Welcome to My Story, our weekly series dedicated to color creatives and their path to success.
For Michelle Latimer, who used to work at the TIFF box office to get passes to film during the festival, 2020 was a full circle moment. This year the filmmaker from Métis / Algonquin premiered two projects at TIFF: a documentary entitled Inconvenient Indianand CBC television series Scammers.
“Growing up, I saw very little, if any, of my experience accurately represented on screen. That’s one of the reasons why I do what I do, ”she says on the phone.
Latimer grew up in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and moved first to Montreal to study theater at Concordia University and later to Toronto to pursue an acting career. But she quickly felt dissatisfied with the stories she was telling and longed to find other ways to make a difference. When she saw that the ImagineNative film festival was offering a mentoring program for short films, she decided to exercise caution and make her own film.
“It changed my life,” she says. “I remember a mentor who said to me, ‘Your community is underrepresented in the media. You have a voice – don’t underestimate the impact you could have. ‘”
That was in 2007 and now, over a decade later, Michelle Latimer is still going strong. We caught up with them to find out more Scammers, a supernatural television series based on a best-seller by Eden Robinson; her latest documentary Inconvenient Indianwho studies the cultural colonization of the indigenous people in North America; the need for more contemporary indigenous stories on screen and more.
You have been in the industry for over a decade. How have things changed over time in terms of the types of indigenous stories that are told?
We’ve seen a lot more filmmakers get into independent cinema through things like ImagineNative that I started with, but it’s still difficult for those voices to transition into mainstream cinema or television. Our show Scammers It is the first time the CBC has green-lit a show taken from an indigenous woman’s novel and created by indigenous peoples. I think we are slowly changing [on-screen] Representation, but it’s after hundreds of years of misrepresentation, from the days of cowboy western films to the horror trope with Indian burial sites and shaman vision quests and so on. This type of misrepresentation is quite harmful to a community. I think Aboriginal people are seen and accepted a lot in the mainstream media set in the past. A safe abstraction of a romanticized native on horseback, shall we say. But we are seldom seen as contemporary individuals dealing with contemporary struggles in a modern world. And I think it’s really important to see such a representation. Because we did not exist in the past, we exist now and our cultures are adaptable and flexible and we need to see reflections on them.
You described Scammers as “indigenous Gothic horror”. Can you explain that in more detail?
The show is a coming-of-age story, except the difference is Jared [the main character] sees visions that he believes may be due to some congenital mental illness he fears from his mother, or that he is simply partying too hard and having to put the sauce down. But he quickly realizes that the visions are indeed the result of a legacy. For me this is really a metaphor for ideas around assimilation and identity politics. Jared is a young indigenous man. He is not particularly politicized, even though he lives in a community where the largest infrastructure project is a pipeline. He’s just trying to make ends meet, and in a way, he just wants to be “normal” and fly under the radar and adapt. But he realizes that he can only move forward positively if he accepts who he is and understands where he comes from – he’s not just a homogenized child, he comes from a really specific place. I think it’s this lovely metaphor for issues related to assimilation and colonization, and the genre provides an accessible way to easily address some of these deeper issues.
The show contains elements of magical realism and also comes from Haisla folklore. Can you tell us about it?
I think the specificity of storytelling is really important. Eden [Robinson] is Haisla-Heiltsuk and Jared too. In the Haisla tradition, the trickster stories are usually articulated in the shape of a raven. We believe our stories are in the country. We didn’t write things in books, our culture is an oral storytelling culture, and the country itself contains the stories. Our past is in our stories, but so is our future. It’s not a separate thing. In the present, our ancestors go with us, but how we tell our stories and what we share and what we perpetuate becomes the future we move into. With the stories we write our future in a way. It’s important to see the story as a living thing, not something that’s in the past, but something that adapts and changes depending on who the storyteller is and how the listener picks up the story and then promotes it .
You recently mentioned in a virtual panel that you relied on a document from the Indigenous Screen Office that contains recommendations on working in indigenous communities, as people from different indigenous nations have worked on this project. Can you tell us more about it?
The Pathways and Protocols document was produced by the Indigenous Screen Office with the help of ImagineNative and a few other partners, I believe. It was modeled after a similar document used in Australia and describes how both indigenous and non-indigenous peoples can work with indigenous communities in a healthy and balanced way. What stopped me from doing this is the idea of meaningful advice and discussion about what the community wants, so it’s not just extractive. We cannot go in and pull out what we want and benefit from it. How do we create an infrastructure and partnership within the community so that a meaningful dialogue takes place? I don’t want to co-opt someone else’s story. I think it’s really important that they are asked to participate in the storytelling. How do we do that? I think at its core it’s about getting involved in this community, inviting them into the process and getting them to make the story, create it, and create it from scratch.
In your documentation Inconvenient IndianThey show that the current generation of young indigenous peoples is focused on regaining their identity and embracing their cultural traditions. Have you seen this often in your own social circles?
In the documentary, we show filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril getting face tattoos, and I think she really hit the nail on the head when she said that there is intergenerational trauma to reclaiming these cultural practices. That’s because our grandparents were put in residential schools and so shamed, and so was the middle generation [caught] in trauma of it, and now our generation is doing these things, but it’s hard for them to watch us do these things because they have been so ashamed of them. I am very excited about the next generation emerging behind me because that way they don’t really have the same shame or responsibility to their parents. You can just go for it with no excuse, and I think that’s the next frontier. I think that’s where we’re going and that’s really exciting. There is energy in it.
There is a lot of discussion among color creatives 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 pigeonholed about some type of story to tell. What do you think about it?
I am referring to it. I think for any artist developing their voice it is really important to write about what you know and write or create from your authentic experience. But I think when artists grow and develop and mature, it’s really important that they can stretch in different directions. When I think of artists who say they don’t want to be pigeon-holed, they just don’t want a glass ceiling, they don’t want to be strapped into a box. It’s quite frustrating when you meet up with a broadcaster or someone who has a preconceived notion of what to do as an indigenous filmmaker. I think that should be left to the artist to decide. Because great creativity is based on curiosity and risk-taking, and I think that inevitably means that you sometimes move outside of yourself.