After decades of slow but steady development, Indigenous cinema – in North America as well as Australia/New Zealand and Northern Europe – has recently gained momentum and visibility. And genre films have played an important role in the growth of the sector.
In Canada in particular, films like Jeff Barnaby’s quantum of blood and Danis Goulet night raiderswhich won its writer-director the Emerging Talent award at the Toronto film festival last year, have broadened audiences for Indigenous cinema and helped a new generation of Indigenous talent on and off screen gain invaluable experience.
The importance of genre films is in the contemporary spotlight at this year’s TIFF Perspectives conference session on Narrative Sovereignty in Indigenous Cinema. But it is a meaning that stems in part from the recent and deep history of Indigenous peoples.
With elements like supernatural beings and an alien invasion, genre films can sometimes reflect the ancestral stories of indigenous peoples and their experience of colonization. They can also provide a setting for Indigenous stories that is familiar to a wider audience, suggests Bird Runningwater, the Cheyenne producer and Mescalero Apache who hosts the TIFF conference session.
Native Americans “have been erased from American popular culture until the last couple of years,” says Runningwater, who recently ended his long tenure as director of the Sundance Institute’s Indigenous program. Filmmakers, he suggests, “can fill the form of the genre with Indigenous characters and Indigenous history to make it easier for an audience to digest the notion of modern Indigenousness.”
During his two decades at Sundance Runningwater, the filmmakers were often challenged “to delve deeper into their own native culture to see what more they could add to their films.”
As the Indigenous filmmaking community evolves, filmmakers “continue to tap into their personal stories and their own cultural connections,” says Runningwater, who is now producing under a first film and TV deal with Amazon Studios.
Among the current generation of Indigenous filmmakers attending the TIFF conference is Darlene Naponse, the Anishinaabe romantic drama director Stellar (screening in Toronto in the Contemporary World Cinema section) and Nyla Innuksuk, Inuit director of Slash/Return, a sci-fi adventure about a group of teenage girls battling an alien presence in their small arctic hamlet.
Innuksuk says she has always been drawn to genre films, especially horror and adventure films. But growing up, she recalls, “when people were talking about Indigenous cinema, they weren’t talking about genre, they were talking about documentaries or heavy dramas.” And for her, “exploring stories different from those that we are used to seeing told about us is something really exciting.”
Nonetheless, Innuksuk acknowledges that in gender projects, Indigenous filmmakers are “able to tell stories that can touch on issues that are really difficult for us to talk about within our own community, or that we think we need to talk about. ‘other people wouldn’t want to see a movie about .
She adds, however, that to do Slash/back (which premiered at SXSW and recently landed a US deal with RLJE Films and streamer Shudder) involved striking the right balance between lighter elements with an alien invasion theme that might evoke a darker response from the native audience.
“What I really wanted was to make a fun movie that kids could watch,” Innuksuk says. “I knew people would add this colonization narrative to that. That I had nothing to do [to make the comparison] and that if I had to do anything, it might feel cumbersome.
The commercial potential of Aboriginal-themed genre films was illustrated by the recent launch of Preya fifth payment in the Predator action sci-fi franchise, on the Disney-owned Hulu streaming platform. Set 300 years ago among a group of Comanche nation members and pitting the franchise’s familiar alien predator against a fierce young Comanche warrior, Prey delivered the biggest premiere of any movie or TV show on Hulu to date.
Although director Dan Trachtenberg and writer Patrick Aison are not Indigenous, Prey had an Aboriginal producer in Jhane Myers, a Comanche and Blackfoot artist and filmmaker who worked alongside franchise producer John Davis and Marty P Ewing.
“As a creative producer, I was able to touch every part of the film,” says Myers, “down to the end credits music and animation.”
Trachtenberg and Aison “were really open to what I had to say and what I had to offer,” says Myers, who brought cultural nuances to the project and helped create a full Comanche-language version of the film. which is available alongside the English language. version on Hulu and Disney+ (see box).
Myers also worked on an internship program that brought about 75 Indigenous crew members to the project, which was filmed on the territory of the Stoney Nakoda First Nation in Canada. “This film breaks down so many barriers and changes the paradigms for native people and mother tongue in filmmaking,” she enthuses.
Bird Runningwater suggests that a project like Prey could open up new avenues for Indigenous filmmakers – and not just those working in the genre.
“A lot of contemporary Native filmmakers really despise the period piece because that’s where we’ve always existed in the canon of American cinema,” he points out. “We have always been subject to it, without any agency or our own involvement.”
But when he saw the rough rough cut of Prey, Runningwater says, “I recognized a really drastic shift in focus on the period piece. It was deeply and thoughtfully and aesthetically Comanche, in a tribal and cultural sense.
Now Runningwater hopes the performance of Prey “will influence other Indigenous-led projects – not just period, but genre and all other forms – that will be supported by the industry and by streamers.”
Gender and non-genre television projects are also expected to help stimulate the growth of the Indigenous sector.
Acclaimed FX Comedy Series Reservation dogs, created by Native American Sterlin Harjo and New Zealand Maori Taika Waititi, has already provided a platform for Indigenous writers and directors, including Blackhorse Lowe, Danis Goulet, Sydney Freeland and Erica Tremblay. And it made Devery Jacobs and D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai part of a pool of Indigenous on-screen talent – now also including Prey star Amber Midthunder – with marquee value for film and TV backers.
Next year, the Marvel series Echofeaturing a deaf Native American superhero played by Native American actress Alaqua Cox, is expected to further boost the profile of the Native sector.
The success of Prey, Reservation dogs, Slash/back and other projects have already caused what Nyla Innuksuk sees as a shift in attitude across the entire film and television industry.
Indigenous filmmakers, says Innuksuk, “have been talking about things like authentic representation for a long time. And it’s really nice to see this shift where when we talk about the importance of Indigenous people telling our own stories, we’re being heard and people are respecting that.
Prey Comanche dubbing
When it premiered for streaming on Hulu and Disney+ in early August, Prey became the first feature film available in an all-Comanche language version, according to producer Jhane Myers, and the first made available upon its initial release in any Native American language (the first star wars the film got a Navajo-language version, but only decades after its initial release).
Although originally conceived with all-Comanche dialogue, the adventure drama had only been shot with Native American-speaking characters at the beginning of certain scenes before switching to English. But when the filmmakers started reviewing the footage, “the scenes that really popped were the ones that had Comanche in it,” Myers reports. “That’s when we got the green light to do a Comanche dub.”
Myers – a Comanche and Blackfoot Indian American whose resume includes dialogue coaching credits on projects such as those in 2017 The Magnificent Seven and Western TV series 1883 – first translated the script with language advisors Kathryn Pewenofkit Briner and Guy Narcomey. Afterwards, a member of the film’s mostly Native cast re-recorded their roles in Comanche, sometimes learning the lines through guide tracks.
Working with Pixelogic, the Los Angeles-based entertainment industry localization and distribution services company, Myers says his team even went so far as to adapt the translated dialogue to better match the actors’ lip movements as they delivered the dialogue in English to the screen.
The availability of the Comanche-language version is “one of the beauties of being able to stream a movie,” says Myers, and “only adds to the authenticity. For my tribe, we’ve never run an entire movie in our language. Just for native tribes in general, we’ve never had a brand new movie come out with an option to watch it in their real language.