This interview was originally conducted in December 2017 in conjunction with Queen’s University, an institution that stands on traditional Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee territory. Caitie Annear and Claire Gray are non-Indigenous graduates of Queen’s University. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Michelle Latimer is an Algonquin-Métis filmmaker, producer, writer, and curator whose work has been screened at film festivals across the world. Her work focuses on issues of Indigenous activism, politics, and feminisms. RISE, Latimer’s eight-part miniseries on VICE about contemporary Indigenous communities in the Americas that are resisting colonialism, premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Her film Nuuca also premiered at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. Her previous work includes Choke (2011), Alias (2012), and Nimmikaage (2015). Her next project is an adaptation of Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian for HBO. You can find her on Twitter and on her website.
We spoke to Latimer about the first two episodes of RISE (centred on Indigenous activists present at Standing Rock) and her role as an Indigenous filmmaker and activist.
Reel Honey: It’s such an honour to be speaking with you, thank you. We know how busy you are—didn’t you just finish filming a project yesterday?
Michelle Latimer: Yes, I was out west, working on a project on the Kinder Morgan. People are organizing against the pipeline. It’s not RISE but it is with VICE—a separate documentary on the legacy of the Manuel family and the organization against the Kinder Morgan pipeline as a result.
RH: How did that go? Can you share any of your experiences there with us?
ML: It’s just the beginning of a larger documentary that looks at the organization against the Kinder Morgan pipeline, but through the eyes of the Manuel family. Arthur Manuel being obviously the famous resistance leader and the writer of the Manifesto for Reconciliation—I think that was the last book he wrote before he passed away—and his daughter Kanahus Manuel, a well-known front line warrior who fought the extraction process, was involved in the uprising against the Sun Peaks ski resort in Kamloops, and is heading the Tiny House Warriors project. She and I met when we were in Standing Rock, she was a Red Warrior there. I really want to show that people think Standing Rock is an isolated incident, but it’s sort of the epitome of this generation’s movement, the culmination of resistance up to now. A lot of people—non-Native people—see Standing Rock as a loss because it ended up going through, but actually what it did was unite a lot of people across Indian country. What we’re seeing now against the Kinder Morgan, Enbridge Line Three, [and] Energy East are those people that came together and basically learned from those experiences in Standing Rock. What’s unique about the BC situation is that the territory was never treatied, so the First Nations people there have more agency to fight for the lands that were never given over, signed over to the government.
RH: We can really see how Standing Rock increased connections and networking, and how it made the resistance stronger because of it: there are more people to go to, more projects to spread out to.
ML: Yes, absolutely.
RH: Moving back a bit, just about your show RISE: It’s absolutely amazing. The call to activism that RISE provides is inspiring to the both of us and countless others—we read that RISE is one of the highest-rated shows on VICELAND and watched countless panels with people saying great things about you and your work. We were wondering who your inspirations were regarding your filmmaking and your activism?
ML: Well, those are separate things that happened to come together. I don’t think I consciously saw filmmaking as activism, I saw it as a way to help, but it’s become an outlet for the things I’m most concerned and angry about. As far as filmmakers I think are artful, you know, Peter Metler, Michel Gondry, Steve McQueen, [Bernardo] Bertolucci. In terms of the activism side, that’s always been there. I’ve always appreciated the artist activists—Kent Monkman, Lee Maracle, people who have used art as a way to speak about society. So for me it’s been less about the front line hard-core activism, because there’s so many people involved in that, and more about artists’ interpretation of that and how they inspire people to take action in a way that’s more poetic and maybe a little more subtle.
RH: Yes! We love Steve McQueen! We understand what you’re saying about how you naturally fell into activism—being able to step away from politics and to say that activism is a choice, that’s a point of privilege many people don’t have, especially concerning the pipeline. When you’re filming RISE, it’s very clear that you and your team don’t ever take a detached standpoint. You put yourself at the front lines of potentially very dangerous situations. Did you find that the camera helped you get closer to the action, and what was your decision process in regards to turning it on and off?
ML: Yes, it allows me to get close to the action because it gives me something to focus on, particularly in high-tension situations—front line stuff, where there’s a lot of police and violence. I find if I’m just standing there, I have a kind of nervous energy that can be very counterproductive. I find it takes a certain kind of calm and centredness to keep a level head in that situation, and the camera helps me [with] that. But I also have to be aware that the camera is considered a weapon of war in those situations, and law enforcement—certainly in Standing Rock—were targeting people with cameras. They did not want us to be there, they did not want those images out in the world, so being aware that that’s a really powerful tool and you will be targeted because you’re holding it.
What was my process in regards to turning the camera on and off? I usually look to the storytellers to dictate when to turn the camera on and off, like in times of ceremony or intense discussion or intimacy. I always respect people’s wishes around that, and how they want their image and their story out in the world. But the other question is—well, I’m not a person who is filming every minute of every day, I’m really selective with what I shoot, and that comes from knowing what the point is. What are you trying to say in the scene? I remember I was doing [Alias], a film about rappers in Toronto and we were at this party, and people were like, “Let’s just film the whole thing, all night!” And it’s like, as the night goes on, things get ramped up a bit, there’s more alcohol, more drugs, more violence, people have weapons strapped to them. So just, what’s the point? What are we there to get? I was there for that scene, to show the camaraderie around the music, and once I get that scene and hit those dramatic points, I can leave. Whatever happens after might be interesting for some people, but that’s not the film I’m making. So it’s knowing what you’re going in there to get, and being aware of that before you start. But I think it’s also about being open, because that’s when something will surprise you, and that’s what’s beautiful about documentaries. So directing, but also being open.
RH: We watched Alias, it’s awesome. We were both very moved by it, and actually we saw this powerful video of you speaking at the ImagineNATIVE Film Festival about trust building and the cast and crew of Alias. As you said, you were filming in very high-pressure circumstances. We wondered, did you use that same process in the development of RISE? How did you find approaching people with your camera and did you have to build their trust in the same way?
ML: For sure. The thing with something like RISE is that you have to be there. You have to be there to build that trust. We also had a research team for RISE that started weeks in advance. Nikki Sanchez was one of our researchers—she’s Indigenous and she spent a lot of time on the phone with people, talking to people and building that trust—so that next step was to take over from where she left off. So a lot of it is being on the ground; we had a lot of people on our crew who were Indigenous, because when you’re dealing with people who are marginalized or in an Indigenous community, it really helps that it’s Indigenous people who are telling those stories because we’ve had so many non-Indigenous people get it wrong. And understanding of process! Indigenous filmmaking is different [from] non-Indigenous filmmaking. There’s time and protocols and ceremonies that are undertaken, consulting with elders, community permissions, and a whole host of things that come into play when you’re filming in Indigenous communities that should be abided by.
RH: We’ve been learning in class the importance of Indigenous processes. We were talking about Michelle Raheja’s “visual sovereignty,” and how in both RISE and your short film Nimmikaage you re-appropriated those colonial images. How did that feel to take that back? It’s extremely effective.
ML: You know, it’s funny—I had a filmmaker say to me, Jesse Wente actually—how we put things in a film that are just for us, not for a non-Indigenous audience, it’s just for us, these little moments. And that’s what that is. Like the Palestinian flag in the second episode of RISE, that’s sort of just for us. Palestinians and some people will notice it, but it gave me great joy to put that in because it is about land sovereignty, those boundaries, and what does it look like when your land is occupied? There are just some things that tickle me to be able to do that. It’s visual, and when you have that kind of subtlety, saying something without words, it can go very deep and penetrate and can almost be pervasive, which I really love. I mean, we’re in a really visual culture, and I think it’s sometimes easy to forget that, but there’s real power to our environment and the visualization of our environment. That’s why I love filmmaking so much. And in terms of looking at Nimmikaage, Nimmikaage is a word in Ojibwe that means, “She dances for the people” or “She dances for her people.” And I find that interesting, because dancing for the people can be looked at as like, something to be observed, something to be objectified, something for other people’s pleasure. But to dance for her people is to dance for ceremony, the sun dance, to dance for the prayer, to dance for the resilience of the people, to dance for vitality. So it’s like a double entendre, which I really love.
In terms of the images, it’s really interesting when I went through NFB archives because part of that was a commission for the PanAm Games and I almost turned it down because I was so upset about the gold being provided for the medals—it has huge human rights atrocities, particularly in Indigenous communities. But then I looked and said, ‘You know, I’m going to make the best of it and see what I can do with what is there and actually make a political statement.’ And I started to go through the NFB footage and it’s incredible to me, the gaze, the feeling of the gaze. In my film, it’s a lot of Arctic images, because that’s where a lot of the Canadian filmmakers went at the time, especially Québec filmmakers, and the gaze is really—you can feel it! I had to go through hundreds of hours of footage to find the last images of that film, where the women are staring down the barrel of the camera, because they’re almost non-existent. Those were the best images I could find out of hundreds of hours of NFB archives, because mostly the camera was looking at women and girls when they were not aware or they were being objectified, so I really had to search for those images where the women are looking, and it’s almost like they’re implicating the viewer.
RH: Absolutely, we saw that.
ML: Yeah, and I think there’s a lot to be said about that. For me there’s a real correlation—we’re at this moment in time today, with resource extraction and land occupation, and the attitude of violence against women and how women have been treated through society in order to take over land, in order to occupy, in order to colonize. Women have been at the centre of this fight from the very beginning. There were marriages that were procured in order to take land, women were stolen and raped in order to take land, in order to affect the reproduction rates of communities—we still see this in underdeveloped nations, but it’s still happening here, too. The prevailing attitude of women being a thing to be possessed and controlled, and the violence that’s enacted to get to that point, those attitudes are what have allowed us to get to the kind of pervasive extraction that we see today on our land. These are not two separate ideas; they’re related and interconnected, and my work has been moving more in that direction lately, with Nimmikaage and my new film that’s going to be at Sundance, Nuuca—that’s the word for “take”—which looks at how the oil industry has been affecting women and girls on reservation land where the oil is being taken from.
RH: That work sounds compelling; I know we’ll both be seeing that. You actually had two films premiere at ImagineNATIVE last year, Nuuca and one other as well, didn’t you?
ML: Yes, Kia Tau. I was invited to Māoriland Festival to participate in a Native slam, which is like a 72-hour film festival where they bring Indigenous people from all over the world and they’ve never met each other before, so we had one filmmaker from Burma, myself, and a Māori filmmaker, and we had three days to make a film and so Kia Tau was the film that was made in that program. It’s interesting because we had restrictions—it had to be made in an Indigenous language, we had to incorporate some dualities. We all brought our own Indigenous heritages, and came with that knowledge, and made our story based on that.
RH: You mentioned before the visuals of your work—we read the description on your website that calls your work “visual poems exploring humanity,” and in our class, we studied a lot about poetry and how poetry and cinema are very closely related. How does poetry influence your work?
ML: Well, someone wrote that about my work, I didn’t write that about my work. I think it was a critic or something, I think that would be a little embarrassing if I wrote that about myself. (Laughs) But it resonated for me because I really love poetry; it’s my favourite form of writing and I think it’s the distillation of ideas and the thematic approach—it’s metaphorical and thematic. What I love about thematic storytelling is that it doesn’t connect the dots for you; it gives you something that you can stretch your mind with and really connect the dots yourself. It is directed and it’s specific—obviously the author thought about theme—but there’s a space within the words that allows for your own thought process, for the reader to take in the idea. I think that’s what film does. Film is all about the space between ideas, it’s the space of images and visual processing of a story, and that’s what I think about it.
RH: You’ve said the reason you’re trying to move into more fictional work and fictional television is you want to make the field greater for Indigenous storytelling. We were wondering what that ideal future looks like to you?
ML: I just want to say, I do want to move into fictional storytelling, but my next big project is I’m adapting Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian into a feature documentary with HBO. And I do look at the story like, what is the theme asking for? What is the best way to tell the story? So sometimes documentary is the best way, and sometimes fiction is. One of my fiction films is based on a woman who’s in prison now—an Indigenous woman who’s a dangerous offender—and I don’t have access to her in prison. I can go visit her, but I can’t have a camera, I can’t interview her, so I had to fictionalize that story. In a case like that, logistics and life dictated how I would tell that story. In terms of your question, how to make the field wider for Indigenous filmmakers, I think that a lot of times, especially now where there’s a whole conversation happening around appropriation, people see that, okay, it’s an Indigenous story and it’s Indigenous questions, so [that often] relates to documentary because it’s real life, it’s sensitive—access is an issue. But I think you can broaden that point of view to fictional films, because we’ve always been storytellers, we come from a long ancestral line of storytellers. So wouldn’t it make sense that we will fictionalize our stories? A lot of our stories have mythology, have monsters, and things from other dimensions and realms—so fiction and science fiction and genre can be an amazing way to address those things and to bring those things into the storytelling.
I’ve often heard throughout my career, “Well, there aren’t any recognized Indigenous screenwriters, there aren’t any recognized Indigenous fiction filmmakers, we’ll get someone to write it but we’ll have to get a non-Indigenous person to direct it,” and I refuse to accept that anymore. An Indigenous film study from Telefilm, because Telefilm this year is launching its first Indigenous screen office—they have a French office and an English office and they’re going to introduce an Indigenous office. And when the study was done to assess whether or not they should open it, they were able to prove that Indigenous filmmakers on the short film circuit had some of the greatest numbers at international festivals: Berlin, Cannes, Sundance. We weren’t seeing that in other areas of filmmaking. On top of that, 70% of filmmakers in our community are women, which is completely against the odds in non-Indigenous communities, where there’s a very, very [small] amount of female filmmakers. There’s been all these initiatives to increase it, but that’s not what we’re seeing. So I think it’s really interesting, we’re seeing so much success internationally and we’re bringing Indigenous female filmmakers forward. It strikes me that they should have the same opportunities, if not better opportunities to make fictionalized feature film projects. So that’s what I’d like to see moving forward. And I’d just like to see there be a mentorship, for younger people to have access to these kinds of stories and to helm these kinds of stories that we want to tell in our community.
RH: On that, our last question for you is, do you have a piece of advice that you’d give to young Indigenous filmmakers?
ML: It would be the same as what I would say to any young filmmaker, basically just to keep your head down and do the work. It’s so easy, in this atmosphere, to be allowed to be egotistical. I’ve programmed for a lot of film festivals, and I’ve seen so many films where I’m like, ‘Why did this person make this? What’s the message, and why? Why are they the one to tell the story?’ And I think those are the questions you should be asking yourself as a filmmaker before you embark on any project. Why am I telling the story, why is it so important to me, and what am I trying to say? Ask yourself those questions, be really honest, and if you can’t answer those questions, then maybe—more often than not—it’s not your story to tell. Or maybe you need to do a little more digging before you tell it. Really, ask yourself the hard question: Why am I doing this? The second thing is just to have a place of solitude; for me, it’s going home to the land where I grew up. Where is the place where you can centre yourself? When everything is chaos around you—and it will get to that point—where can you go to really hear your own voice? You’re going to need to be able to listen to that inner voice, that inner pilot light, in order to keep going and to focus on the work you want to be doing.
RH: Wow, that’s a great answer… they’ve all been great answers! Thank you so much. This has been amazing.
ML: My pleasure. Thank you for showcasing the work, I really appreciate your support for my work. I appreciate what you guys are doing and I wish you all the best. Keep at it! We need more of our voices out there.