Souvenir presents four films addressing Indigenous identity and representation through reworked material from the National Film Board of Canada’s archives. Using various forms of montage, intercutting, and juxtaposition, contemporary Indigenous artists Kent Monkman, Caroline Monnet, Jeff Barnaby, and Michelle Latimer have a shared interest in exploring and deconstructing cinematic stereotypes associated with First Nations peoples. The archival footage spans seven decades of production, including early ethnographic documentaries, the Direct Cinema experimentation of the 1960s, and community engagement initiatives between the NFB and Indigenous filmmakers.
A pounding critique of Canada’s colonial history, Kent Monkman’s Sisters and Brothers draws parallels between the annihilation of the bison and the devastation inflicted by the residential school system. Once 75 million strong, wild bison were slaughtered almost to extinction by European settlers by the 1890s, both for their hides and as part of a larger policy to eliminate the main food source of the First Nations of the plains. Around the same time, residential schools were established to remove Aboriginal children from their families in order to assimilate them into mainstream Canadian society. The powwow-step rhythms of music collective Tribe Called Red’s “The Road” drive home the legacy of loss and pain caused by more than a century of abuse and neglect. Sisters and Brothers mourns the preventable deaths of thousands of Aboriginal children in residential schools while honouring the resiliency of Canada’s First Peoples.
Guided expertly by those who live on the land and driven by the pulse of the natural world, Caroline Monnet’s Mobilize draws from a collage of source material to carry viewers on a fast-paced journey from the far north to the urban south. Over every landscape, in all conditions, everyday life flows with strength, skill, and extreme competence: hands swiftly thread sinew through snowshoes; axes expertly peel birchbark to make a canoe; a master paddler navigates icy white waters. In the city, Mohawk ironworkers stroll across steel girders, and a young woman asserts her place among the towers. Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq’s rhythmic polar punk music provides the soundtrack; her song “Uja” underscores the perpetual negotiation between the modern and traditional by a people always moving forward.
Jeff Barnaby’s Etlinisigu’niet (Bleed Down) questions the mythology of a fair and just Canada, claiming that attempts to “get rid of the Indian problem” have failed. Traditional life in Etlinisigu’niet gives way to First Nations being starved to ensure compliance with government orders; children forced from their families and penned into the horrors of residential school; men, women, and children examined like livestock in crowded tuberculosis clinics, where policies that could have prevented thousands of deaths were willfully suppressed, resulting in the highest death tolls from the disease ever reported anywhere in the world. And the land and water continue to be poisoned for industry and profit at the cost of Aboriginal lives. Once again, Tanya Tagaq’s music carries the voice of the land—this time with her song “Tulugak”—through Barnaby’s poem of anger.
Both a requiem for and an honouring of Canada’s First Nations, Métis, and Inuit women, Michelle Latimer’s Nimmikaage (She Dances for People) deconstructs the layers beneath the recorded pageantry of Canadian nationalism. Images of the natural world alternate with archival footage of Indigenous women asked to perform in traditional roles for an audience. The women are observed from a distance, objectified to serve the agenda of those behind the camera. Nimmikaage reverses the colonial lens. Wide shots of the white Canadian audiences for whom these images were captured are intercut with hauntingly intimate individual close-ups of Indigenous women and girls. It is eventually the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit women who emerge as grounded in the world and the European Canadian audience members who appear curious and exotic. Like Barnaby, and Monnet, Latimer also turns to Tanya Tagaq for her soundtrack, choosing the emotionally resonant “Flight.” Nimmikaage shifts the balance of power to reclaim the Canadian narrative, putting the enduring strength and resilience of Indigenous women at the forefront.
Based on a wide spectrum of source materials related to the Indigenous experience, each of these short videos derives from a distinct artistic vision. Souvenir addresses the complicated history of Canada’s First Nations with remarkable power and impact, while highlighting how archival footage can inspire new perspectives when reframed by contemporary image-based practices.
Organized by the Ryerson Image Centre, produced by the National Film Board of Canada