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ImagineNATIVE Cinema: A Conversation with Niki Little

ImagineNATIVE Cinema: A Conversation with Niki Little

A confession: before I made my first trip, a few years ago, to the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival in Toronto, I had seen precious little Indigenous cinema. The average cinephile in the West watches predominantly films made by white people, mostly men. What’s more, as I discuss in my accompanying essay, film culture’s long-running love affair with the “auteur” does not always do justice to Indigenous cinema. It’s a problem that is often reinforced by film festivals—especially the largest and most prestigious ones. ImagineNATIVE, which was founded in 1999, was a revelation to me because it presented work that I rarely encountered at other festivals, and it did so without foregrounding the figure of the auteur. Further, the festival challenged the boundaries of “Indigenous cinema” by showcasing work that spanned an astonishing variety of forms, genres, and originating communities.

Jason Ryle, former executive director of imagineNATIVE, once said that his dream was for a time when there would be no need for the broad umbrella label “Indigenous cinema.” Instead, we might have “Anishinaabe cinema, or Inuit cinema or Māori cinema.” But until then, Ryle argued, “when we speak about Indigenous cinema, it should be like when one speaks about European cinema: it’s a body of nations telling stories but within that there’s so much diversity and so much depth.” Having experienced this diversity firsthand at imagineNATIVE each year, I hope that it becomes an essential destination for cinephiles. 

To learn more about the festival’s history, vision, and initiatives, I got in touch with Niki Little, who is Anishininew/English from Kistiganwacheeng (Garden Hill First Nation) and has been artistic director of imagineNATIVE since 2019. 

What was the impetus behind the founding of imagineNATIVE?

It began out of a need and a desire to push back against the lack of representation of Indigenous artists in the film scene at the time. Our mission has been to showcase, promote, and celebrate Canadian and international Indigenous filmmakers and media artists. What we strive for is a greater understanding by audiences of Indigenous peoples, cultures, and artistic expressions.

How big was the first edition of the festival?

In the first year of imagineNATIVE, there were over 200 titles of both new and archived short-form work, including films and various styles of screen/audio works from the previous few decades.

But as technology and tools for storytelling have evolved, our scope of programming has also expanded. Historically, Indigenous people were relegated to the front of the camera, disconnected from their narrative and agency. As Indigenous artists began to occupy more spaces and started to advocate for narrative sovereignty, they began laying claim to film and media as tools to tell their stories.

The community of Indigenous artists featured at imagineNATIVE comes from nations of oral storytellers. Our hope is that they will inspire and connect communities.

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