More Power To You: IDF and Indigenous Production in the West
For 20 years, Capilano University’s Indigenous Digital Filmmaking program has been quietly building capacity in BC’s Indigenous production community. We look back on its humble beginnings, and forward to a brilliant future taking shape.
If a university program can be described as “scrappy,” Capilano University’s Indigenous Digital Filmmaking (IDF) program certainly deserves the label. That’s partly because the adjective — in the sense of being determined to succeed — could also describe Doreen Manuel (Secwepemc/Ktunaxa), who was coordinator of the IDF program between 2006 and 2018.
Manuel, herself graduate of the program, is a force of nature who’s largely behind the success of both the IDF and many of its students. During her time as coordinator she worked tirelessly to build the program into the success it is today. Case in point: she once staged a sit-in in the university president’s office to demand better equipment for students. Manuel also runs a private fund to underwrite Indigenous film projects, she helps students fill out applications for financing, and she has established the Filmmakers in Indigenous Leadership & Management Business Affairs (FILMBA) training program in CapU’s Continuing Studies department.
“She fought and clawed and scraped to keep this program viable,” says the program’s current coordinator, Gregory Coyes (Métis/ Cree), of Manuel’s tenure as coordinator of IDF. “She was running fundraising initiatives off the side of her desk.”
While Manuel hasn’t held the coordinator role since 2018, she hasn’t gone anywhere, except a rung or two up the ladder. Today, she’s the director of Capilano University’s Bosa Centre for Film and Animation, which houses the IDF program as well as the university’s Motion Picture Arts (MOPA) program, the largest film program in western Canada. And the once-fledgling IDF is well positioned to amplify a boom in Indigenous production, in the west and across Canada.
“Now I tell our incoming students, ‘You’ve stepped in at the perfect time,’” says Coyes. “We’re exploding.”
IDF has been nurturing that sense of promise since its earliest days, though the landscape was quite different in the beginning. The idea for the program was born in 1999, when Television Northern Canada (TVNC) — an Aboriginal programming network that had been beaming its signal across the territories and the provinces’ far northern areas since 1992 — applied to the CRTC to establish a national network. The application was successful, and TVNC rebranded as the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN).
Recognizing that a national Indigenous network would require more Indigenous film and television technicians, the CRTC seconded an English broadcast professional named Peter Crass from the government of the Northwest Territories, where he was director of information networks.
Crass’s first order of business was to find a home for the program. After knocking on several doors, he found what looked like an ideal fit. North Vancouver’s Capilano College (as CapU was then called), situated on unceded Coast Salish Peoples territory, offered several advantages: its location in a major production centre, plus the city’s unbeatable sea-and-mountains combo. Best of all, the school was already running a highly successful film program in MOPA.
But IDF, then called the Aboriginal Film and Television Program, was an underdog from the start. It was initially offered as a summer course, so that its students could make use of the school’s film equipment in MOPA’s “offseason.” Crass designed as comprehensive a program as he could — it covered writing, producing, shooting and editing — to fit the compressed timeline.
“It was, at times, very much seat-of-the pants. But it was fun because of it, too,” Crass chuckles.
One area in which Crass was determined for the program to shine was in the quality of its instructors — all of them Indigenous. According to Crass, it wasn’t difficult. “There were a lot of talented people already working in the industry,” he notes. He brought in professionals like George Henry, Tookie Mercredi, Brenda Chambers, Jordan Wheeler, Abraham Tagalik, Jeff Bear — even the legendary documentarian Alanis Obomsawin, who delivered a guest lecture while on a trip to BC.
“The fact that they were all Indigenous people leading the classes was very encouraging for the students,” says Crass, who also started an internship program to help connect students to jobs in the industry.
Helen Haig-Brown (Tsilhqot’in) was one of the first graduates of the program after it made a switch from summer program to two-year program in the early 2000s, a move that Manuel says helped IDF transition from “a hobby course to more of a professional program, requiring a deeper commitment.” Haig-Brown has since made a name for herself with films like the documentary My Legacy, the sci-fi Tsilhqot’in legend The Cave and, most recently, the world’s first Haida-language film, Edge of the Knife (2018), which she co-directed with Haida artist Gwaai Edenshaw. The film dramatizes a classic Haida story about a man, tormented by guilt, who escapes into the wild and becomes Gaagiixiid, the wildman. Executive produced by groundbreaking Inuit filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk (and distributed by Kunuk’s Isuma Productions), Edge of the Knife won many deserved accolades upon its release, including best Canadian film at VIFF and TIFF’s Top Ten list of Canadian films. It also won the Sun Jury Prize at the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival.
“Initially, I was just in the program as an activist filmmaker, wanting to make films that would act as catalysts for conversation in my community,” says Haig-Brown of her time at CapU. “I was basically like, ‘Show me the record button and don’t tell me much else.’ But what was beautiful was as I started to learn more about filmmaking, the more I started to fall in love with the art of it.”
She credits instructors like Loretta Todd, whose “mind-blowing” course helped her think through the challenges of adapting cultural histories for the screen, for helping set her on her current path: creating meticulously researched narrative films that illuminate her nation’s culture and history. She’s currently deep in pre-production on a feature film about the 1864 Tsilhqot’in War.
Peter Crass will tell you that he asked for the secondment that placed him at the helm of IDF — he wanted that job. He will also tell you that it was always his intention to hand over the reins of the program, which he did after several years, to Manuel’s predecessor Jackson Crick (Tsilhqot’in).
What exactly sets IDF apart? Why start up a specifically Indigenous film program instead of, say, encouraging and incentivizing Indigenous students to attend existing programs?
“The difference was spelled out by quite a few students during my time,” explains Crass. “We thought that it would add to the future success of the students if they saw Indigenous people who were already doing what they wanted to do. And I believe we were right.”
“Having an Indigenous program — a program that’s Indigenous led, managed, thought about — those things are really, really powerful,” says Haig-Brown. “That program is continually thinking about what’s happening contemporarily in Indigenous film culture, and asking how we can keep supporting and guiding that.
Doreen Manuel points out that, as an educator, “I teach as much through role modelling as I do through lecturing. That’s how we as Indigenous teach.” As for the lecturing part, in her time as coordinator, Manuel applied decolonization methodologies to the IDF curriculum — encouraging students to voice their feelings about their relation to the colonial system, and to engage in constructive dialogue about it within the classroom. In her own survey courses, Manuel has taught the parallel arcs of Canadian colonial history and film history, and why and how Indigenous people were excluded from many aspects of Canadian culture — including the film industry.
It’s this historical exclusion that makes Indigenous narrative sovereignty all the more urgent. Says Manuel: “Indigenous people need to tell the stories. Without them, you’re never going to get that true authentic lens. We have been separated from our power for so long — with the residential schools and the oppression and the smallpox and all of those things. We must now be empowered to tell our own stories.”
It starts with the story, but training Indigenous crew matters too: “We will film fires and trees and mountains differently, because those are our relatives,” says Manuel.
IDF’s broad-based, hands-on curriculum — which covers everything from screenwriting to documentary production to lighting and sound — is not designed to simply turn out fully formed film and television professionals within two years. Rather, the program helps students imagine where and how they might take their place as storytellers within their own communities.
Jessie Anthony (Haudenosaunee), who graduated from IDF in 2017 before completing two more years in CapU’s MOPA program, knew from a young age that she wanted to be in film — she wanted to be an actor. She bobbed around in different theatre programs in Ontario before landing on the west coast, in Vancouver Film School’s acting stream. It was there she kept hearing about the importance of creating her own work, and her research into Indigenous film opportunities led to her discovery of IDF. “How did I miss this?” she wondered at the time.
Anthony claims she didn’t know what she was getting into with IDF, but she was excited by the prospect of “getting my hands on all aspects of filmmaking.” By her second year, she was in deep: she did an eight-week internship with NBCUniversal at Vancouver Film Studios and surprised herself by realizing she wanted to work as an assistant director. She also started writing her first feature and began the process of applying to Telefilm’s Talent to Watch program.
“Each class had something new to offer that I didn’t know was tangible at the time,” she explains. “I didn’t know how intrigued I would be about starting something from scratch and that I’d love understanding how my creative ideas could transfer to film. So I ended up getting a 4.0 GPA, and I was engaged, and we were doing check-in circles, and I didn’t have to explain who I was as an Indigenous woman. There was a sense of familiarity and connectivity already in the room, and, yeah, I was in BC — the mountains and ocean that I used to colour as a child.”
With Manuel as her application partner, Anthony received Telefilm funding for her first feature, Brother, I Cry (2020), which she shot in a whirlwind 18 days. The story is a deeply personal one, about a young Indigenous man’s struggle to escape his addictions and the warrants out on him. “I wrote it for my brother. I wrote it for my community,” says Anthony. “That’s what makes my story an Indigenous story on screen.” (The film has since won Anthony the British Columbia Emerging Filmmaker Award at VIFF, the Audience Choice Award at imagineNATIVE, and Best Writing in a Motion Picture and Best Directing in a Motion Picture at the Leo Awards, BC’s Oscars.)
The centrality of community is arguably the strongest thread weaving together disparate Indigenous screen stories. Haig-Brown explains: “When we make a film, we’re always doing it for the community. We don’t choose between making a film for the community or making it for festivals — it’s always and. That’s the fence line we’re walking as Indigenous filmmakers.” (Her film Edge of the Knife was particularly community oriented, having been developed, translated, acted and more by members of the Haida nation in Haida Gwaii, as part of a language revitalization initiative. There are currently only 24 native Haida speakers.)
Community is big at IDF, too. Gregory Coyes explains that applicants to the program who do not have a status card or a Métis card are asked to tell “the story of their family and how that story is related to their community. We welcome them into the program if they are able to conclusively tell us that story.” In the introductory documentary class he teaches, Coyes’s first assignment to his students is a PowerPoint presentation that tells that very story: “In the Native way, you should know that story well. Who is your family? Who is your community? How are they related?”
By no coincidence, IDF also forges its own lasting community among students and instructors — through shared learning, talking circles and collaborative projects. Haig-Brown says that IDF was “integral to my career: not only in the skills that gave me a foundation, but also those relationships. My classmates and I went into the industry together, we lived close to each other, we shot for each other.”
“Community also gets each other jobs,” Anthony adds with a laugh. “I can’t remember the last time I sent out a resumé.”
Coyes remembers a time, before APTN, before IDF, when there was “just so little call for Indigenous content.” He worked on the first Canadian Indigenous animation series, he worked on the first Canadian Indigenous newsmagazine, but “it was so rare to find a platform where there was actually interest in the programming.”
By all accounts, that is changing — and changing quickly now. APTN continues to commission series work annually; web series continue to thrive; the number of Indigenous-made films continues to rise. And people are watching.
On the west coast alone, recent feature films like The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (co-written and co-directed by Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers), Kayak to Klemtu (directed by Zoe Hopkins), and, of course, Edge of the Knife and Brother, I Cry have opened to wide acclaim. There are also other IDF graduates — Petie Chalifoux, Jay Cardinal Villeneuve and more — whose names you may not yet know, but who are beginning to make waves as well.
Is the growing popularity of Indigenous-made cinema due to the fact that non-Indigenous audiences are finally opening themselves to meaningful conversations on decolonization and historical trauma? The ongoing tragic discoveries of “the graves of the babies and the children” (as Coyes puts it) on the grounds of former residential schools has certainly sparked empathy among many Canadians, as well as a deepening desire to understand how we got here and how we can work toward reconciliation. After all, according to Coyes, “decolonization is not just for Indigenous people. We’re all colonized. There are potential benefits for everyone to embrace that.”
Perhaps that’s part of it. The harrowing discoveries have without a doubt intensified the call for narrative sovereignty — a recognition that Indigenous people need to be empowered to tell their own stories their own way, unfiltered through a settler lens, however well-meaning.
But there are certainly other factors at play. “Interesting stories are interesting stories, and I think people are just happy to partake in them,” suggests Haig-Brown. “The problem with gatekeeping is that it creates a fallacy of marketability and worth: the powers that be assume their worldview is the objective worldview, and that nobody would want to watch stories from a different perspective. And they’re usually proved wrong.”
Thank goodness for the gate crashers, then. Haig-Brown continues, “I’m blown away by how fast Indigenous film is growing. And not only the growth, but also all the doors that are opening, and the room that is starting to be given, because of all the people who are working really hard to make that happen.” She lists artists like director and screenwriter Danis Goulet, and organizations like the Indigenous Screen Office. “And I think there is just really incredible talent; there always has been. The Indigenous art of storytelling is very, very old, and there’s always been something magical within the stories. That magic has just been adapted into film.”
“The more students that take the [IDF] program, with the opportunities that are coming up and the room that is being made, you could crew a whole Indigenous production for sure,” says Anthony. But it’s important, she notes, that more Indigenous people learn to be producers. “There is currently no 100% Indigenous-owned Canadian production company that I’m aware of operating at a level that allows it to option big-budget projects and trigger funding, and that’s not okay◊,” she says. She wants to see many Indigenous-owned production companies at that level, giving producers leverage to make final decisions on their own productions — to give, for example, “talented Indigenous women working their butts off in writing rooms” the opportunity to be showrunners. There are still many barriers that need dismantling.
For her part, Manuel will keep fighting for more space for Indigenous creators and crew in BC’s film industry, whether that’s via increased union representation or more opportunities for mentorship. She suggests that all producers “who enjoy living on all of these Indigenous territories across Canada” set themselves “a goal of a percentage of Indigenous people to hire and mentor and bring along. Insist on a certain number of Indigenous crew on your show.”
Given the favourable cultural winds — and the relentless advocacy work by Doreen Manuel and other champions of Indigenous film — it’s reasonable to be optimistic about IDF’s future. Coyes certainly is.
“We’re still a small program,” he says. (The program currently accepts approximately a dozen students a year.) “But I’m determined to grow it. I believe there is going to be more and more demand for Indigenous story and Indigenous voice, and that’s what we specialize in. Training that voice, training that vision, and training the techniques that allow all of those things to come together in outstanding programming for the world.”
That means that Indigenous communities on the west coast and all over Canada should look forward to more stories being made for them by the creators they call their own. Lucky for the rest of us, we get to listen in.