My Story: Filmmaker Michelle Latimer on Indigenous Stories, Her New Projects & More

Photograph by Hayden Wolf. Design by Danielle Campbell.

Welcome to My Story, our weekly series defending color creations and their path to success.

For Michelle Latimer, who worked at the TIFF box office just so she could get passes to see movies during the festival, 2020 has been a wrapping up moment. This year, the Métis / Algonquin filmmaker presented two projects at TIFF: a documentary titled Indian inconvenientand CBC TV series Trickster.

“Growing up, I saw very little of my experience accurately portrayed onscreen, if at all. That’s part of the reason I do what I do, ”she said over the phone.

Latimer grew up in Thunder Bay, Ontario. He first moved to Montreal to study theater at Concordia University, then to Toronto to pursue an acting career. But she quickly began to feel dissatisfied with the stories she was telling and yearned to find other ways to make an impact. When she saw that the ImagineNative Film Festival had a mentorship program for short films, she decided to go on the safe side and make her own film.

“It changed my life,” she says. “I remember a mentor telling me, ‘your community is under-represented in the media; you have a voice – don’t underestimate the impact you could have. “

That was 2007, and now over a decade later, Michelle Latimer is still going strong. We met her to find out more Trickster, a supernatural television series based on a best-selling novel by Eden Robinson; his latest documentary Indian inconvenient, which explores the cultural colonization of Indigenous peoples in North America; the need for more contemporary Indigenous stories on screen, and more.

You have worked in the industry for over a decade. How do you think things have changed over time in terms of the types of Indigenous stories that are being told?

We’ve seen a lot more filmmakers go into independent filmmaking through things like ImagineNative where I started, but it’s still difficult for those voices to find their way into mainstream film or television. Our show Trickster This is the first time that the CBC has featured a program adapted from a novel by an Indigenous woman and created by Indigenous peoples. I think we’re slowly changing [on-screen] representation, but that’s after hundreds of years of misrepresentation, ranging from the days of cowboy western movies to the horror trope with Indian cemeteries and shaman vision quests and others things. This kind of misrepresentation is very damaging to a community. I think aboriginal people are often seen – and accepted – in the mainstream media in the past. So a safe abstraction of a romanticized Native on horseback, say. But we are rarely seen as contemporary individuals confronted with contemporary struggles in a modern world. And I think it’s really important to see a performance like that. Because the point is, we don’t exist in the past, we exist now, and our cultures are adaptive and flexible, and we need to see a reflection of that.

You described Trickster as “native gothic horror”. Could you clarify this?

The show is a coming-of-age tale, except the difference is Jared [the main character] sees visions that he thinks could be the result of an inherited mental illness that he fears he has from his mother, or that he’s partying too loud and needs to get rid of the sauce. But he soon realizes that the visions are in fact the result of an inheritance. For me, it’s really a metaphor for ideas around assimilation and identity politics. Jared is a young native man. He is not particularly politicized even though he lives in a community where the biggest infrastructure project is a pipeline. He’s just trying to make ends meet, and in a way, he just wants to be “normal”, fly under the radar and fit in. But he realizes that he will only be able to move forward in life in a positive way if he accepts who he is and understands where he came from – he’s not just a homogenized child, he comes from a really specific place. I feel like it’s that nice metaphor for issues of assimilation and colonization, and the genre allows for an accessible way to lightly tackle some of these deeper issues.

The show contains elements of magical realism and also draws inspiration from Haisla folklore. Can you tell us about that?

I think the specificity of the storytelling is really important. Eden [Robinson] is Haisla-Heiltsuk and Jared is also. In the Haisla tradition, trickster stories are usually articulated in the form of a crow. We believe our stories are in the earth. We didn’t write things in books, our culture is a culture of oral storytelling, and the land itself holds the stories. Our past is in our stories, but so is our future. It is not a separate thing. In the present our ancestors walk with us, but the way we tell our stories and what we share and what we carry on will become the future we enter. So with the stories we write our future in a certain way. It’s important to see the story as a living thing, not something that is stuck in the past, but something that adapts and changes depending on who the storyteller is and how the listener takes it. story and then takes it forward.

You mentioned during a recent virtual panel that, as there were people from different Indigenous Nations working on this project, you relied on a document from the Indigenous Screening Office that offers recommendations on how to work in indigenous communities. Can you tell us more?

The Pathways and Protocols document was created by the Indigenous Screen Office with the help of ImagineNative and a few other partners, I believe. It draws on a similar document used in Australia and describes how indigenous and non-indigenous peoples can work in a healthy and balanced way with indigenous communities. What I learned from it is the idea of ​​meaningful consultations and discussions around what the community wants, so it’s not just extractive. We cannot go in and take out what we want and profit from it. How to create an infrastructure and a partnership within the community so that there is a meaningful dialogue? I don’t want to co-opt someone else’s story; I think it’s really important that we ask them to participate in the storytelling. So how do we do this? I think at the heart of it, it’s about being inclusive to this community, inviting them into the process and having them participate in the making of the story, in creating it, in shaping it to start from nothing.

In your documentary Indian inconvenient, you show that the current generation of Aboriginal youth is focused on reclaiming their identity and embracing their cultural traditions. Is this something that you have seen often in your own social circles?

In the documentary, we show filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril getting a tattoo on her face, and I think she really hit the nail on the head when she said there was intergenerational trauma surrounding the recovery of these cultural practices. . It’s because our grandparents were put into residential schools and were so ashamed, and the middle generation was [caught] in the trauma of that, and now our generation is doing these things, but it’s hard for them to watch us do these things because they’ve been so ashamed for it. I’m very excited for the next generation to come behind me because they don’t really have the same shame or the same responsibility to their parents in this way. They can just go in there with no excuse and I think it’s the next frontier. I think that’s where we’re headed and it’s really exciting. There is energy in there.

There’s a lot of talk between creators of color where some people say they want to be able to tell the stories of their own people and communities, while others say they don’t want to be forced to tell some type of story. What do you think about this?

I relate to that. I think for any artist who is developing their voice, it’s really important to write about what you know, and to write or create from your authentic experience. But I think as artists grow and evolve and mature, it’s really important that they are able to stretch in different directions. When I think of artists who say they don’t want to be cataloged, they just don’t want a glass ceiling, they don’t want to be tied to a box. It’s quite frustrating to meet a broadcaster or someone who has a preconceived idea of ​​what you should be doing as an Indigenous filmmaker. I think it’s up to the artist to decide. Because great creativity comes from curiosity and willingness to take risks, and I inevitably think that sometimes means stepping out of yourself.

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