In his award-winning documentary Reel Injun, Neil Diamond takes a humorous and insightful look at Hollywood’s portrayal of North American Aboriginal people. The B&W film clips of non-native actors with brown make-up playing Indians in fictional stories created by writers and directors who have probably never known Aboriginal people are reminders that all is not right in movie-land. Even with the recent Hollywood trend towards films with multi-dimensional, sympathetic Aboriginal characters (Dances With Wolves, Flags of our Fathers) it is still evident that American filmmakers believe they are doing Aboriginal people a favour by giving us bigger talking roles. The mythical Indian is still alive and well in Hollywood (see the “Twilight” films for proof).
By the end of the 20th century it was evident that if someone was going to change the way the mainstream film industry portrayed Aboriginal people on screen, it would take a real Indian to do it. The breakthrough came with Smoke Signalswritten by Spokane/Coeur d’Alene writer Sherman Alexie and directed by Cheyanne/Arapaho Chris Eyre. Since that time, there have been only a handful of theatrical releases written or directed by Aboriginals — Whalerider (based on a book by Maori writer Witi Ihimaera), Boy (written and directed by Maori Taika Waititi and New Zealand’s biggest grossing film in history) and Atanarjuat (written and directed by Inuit filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk). Atanarjuat was the highest grossing non-French film in Canada in 2002 and won the Camera d’Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
It’s time for broadcasters and distributors to get behind more Aboriginal written and directed feature films in Canada. It’s clear from films like Whale Rider and Atanarjuat that there is an enthusiastic international audience for indigenous stories. We clearly need some champions within the industry to get our films financed, made and into the mainstream film market.