Terrific Wapikoni mobile benefit

Wapikoni mobile benefit - Samian

A few days ago I went to a terrific benefit concert for Wapikoni mobile at Club Soda in downtown Montreal. Some great artists, including Anishnabe rapper Samian, Inuit singer-songwriter Elisapie Isaac, singer-songwriter Richard Séguin and the immensely popular group Loco Locass put on a great show. (Photo by Guy Labissionnaire.)

I find Samian’s lyrics and performance extremely powerful. Normally one would say that art benefits from being subtle, exploring nuances and transposing its vision to something loftier than straight discourse. But Samian just calls a spade a spade, denouncing the conditions in aboriginal communities and government hypocrisy with total directness and a great deal of panache. And it works, artistically as well as editorially.

I have written about Wapikoni mobile before: it’s a really important project, praiseworthy even, a mobile video and music production studio for young aboriginal people. It has been in operation since 2004, allowing youth on reserves in Quebec to produce hundreds of short videos, many of them shown in festivals here and abroad. It’s an essential means of self-expression for young people who often face despair.

But Wapikoni mobile was hit hard by cutbacks by the federal Human Resources Department, losing $490,000, or half its funding, last year. Because of this, it was only able to take its mobile studios to seven communities rather than the regular fifteen last year. This was a huge disappointment to aboriginal youths who had been counting on its presence. As we all know, positive and inspiring experiences are badly needed in First Nations communities in Canada, and these federal cutbacks are incomprehensible. Perhaps paying for less portraits of the Queen, or cancelling the order for just one fighter jet would have allowed this valuable program to go on as before.

Wapikoni Mobile benefit - Manon Barbeau

The founder of Wapikoni mobile, Manon Barbeau, was celebrated last night, as she vowed to carry on the fight. She told me the project still has funding from Health Canada, Quebec’s Secretariat of Aboriginal Affairs, and some band councils such as that of Chisasibi, a Cree community much affected by hydro development. Manon told me Wapikoni mobile is far from dead, and has many plans, including musical training by professional musicians.

“It’s just too bad that the cutbacks have hit the real heart of the project, the month-long workshops in fifteen communities. This event will help us recover some precious ground.”

Thanks to Tobi Elliott for her help with the blog.

Winds of Heaven

Emily Carrs painting Cathedral Grove
“Kispiox Village.” Painting by Emily Carr, 1929.

Montreal’s International Festival of Films on Art has a huge following. Most screening are full, great to see. The festival mostly programs films for the subject matter as opposed to the filmic qualities, but every year there are some really excellent films.

Of the films I saw this year I liked The Owl in Daylight by David Kleijwegt about Philip K. Dick for the way it used metaphorical images. (The sci-fi writer PKD’s stories have formed the basis for many fiction films, including Bladerunner, which came out just after he died, at an early age. Not to be confused with the Hollywood biopic with the same name starring Paul Giamatti as Dick!) And also my friend Jennifer Alleyn‘s excellent film about a German artist I really admire: Otto Dix. (Named Dix fois Dix, it’s made up of ten tableaus from different moments in Dix’s life.)

Another beautiful and insightful film at the festival was Winds of Heaven about Emily Carr, directed by Michael Ostroff, co-produced by Peter Raymont at White Pine Pictures and filmed by John Walker – who won the CSC award for best documentary cinematography for his work on the film. The most interesting thing about the film for me was the way it took a close look at Carr’s struggle to be recognized as an artist at a time when not many women were, and the ambivalent and not always ‘politically correct’ (especially with today’s standards) relationship with and views of the aboriginal peoples whose culture figured so prominently in her art.

Michael Ostroff explained to me how he constructed the story line:

Carr’s writings form the narrative basis of the film but I had to look at them from that of the perspective of an old sickly woman recalling her earlier times solely from memory. There were no notes or diaries that she relied on, at least so’s that anyone is aware of. So memory of events formed the basis of much of her writings which she began sometime after her first stroke in 1937. This is especially true of her stories about her travel among the First Nations peoples of NW BC. She declared herself to be a friend of the Indians but, as Marcia Crosby says in the film, her writings reflected not so much as friendship but a conceit, and a sense of the racism of her day.

John Walker and Michael Ostrof
Carr was not political – and we cannot judge her by the standards of our times. Her writings are problematic and to Marcia pose a real concern, because schools are still reading/teaching Carr’s stories.

However – the paintings show a great deal of respect. Carr went up the coast and brought back images of communities – active, working, living. This was at a time when the slogan “the only good indian is a dead indian” was often heard and approved of in white society. First nations people were seen by most whites as either barbaric savages or sad vestiges of the noble savage. Most of the the images created by whites portrayed one or the other of these two polarities (think about Curtis.) The solution presented by government was assimilation when it wasn’t outright extermination. Carr’s images however were respectful – and shocking to white society. (In addition to the fauve colours.)

Her diary entries of the 1930’s though suggest a more complex and troubled present. The sacrifices she had to make to remain true to herself as an artist were very hard.

The Harris quote I think should be on every artist’s wall. “… despair is part of every creative individual. It can’t be conquered. One rises out of it. I suppose we are only content when all our sails are up and full of the winds of heaven. I hope all your sails are up and full of the winds of heaven. There is only one way. Keep on.”

Much of the Carr industry is dedicated to the didactic exploration. WOH is not. Entertainment and visual flow were the guiding principles of my direction. And from that the film evolved. The logging sequences for example, became a metaphor for the first nations people. When first seen in the film’s prelude – there is barely enough room for the trees to fall. Each time we return to logging, the forest has been reduced until the very last exquisite camera pan of 25 seconds across the landscape of a 1925 clearcut. They are almost wiped out. Only a stick or two remains. So when we see – at the end – “Scorned as Timber” – a much loved Carr work – it can be a metaphor for Carr’s persistence and individuality, and it can be a metaphor for the First Nations people. “Yes – we’ve been beaten, but we are still here – reaching for the sky.” Striving. Living. I couldn’t feel comfortable ever writing – “they were almost exterminated/assimilated” – so I let the visuals say it.

Thanks to Tobi Elliott for the help with this blog post.