Jesse Wente poised to turn dialogue into action at Indigenous Screen Office

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TORONTO — As director of Canada’s fledgling Indigenous Screen Office, Jesse Wente has spent much of the past year travelling around the country, doing consultations for an initiative that’s seen as a game-changer in the film industry and beyond.

Now, he’s hoping to turn that dialogue into something tangible — including the creation of an actual office.

“If 2018 was a year of discussions, 2019 will hopefully be a bit more of a year of action,” Wente said in a recent interview, “of actually being able to do things, leveraging partnerships, leveraging some of those conversations into actual supports and programs and different initiatives.”

First announced by then-Heritage Minister Melanie Joly in June 2017, the ISO aims to support the development, production and marketing of Indigenous content.

Since Wente started his position on Feb. 1, 2018, the Toronto-based Indigenous rights activist, broadcaster and cultural critic has been meeting with unions, funders and municipal organizations — and with as much of the Indigenous screen sector as possible — in order to figure out how the ISO should operate.

That’s meant much time on the road, thousands of phone calls and thousands of emails — all with limited resources, no staff and no office.

He anticipates that will change in the coming months, when a small increase in funding will allow him to start hiring staff, first an administrative co-ordinator and then possibly a writer-researcher.

He also anticipates the ISO becoming incorporated, taking possession of a physical space and launching its website in 2019.

“I think, quite frankly, the entire sector will be better for this,” said the former director of film programs at TIFF Bell Lightbox, who is Ojibwe from the Serpent River First Nation in Ontario.

“Dollar for dollar, your investment will go farther investing in those that have been historically, systemically under-served, because they will deliver more.

“Talent is not the issue. Stories ideas? So not the issue. There’s an abundance of those things. It’s opportunity and access, that’s the issue.”

Based on similar Indigenous screen offices in countries including Australia, Canada’s ISO is a result of long-term advocacy on the part of the Indigenous screen sector.

Financial contributions have come from the Canada Media Fund, Telefilm Canada, the National Film Board of Canada, the CBC, the Canadian Media Producers Association and the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.

“I think a big opportunity for Canada on the global marketplace of cultural content is Indigenous peoples,” Wente said. “What is unique about this place? What are the unique stories about Canada? Do we really think the French and English is the most unique? Well, people speak French and English in a lot of other places than Canada.

“People only speak Anishinaabe or Haida or Inuktitut here. These stories are only here with these people. If you want original IP (intellectual property), maybe it doesn’t come from the traditional colonial communities. They’ve expressed their IP for a very long time.”

Wente said there are Indigenous productions on the horizon for 2019 and beyond “that will prove a little investment will yield significant results,” pointing to upcoming titles including Jeff Barnaby’s zombie film “Blood Quantum” and Loretta Todd’s “Monkey Beach,” an adaptation of Eden Robinson’s acclaimed novel.

“All you have to do is look at music awards and literary awards in Canada to know that just a small industrial investment into Indigenous creators will yield artists of the highest level,” Wente said.

Wente is on a two-year contract, which he imagines will comprise mostly of laying the foundation or “just digging the hole so that someone else can put the foundation in,” and also making the case for why the ISO should be further funded and permanent.

He’s been reporting to an advisory circle of 10 industry leaders in Canada, including Alanis Obomsawin, Danis Goulet, Amos Scott, and Jennifer Podemski.

Wente hopes the ISO will eventually have a staff base that’s geographically diverse, with about 12 to 14 employees in regional offices across the country.

He’s also been speaking with the Indigenous Screen Office in Australia, in the hopes of learning from what they’ve done but also what they regret not doing in their 25-year history.

“I’m really not looking to build what already exists in Canada,” Wente said.

“We don’t need another Telefilm or another CMF. We just need those organizations maybe to interact or engage with Indigenous creators differently than they do now.”

As in Australia, Wente would like to see Indigenous content more intertwined in Canada’s screen industry, with its filmmakers getting more investment so they can be known around the world, playing regularly at major festivals and winning global awards.

Marginalized communities like First Nations, Metis and Inuit need to gain entry into a film industry they’ve largely been outside of, and they also need support to stay there, said Wente. Meanwhile, the system needs to change so that it’s more diverse and not appropriative.

“The ISO can contribute to a budget,” Wente said, “which means that Indigenous creators aren’t systemically asked to take less, to do (more with less) — aren’t systemically asked to always prove themselves in order to get this when those systems don’t allow for the proving, even.”

Wente said he hopes other organizations won’t use the ISO as an excuse to disinvest from Indigenous creators or divest from engagement in their projects, but rather see the office as something that exists alongside the larger industry so that everyone has a stake in Indigenous projects.

But while the entire film community needs to be engaged in Indigenous cinema, Indigenous creators also need autonomy and narrative sovereignty on what stories get made, Wente said, noting Indigenous film should be defined by who’s making it and who’s owning it. And with the screen industry’s traditional business model breaking these days due to digital platforms, now is the perfect time to introduce new communities, new storytelling and new methods that the marketplace is looking for and the audience is craving, he added.

Wente notes marginalized screen communities have rarely had access to traditional distribution channels like TV and movie theatres, so they already embrace newer platforms like streaming services and YouTube.

Overall, the country needs to realize that if it wants to be a world leader, it should decolonize and embrace Indigenous creators like its filmmakers, “because this is the future,” said Wente.

“The Indigenous voice of Canada is only going to grow stronger, so it’s best culturally that we begin to understand that and embrace that and invite that in,” he said, pointing to the recent success of a plethora Indigenous artists, including Polaris Prize-winning musician Jeremy Dutcher.

“We might end up in a better place industrial-wise, culturally-wise, nationally, democratically, if we actually do this.”

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press


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