Indigenous Cinema and the Limits of Auteurism

Indigenous Cinema and the Limits of Auteurism

For the last twenty years—until the pandemic broke my streak—I drove each fall to spend a week at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Before making the trip, I took care to avoid reading anything about the subjects, characters, or narratives of the films; they did not matter. Instead, as my eye scanned the festival program, I took note of all the auteurs whose work I admired. Any year with a new film by Agnès Varda, Claire Denis, Hou Hsiao-hsien, or Christian Petzold was a good year. The films on the festival program that sparked my interest fell into two groups: auteurs of whom I was already a fan; and auteurs whose work held promise, beckoning me to explore further.

This was the way I approached all film festivals until a few years ago, when I first attended the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival—the largest festival of Indigenous film and media in the world—also held each fall in Toronto. If auteurism had long been the principal cinephilic lens through which I engaged with the medium, imagineNATIVE broke its dominance in my viewing life. It did this by showing me how, when used exclusively, or even predominantly, auteurism diminishes the richness of cinema by curtailing its possibilities. What’s more, this applies especially to cinema made by marginalized people: women, Indigenous, Black, LGBTQ, disabled, and POC filmmakers.

The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 and the starkly differential impacts of the pandemic have thrust into public consciousness—have made it impossible to deny—the pervasiveness of systemic exclusion. Such exclusion has always existed in the cultural sector. Specifically, in film culture, the machinery of auteurism has worked for decades to sideline nonwhite and non-cismale filmmakers. Because its primary focus lies in tracking the style and themes of a relatively small number of directors accorded the status of auteurs—in Eurowestern film culture, mostly hetero, white men—auteurism prizes not just individual “good” films but a filmmaker’s entire body of work, to which it returns obsessively.

This ceaseless multiplication of discourse around a privileged group of filmmakers spreads out and occupies space, installing itself center stage in film culture. Meanwhile, moving-image artists from marginalized communities, having suffered drastic historical exclusion from funding opportunities, are prevented from building a corpus of work of any significant size. Since auteurism functions by identifying patterns of continuity across an auteur’s career, marginalized filmmakers, first disadvantaged by funding systems, are harmed again, this time by the aesthetic system that is auteurism. As a result, their work—if they are lucky to be permitted to make any—generally languishes outside the field of visibility and attention.

There are at least two more reasons why marginalized filmmakers are not well served by auteurism. Since its origins in France in the 1950s, auteurist cinephilia has always privileged text over context: formal/aesthetic analysis over serious consideration of all the contextual factors—such as those related to representation, production practices, or reception—in the appreciation of a film. It’s not that auteurists are uninterested in context, but that they give it scant weight in the evaluation process. This has strong implications for which films end up in social media conversations, on end-of-year lists, and in the canon.

In point of fact, all films would benefit from increased contextual understanding, but when it comes to marginalized filmmakers, grounding their work in context becomes even more important. This is because audiences have typically had less exposure not only to this work—which often has culturally specific dimensions—but also to background knowledge relating to representational histories or production practices that might help them make full and rich sense of these films and the contexts that envelop them. For Indigenous filmmakers, such contextual knowledge becomes crucial because the industry has historically given them so few opportunities to tell their own stories on-screen.

Finally, the individualist ethos of auteurism perversely opposes the essentially collaborative nature of this art form. The imagineNATIVE festival highlights this fact by frequently framing the festival’s offerings as collective creations indebted not only to teams of moving-image makers but also to the communities represented in them—and without whom the work could not exist.

The festival was founded in 1999 by Cynthia Lickers-Sage, a Mohawk, Turtle Clan visual artist from Six Nations. Her collaborators included the Toronto nonprofit artists’ center and video distributor Vtape, and the venture was driven by an urgent imperative to raise the visibility of work by Indigenous artists. For me, one of the great pleasures of attending this festival has been the experience of engaging with an astonishing range of moving-image forms: not just fiction, nonfiction, and experimental work, and features and shorts; but also, digital and interactive media, audio works, and art gallery exhibitions, including a group “art crawl” in downtown Toronto. Many of the screenings are free, the rest are subsidized and affordable, and Indigenous artists from around the world are frequently on hand to give valuable, culturally specific accounts of their aesthetic practices.

Looking back on my years of attending imagineNATIVE, the most memorable films for me have had at least one thing in common: they have embodied, in deep and multitudinous ways, the idea of community. They have done so visibly on-screen, and also invisibly in the cultural and production practices that have fed into and animated their making. It is thus impossible to fully understand, analyze, and appreciate these films without serious recourse to context.

I now want to take up a few examples of these films, viewing them through the theme of community, and situating them within certain contexts that turn out to be revealing. It is a framework that does not abandon auteurism, but instead de-emphasizes it to make room for other approaches that expand the possibilities of what can be learned about and from these films—and their embeddedness in the world.

The Canadian drama One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk, by Inuk director Zacharias Kunuk, played at imagineNATIVE in 2019. Most of the film’s reviews so far have approached it through an auteurist lens, Kunuk having directed a small but distinguished body of fiction features including the widely celebrated AtanarjuatThe Fast Runner (2001). But it is every bit as rewarding to consider the film in light of its contexts: that of settler-colonialist history, language preservation, and the institutional conditions of the film’s production.  

A few words first about the film’s narrative. One Day in the Life is set on a single day in 1961 and follows Noah (Apayata Kotierk) as he sets out with his band and their dog team on a hunting trip. Along the way, they make a stop for rest, and encounter a white man named “Boss”—the Inuit call him Isumataq, meaning “he who thinks for us”—who is accompanied by an Inuk youth who will serve as translator between Noah and Boss. During their conversation, the Boss (played by Kim Bodnia, the Danish actor well known from the TV series Killing Eve) tries to persuade Noah to relocate his family from their ancestral homeland in Kapuivik, Baffin Island, to a government settlement. Noah refuses, repeatedly. 

Top of page: Vai; above: One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk

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