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CIFF 2021: Industry Week highlights documentary filmmakers

By Rachneet Randhawa, November 12 2021—

This year, the Calgary International Film Festival (CIFF) saved you a seat to their first-ever Industry Week event which ran from Sept. 23–26. Industry Week invited those in the film, TV and adjacent industries to mix, mingle, celebrate and learn and included everything from conversations with visionary filmmakers.

The Gauntlet attended a handful of these live events including “DCG Visionaries: Documentary Filmmakers” featuring directors Elle-Maija Tailfeathers, Jennifer Holness, Nadine Pequeneza and the host Laura O’Grady from Snapshot Studios, to learn more. 

For starters, the filmmakers were asked about their inspirations behind wanting to create these films. Tailfeathers’ documentary Kimmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy features the opioid crisis on the Kainai First Nation of Alberta reserve, and said it was inspired by her mother who is also a physician and plays one of the central characters in the film. The film is largely seen from her perspective as she struggles to find solutions for community mobilization. 

“In terms of the personal aspect of it, I think it just has to do with the fact that I’ve been so close with my mother and she’s on the front lines and she served as one of the vessels for the story,” said Tailfeathers. 

As Indigenous filmmaker storytelling is a medium that utilizes film to speak to these controversial issues, unsurprisingly, there are still a lot of biases she has witnessed as a filmmaker. 

“Generally, in the documentary world, there’s been this long history of extractive storytelling where people from outside of the community come in, tell a story that they think is important without really giving back to the community or offering any sort of form of reciprocity in that story theme,” says Tailfeathers. “And so when it comes to telling a story from within our own community, we don’t have the luxury of just walking away. This is my community. This is my family. And I have a duty to do well by my community and a duty to instill a Blackfoot way of telling stories like that with the community.” 

The theme of Kimmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy focuses on the opioid crisis and having a substance use disorder as an Indigenous person. 

“I felt like the journey itself was one of the learning on my part,” says Tailfeathers. “Harm reduction is something that’s very impressive in the general population, as well as within indigenous communities. And so, as a filmmaker, I had this very steep learning curve in terms of understanding what harm reduction is.” 

Tailfeathers spoke about a moment from the film that highlights the similarities between harm reduction and Indigenous Ways of Knowing, specifically within the Blackfoot community. 

“As you see very early on in the film, there’s this moment where a group of women [who] all work in health care, came out to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside to learn from harm reduction service providers,” says Tailfeathers. “And there’s this beautiful catalyst for our community’s understanding of what our harm reduction is. There’s this moment in the film in which Dr. Esther Tailfeathers [Tailfeathers’ mother] has this epiphany where she realizes that the core battles of harm reduction, which is to have empathy for people who live with substance use disorder, are in line with this Blackfoot value which means that we take care of each other that we have compassion and empathy for those who are suffering or who are in positions of power. And so it’s a survival tool and has been for our community for a very long time.” 

Tailfeathers emphasized that it was a beautiful journey in understanding harm reduction and having empathy for those with a substance use disorder. Tailfeathers thought it was necessary to get a diverse palette of experiences and include as many voices in the conversation as possible for change to happen when it comes to harm.  

“It was profound to be able to turn away from a history of shame and stigma because that only kills.” 

Tailfeathers also spoke about harm reduction services in Alberta, and the decision made by the provincial government to closed down the supervised consumption site in Lethbridge. 

“The supervised consumption site in Lethbridge was closed down by the Kenny government, and ever since, the Kanai Nation has experienced the highest number of deaths due to overdose or drug poisoning which directly correlates with the closure of the site,” says Tailfeathers. “The Kenny government has also cut funding to numerous harm reduction services across the province and that kills those who’ve lost lives because of that. If we take this empathetic approach towards people with substance use disorder, particularly Indigenous people who have experienced colonization and continue to experience the harms of colonization, we can change this current situation that we live in and forward together in a better way.”

Tailfeathers herself got her start as a filmmaker after leaving an unsuccessful acting career behind and what she described as being disappointing and racialized as an Indigenous woman. While taking Indigenous Studies at the University of British Columbia, she made her first short film and from there, her love of making documentary films took off as an agency of storytelling. 

Mostly, Tailfeathers finds filmmaking to be a very privileged industry as that privilege allows you to access resources. 

“It’s about providing resources in general, which is not a lack of talent within the industry or within the broader public. It’s just a lack of opportunity,” she says. “It also involves very tangible things like shifting policy and making sure that there’s a certain amount of funding that’s earmarked for filmmakers from marginalized communities.”

Subjects of Desire explores the culture shift in Noth American beauty standards toward embracing Black female aesthetics and centres around the Miss Black America Pageant which celebrates Black beauty unapologetically. As for director Jennifer Holness’s inspiration for her documentary, it was her teenage daughters. 

“I sat down with the girls and had this really candid conversation. And then discovered, though, in spite of the fact that this sort of interest, the strange sensations happening, they also had this really deep sense of self-hatred,” she says. “As Black women, growing up in Canada, and just living life, just really cognizant of the narratives that have been around that essentially steal our power and leave us very small and keep us outside of some of the spaces that we would like to be into.”

Holness highlights the idea of women sticking to their power and what that meant in particular for Black women. The way Black women are properly perceived connotes a level of power which was something that was denied to Black women historically. For example, stereotypes or falsified perceptions that Black women feel pain differently from other women, or the government claiming the fact that Black women are ten times more likely to die in childbirth

Holness herself had spent nearly four years for the total production of the film after being inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement in 2017 — the end product of which ended up premiering at the South by Southwest Film Festival. When asked about the most important aspect of writing a documentary, Holness mentioned that it’s all about research and in her case to secure the funds, archives and having quality visual materials with powerful images is crucial.

For Pequeneza’s documentary The Last of the Right Whales, she was inspired by the headlines in 2017 that read that whales were dying in Canada in St. Lawrence waters — the culprit being big vessel strikes. She also found  that whales were either being run over by these ships or entangled in fishing gear and that for the first time this animal was facing extinction. 

She mentioned that there are only 360 of these animals left in the North Atlantic from Florida to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and scientists have been following them since the 1930s. 

“I wanted to share so that people can start to understand because these deaths were preventable,” she says. “And when all those whales died, it really galvanized the movement to save the species — and not just from the perspective of biologists or ecologists that you would normally find in that space but also fishermen. I wanted to allow people to see that fishermen also are conservationists.” 

As for the technicalities of the film, Pequeneza referred to her composer, Deanna H. Choi, who was able to truly understand the voice of the whales and the sounds they were making which made it possible for the whales to have a unique personality that is individualized. The editor, James Yates, had also wanted the whales to be more than just animals but real characters. 

The film took nearly six years to make, including the long delay from COVID closures. When asked about the most important aspect of writing a documentary, Pequeneza mentioned that by putting together a well-thought-out proposal, things change regardless of when you’re out in the field shooting the scenes so it’s a matter of adapting the storyline. 

“That writing process for me is about getting to understand the issue, nor the subject, nor the characters, spending a lot of time speaking with the characters, people that you want to fill in the participants, whose voices you want in the film and writing it and trying to feel your way through how that narrative is going to flow. And then be prepared to change it all.”

Alongside the film, there is also an impact campaign to help save the whales. 

“We all want to change the way people think about things in the way they see things,” says Pequeneza. “And documentary films do that really well. And the impact campaign is just basically helping them along.”

DCG Visionaries: Documentary Filmmakers was part of a series of live panels for the CIFF 2021 Industry Week programming. Be sure to check out these filmmakers including Elle-Maija Tailfeathers, Jennifer Holness and Nadine Pequeneza by watching their respective feature films and their socials.

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