with images of King’s tale of the coyote with the cab scenes, the images of the Indigenous man riding a horse into Toronto and an Inuit man hunting a seal and making use of everything from the seal he hunted including meat, blood, intestines and fur. A mix of screen narrative, storytelling and real life presented as one.
The final scene of the film shows the young adults and Thomas watching the Indigenous images created by Indigenous actors, directors and writers. They’re happy to an extent. The film then shifts to Indigenous issues and disputes that have happened in recent time. This represents the fight is still ongoing.
Thomas King wrote his narrative The Inconvenient Indian back in 2012. The film isn’t an exact adaptation of the book, but passages of what King says in the book are voiced over in the film. The book itself is an examination of North American history. King even presents the point of view as if Columbus didn’t discover America, America discovered Columbus. He also comes across an eyebrow-raising conclusion ‘White people want land.” Essentially the film reminds us that history seen from two different eyes will have two different points of views. Most white people have been taught the history of North America with the white Colonials looking like the good guys and the Indigenous looking like the savages. We’re reminded of that when we see the predominantly white crowd watch the re-enactment of the Battle Of Little Bighorn leading to Custer’s Last Stand. The film reminds you Indigenous people will see history from a very different outlook. That it’s really the white soldiers that are the savages.
The film does shed a lot of the negative moments of the past; moments many white people in North America still consider triumphs. The film shows how white North American’s and others still like to ‘toy around’ with Indigenous culture. We saw that almost a full year ago how the wealthy Park family in South Korea ‘toyed around’ with it in Parasite. However the film then shifts to Indigenous showing their side of the story and spreading their message through art. Seeing it leaves you convinced this is more than just Indigenous people creating their own art. It’s also them responding to the art and history told by white people in the past. Now they have the power to tell their stories. Now they can speak how they really feel. Now they can tell their version of history through their eyes. Now they can create characters that are a true example of their peoples. Now they can be empowered to create and manage their own media. Now they can create their own visions for the future.
You’re left convinced while watching the documentary that only Indigenous peoples can best create Indigenous stories and Indigenous characters. And understandably so. You watch all the insulting depictions of Indigenous peoples in past Hollywood movies and you’re reminded of this. Even getting an uncomfortable reminder you actually enjoyed seeing that. Even I was uncomfortably reminded of the days as a kid when I played ‘Cowboys And Indians.’ It’s no wonder Marlon Brando had Sacheen Littlefeather refuse the Oscar on his behalf back in 1973. When I think of how we no longer see ‘Cowboys And Indians’ movies anymore, I think Sacheen’s refusal has a lot to do with it. People won’t tolerate insulting or mocking depictions of their race anymore. They will be in the audience and they will let you know it if you dare try.
The film is unique that it blends the history of oppression and genocide with the mix of art created by the Indigenous peoples. A lot of feeling goes into what they create. It’s a lot of feeling that they have from what they’ve experienced in their own lives and what they’ve seen happen to their families and neighbors. The film also shows how art created by Indigenous people can lead to something better in the future for the people. You have the current generation of adults 20-50 who are reviving cultural heritages and languages past generations of their family were forbidden to have. You’ll have young people getting a positive image of Indigenous people instead of always seeing them vilified. The film is as much about hope as it is about outrage.
Top respect should go to Michelle Latimer with adapting King’s narrative and showcasing the various arts. Latimer herself is Metis/Algonquin. She mixed King’s narrative with the showcased arts and artists and the moments of history and infamy very well to create not just a documentary and an exhibition, but a vision for the future. Also I admire the National Film Board of Canada for contributing to this. Usually national film bords will only endorse films that only showcase the positive of their nation. NFB won’t shy away from a film that showcases the negative aspects of a nation, like racism. The film comes straight from the TIFF after winning the Best Canadian Feature Film Award and the Grolsch People’s Choice Award for Best Documentary.
In a year where racism is a hot topic, Inconvenient Indian is a documentary worth seeing. It shows what the powerful effect of a depiction of a race in entertainment media can do to a race. And how a race responds with their own art.
2016 was seen as a weak year for comedies, unless they were animated. Possibly the most overlooked gem of 2016 was the Irish musical comedy Sing Street. I passed it up when it first came out, but I finally saw it recently. I’m glad I did.
We see Conor Lawlor strumming his guitar in his bedroom. Conor is a 15 year-old boy living in a shabby suburb of Dublin in 1985. Right now, Ireland is going through difficult times. It’s economy has been hit hard and many young people are fleeing to the UK, most notably London, for a future. His family is also going through difficulties as his father is struggling in his architecture practice and is struggling in his marriage and drinks excessively. Because of that, Conor is taken out of his high-class Catholic school and put into an all-boys free state school in Synge Street. A move older brother Brendan objects to, knowing how terrible the priests are there.
Things don’t go well for Conor on the first day. Being the new kid, he gets bullied. On top of it, he has the principal Br. Baxter giving him a hard time because he’s wearing brown shoes instead of black shoes in the dress code. Conor does end up with a bully name Barry but he makes a new friend in Darren who has big-time entrepreneur dreams. Conor also meets a 16 year-old girl named Raphina living at the orphanage nearby the school. He learns that Raphina is a budding model who’s headed to London. Conor impresses Raphina saying he’s in a band.
Now it’s up for Conor to create the band with the help of Darren. Darren is quick to act as Conor is introduced to Eamon: an awkward looking teen with a passion for music and can play many an instrument. Conor is able to meet a local black teen who is mostly shunned away from the others and two other awkward but musically-inclined students from his school. They start out pretty flat together and create a demo tape of popular 80’s songs. Conor gives it to Brandon but he’s unimpressed. He instructs Brandon not to be a cover band but do their own original stuff. That helps Conor to meet with Eamon to compose a song about his infatuation with Raphina: The Riddle Of The Model. The boys try on various costumes for filming a video and Raphina even volunteers to be their makeup artist and ingenue.
The song and video impress Brendan, feeling they’re off to a good start. However Conor’s rocker image of dyed hair and makeup gets on the nerves of Br. Baxter who insists in turning all boys into men at the school. Baxter even grabs Conor and washes the makeup off his face in a bathroom sink with hot water. But Conor and the band are undaunted. They continue making music and Raphina even advises that Conor be known as Cosmo. Conor develops the self-confidence to stand up to school bully Barry. The romance between Raphina and Conor heat up too, despite Raphina claiming an older man is her boyfriend. Conor even talks of sailing to London with Raphina.
However things soon take a turn for the worse. Conor’s parents are on the verge of separating with the mother moving in to her new lover’s place. Plus Raphina doesn’t show up when Sing Street are shooting a Back To The Future style video for their song Drive It Like You Stole It. Raphina later revealed she was set to leave for London, but her boyfriend abandoned her. A disheartened Conor breaks up with her. The breakup affects Conor in writing new songs for the band.
However it’s Brendan who encourages him to get back with Raphina and get back into playing. It’s through Brendan’s own personal feelings of past failures that drive him to give Conor the advise. Sing Street have a chance to perform a gig at school. Conor even offers Barry a chance to become a roadie for the band to escape his abusive household. The band performs their gig to the delight of the school and a condescending Br. Baxter looking on in disappointment, but they saved the best for last. The film ends not as one would expect but one that would leave the audience happy and hopeful.
I won’t deny this is a common story you’d expect to see in a film. I’m sure the story of a person growing up in a trash-bin of a city starting a band has been done before. The thing with this story is that for a common story like this to work again, the characters have to connect with the audience. They have to make the audience want them to succeed. The film succeeds in making the audience want Conor, or should I say ‘Cosmo,’ and Sing Street to succeed. The film succeeds in making the audience want Conor win Raphina’s love. The film succeeds in making the audience want the bullying of Barry to Conor to end and for Conor to get even with Br. Baxter. The connection of Conor with the audience is one of the biggest elements of magic in this story.
It’s not just the connection of Conor with the audience. It’s the connection with Raphina too. You get a sense Raphina is the right one for Conor, despite being confused about her love to her older boyfriend. However you get a sense that Conor will win her love. Raphina believes in the band and believes in Conor. You can see it in her eyes. Also Raphina shares Conor’s dreams of leaving for London. Seeing how unpromising Ireland looked with its economic drabness back then and the people seeing the priests as ‘rapists’ leaves you sensing life would be better for the both over in London.
It’s also the connection with Brendan with the audience too. Brendan is the first character in the film outside of Conor that’s easy to like because Brendan believes in Conor’s talents. Brendan’s also the type of brother that would be honest about how Conor is doing. Even after he disses what Sing Street does at first, he will give Conor words of encouragement. He will give Conor music albums to give him a sense about what makes rock and roll. It’s Brendan’s embrace of music in both its past influences and future directions that become a huge boost for Conor. However it’s also Brendan’s past failures that we get a better understanding. We see why Brendan pushes Conor in that scene after the parents’ separation and he throws a violent fit over his past failures. Because Brendan views himself as a failure who doesn’t have a chance, so he wants Conor to chase his dreams and be the one that has what it takes to go to London. It’s easy to feel for Brendan. It’s also easy for a viewer to see their own feelings of failure and regret in Brendan too.
With this being a film about a rock and roll band, the music has to be as important as the story itself. Brendan’s embrace for music is a big quality of the film, but it has to rub off on Conor as he’s the one with the gift of music. The film gets focused on the themes of music like themes of love, themes of heartache, themes of frustration, themes of emptiness and themes of hope. We learn about the ‘happy-sad’ feeling that we all get, but may not know it. The ‘happy-sad’ element is definitely influential in music. Now once all the themes and elements of music are put together, the film has to have catchy songs. The film succeeds in doing so with songs like Riddle Of The Model, Drive It Like You Stole It and Brown Shoes. Brown Shoes made the perfect end-number for the school show. Even music from other musicians like Duran Duran, The Cure, The Jam, and many others add to the theme of music in the film. The film is as much about music as it is about love and dreams.
Writer/director John Carney succeeds in delivering an enjoyable film to the big screen. Music has been a common theme in past films of his like Once and Begin Again. He succeeds here again in delivering a film that’s enjoyable and keeping you engaged in the story. The film featured a very good debut performance for Ferdia Walsh-Peelo who was 16 years old when this film debuted at Sundance 2016. Ferdia is actually a singer who has performed professionally as a child in Ireland for years. This is his first acting role and he does an excellent job. Lucy Boynton also did a very good job in playing Raphina. The best thing is she made Raphina appear older than she really was. Jack Reynor was also very good as Brendan. He made Brendan into a likeable character, but also made you feel for him too.
Sing Street is a musical comedy that delivers excellently. It delivers a story and characters that connect with the audience very well. It also delivers entertaining music, which is what a film about a rock and roll band should do.
I’m lucky to be living in Vancouver. It’s one of the few cities one can be able to see the nominated shorts in a big-screen theatre. Gives me a chance to review them myself and even make a should-win pick for myself. This year is quite an array of nominees in both animation and live-action. So without further ado, here are my thoughts on the nominated shorts:
-Blind Vaysha (Canada/France): dir. Theodore Ushev- This is a unique 2D animation story of a Bulgarian folk-tale. A story of a girl with one eye that can see the past and one eye that can see the future and cannot live in the present. The story also shows the attempts of others to fix Vaysha’s blindness. The linocut-style animation, however, was unique and had a lot of style and flare to it.
The story doesn’t really end. Instead the film ends asking the audience their perspective. It has a unique narrative point and I get why it’s done that way, but I often wonder if the film ended on the right note.
-Borrowed Time (USA): dirs. Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj – At first you’ll think this is a family-friendly story at the beginning but soon learn it’s not such as you move on. It’s a dark Western story of a man returning to the spot of a family tragedy from his childhood. The hurt comes back from it and he decides to do something drastic but something happens.
I have to admire Pixar animators Coats and Hamou-Lhadj for making a brief departure from their traditional family fare and doing something more mature under Quorum Films. No, it’s not R-rated like Pear Cider And Cigarettes but it’s dark enough to be adult. I think this short is most likely to upset my pick for the winner.
-Pear Cider and Cigarettes (Canada): dirs. Robert Valley and Cara Speller- Now this is a refreshing R-rated alternative. It sometimes reminds you of a Grand Theft Auto video game or the film Waltz With Bashir. However it is a personal story from director Valley. It’s a story that makes you wonder how far would you go for a friend? Especially if that friend is selfish, conniving, irresponsible and manipulative?
It’s a story that entertains and charms and even gets you to hate Techno too. Sometimes I wonder why was he friends with that jerk? I don’t know if it’s because it was set in Vancouver or because it was an R-rated alternative but it won me over and I make it my Should Win pick.
-Pearl (USA): dir. Patrick Osborne- This is the first VR short to be nominated for an Academy Award. A musician and his daughter travel in a hatchback with a song as a bond between the two. We see the two age, the daughter mature into a musician of her own and have her own version of the song. The viewer gets a 360 degree view of the whole 5-minute story.
Looks like something Richard Linklater would do. Actually it might remind you of Waking Life. An excellent short that’s entertaining and will touch you too. Might even make you go to iTunes and download No Wrong Way Home.
-Piper (USA): dirs. Alan Barillaro and Marc Sondheimer- This is the short shown before Finding Dory. A baby bird looking for food on the beach with her mother looking on and guiding her. Pixar does it again by delivering a clever, charming, and entertaining short with the dialogue absent and the animation as detailed to a tee as it gets. It’s excellent, but it’s something we’ve come to expect from Pixar even with their shorts. Nevertheless this is my Will Win prediction.
And those are my thoughts for the Animated Shorts up for the Oscar. A lot of styles of animation between Canadian and American companies. All five were very entertaining. We’ll see who wins.
LIVE-ACTION SHORT FILMS
This year there are no films with English as the language of the majority. All five are from European countries. Here’s the rundown:
-Ennemis interieurs (France): dir. Selim Azzazi – A man from Algeria seeks to be a French citizen but the interrogator at immigration has big questions for him about meeting with a group of Algerian men back some years ago which led to him being arrested and imprisoned for two years. The interrogator keeps insisting he answers but he’s very reluctant to do so. Even to the point of neglecting his chances of French Citizenship. Why? What will make the man give his answers?
It’s a story that appears boring at first but grows with intrigue with each minute and with each new detail. The interest builds over time. It even makes you wonder why is he withholding the names of the other men? Feelings of brotherhood? Fear of retaliation from them? Also this may be about an incident in the past but it’s very relevant, especially with the Paris bombings happening in November 2015. This is my Will Win pick.
-La Femme et le TGV (Switzerland): dirs. Timo von Gunten and Giacun Caduff – Elise is a woman who wave her Swiss flag at the passing TGV train to Zurich every time it passes her house at 6 in the morning and 6 in the evening . After that she bicycles to her job at the town patisserie. It’s her daily routine for 30 years; a routine she doesn’t want to change. One day, she comes across a letter that was thrown to her by a man who goes on that daily TGV. He’s a man from France looking for work. The two develop a friendship only by mail and packages. Over time she hopes to meet this man. Then one day the train stops coming. It’s changed route? How will she deal with the change? Will she ever see the man?
It’s a charming comedy that has you engaged with the character (based on a person who has existed and did wave her Swiss flag at passing TGV trains). Gets you thinking about the woman. Is she an eccentric? Is she naive? Lonely? Unpredictable ending but a happy one.
-Silent Nights (Denmark): dirs. Aske Bang and Kim Magnusson – Inger is a young Danish woman who helps at the Salvation Army during the day and looks after her ailing mother at night. Kwame is a Ghanian immigrant who came to Denmark for a better future and to support his wife and children at home. However he’s been left homeless and makes money from recycling.
They both meet as Kwame agrees to help. The two develop a mutual friendship and even progress into something more. However it’s put to the test when Kwame steals money from the charity to pay for his daughter’s malaria treatments. Even though Kwame is banned for life, Inger forgives him and still loves him. Then Inger’s mother dies and she learns about Kwame’s family in Ghana just as she learns she is pregnant. It’s over between the two. However Inger sees Kwame one last time where she gives him advice, and something else.
It’s obvious that this story is about the immigrant situation in Denmark and the difficultly of the times for all. It presents both Inger’s side and Kwame’s side. However it’s more. It’s about a love that’s true. Inger loves Kwame so much, she’s willing to forgive him for all the terrible things he did. It makes the choice she makes for her and her baby look like the right thing. This is my Should Win pick.
-Sing (Hungary) dirs. Kristof Deak and Anna Udvardy – Zsofi is the new girl at a school. She most looks forward to singing in the choir. However on her first rehearsal, the instructor talks of a choir competition where the prize is a performance in Sweden. She also tells Zsofi her voice is not ready for the choir and tells her to lip sync. Along the way, Zsofi finds a friend in star singer Liza. The two become good friends. However Liza notices Zsofi not singing but others. When she brings this up with the instructor, she not only admits it but tries to convince the children it’s the right thing for the competition. All of which leads to a surprise ending and the ending you think is right.
Often I question what the point of this film is. Is it about competitiveness to the point the ‘lesser’ singers are not allowed to sing for the sake of the big prize? Or is it a reminder of Hungary’s past communist regime; of how those that fit in are allowed to and those that don’t aren’t, but make like everything’s okay? Even the choir director could remind you of a communist dictator on retrospect. Whatever the point, the story was entertaining and sweet. Reminds you of the joys of childhood and the right thing paying off in the end.
-Timecode (Spain) dir. Juanjo Gimenez – It starts as a check for a woman on a security job during the day. One day she learns of a broken car light. Upon viewing the video of what happened, she sees the worker before her dancing before hitting the car. She decides to give him a dancing video of her own. Video after video follows. Then on their last day, magic happens.
At first you think the man is something eccentric but this story builds into something that ends on a bizarre note. A very good film.
And there are my thoughts on this year’s nominated shorts. Now remember both categories are the hardest to predict the winner. For example, last year the consensus of critics ranked Stutterer the least likely to win Best Live Action Short and it won. Even Annie wins for Piper and Pear Cider and Cigarettes are not a guarantee that either will win.
With my shorts predictions out of the way, I just have my main predictions for all the categories to deliver. But not before my last Best Picture summary. Coming up tomorrow morning.