Director Alexandra Lazarowich is making a movie about a successful New York City fashion designer returning home to rural Canada, her fiance in tow.
Except there’s a twist: The fashionista happens to be Cree — and home is a Northern Alberta reserve.
“I wanted to show that Indigenous women can be loved and not end up as just a prop in someone’s film,” Lazarowich said.
“There isn’t a romantic comedy which features an Indigenous woman who gets to be in love, stay in love and doesn’t come from a completely dysfunctional family.”
Lazarowich, a Sundance Film Festival award winner, is hopeful her film marks a step in the right direction for Canada’s entertainment industry. She also wants to see progress built from last week’s report from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which called on “all governments to adequately fund and support Indigenous-led initiatives” in media and the arts.
Lazarowich would like to see it lead to a greater commitment to resources for Indigenous stories, but she’s not waiting around for others to shatter damaging stereotypes.
Her project, “2 Funerals, a Round Dance and a Wedding,” will cover the romcom genre, and she hopes other creators — and especially financiers — take heed and consider venturing into other worlds too.
“We need Indigenous people in space,” she says. “We need Indigenous people in the future.”
Research has shown that media representation has a pivotal impact on public perception, especially when it comes to minorities. The fewer examples of visibility there are in Canadian pop culture, the more damaging stereotypical and negative portrayals can be.
Journalist Betty Ann Adam, whose experience as a victim of the Sixties Scoop was outlined in the NFB documentary “Birth of a Family,” says the recommendation in the MMIWG report may emphasize too strongly the government’s responsibility in media.
She says the responsibility must also lie on Canada’s private broadcasters and film distributors to “take action” in their own ways.
“It’s incumbent on all Canadian producers, casting directors and music directors at every radio station,” she says.
“Don’t just relegate them to the Indigenous Hour.”
Adrian Sutherland, the lead singer in Attawapiskat-based band Midnight Shine, says he doesn’t believe Canada is ready to fully embrace Indigenous artists quite yet, particularly on the music scene where only a few acts have broken into the Canadian mainstream.
His band, which formed in 2011, incorporates his experiences in a northern Ontario community with radio-friendly pop-rock hooks. Despite their best efforts, Midnight Shine continues to exist on the periphery of what’s popular.
“We’ve tried to push our music to the big boys, the big broadcasters, and we’ve spent a tremendous amount of resources… and have got nowhere,” he says.
“There definitely is a shift in people’s minds, but for actual real… change, I don’t believe that, I think it’s garbage. I know how hard we’ve been working, pushing and pushing, and I don’t know what else we could be doing at this point to get more shows. For me, I think it’s going to take a little while longer for things to change and really get moving in the right direction.”
Sutherland hasn’t given up, however, and every so often there are glimmers of hope Midnight Shine will break out.
Last year, the band’s cover of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” which featured a verse in Mushkegowuk Cree, became their most-streamed song on Spotify. They’re hoping for similar success with a music video for the single “Leather Skin.”
Actor and rapper Ronnie Dean Harris says his own experiences in Canada’s entertainment industry have taught him some important lessons about representation.
Early in his career, he played a rapping meth cook on “Moccasin Flats,” a 2004 co-production of APTN and Showcase. The TV series captured a bleak picture of drugs and poverty on Regina’s urban reserve, but Harris believes some non-Indigenous viewers without context might’ve seen his character merely as a negative stereotype.
“We have to think about what we’re saying and what effect it has,” he says.
“It’s the symbolism that’s being put out there into the Canadian consciousness that needs to change … We don’t need any more really terrible stories being told, I don’t think.”
These days, Harris says he’s focused on projects that fill gaps in representation. He’s interested in documentaries on unexplored perspectives on Canadian history, while he recently lent his voice to the upcoming animated kids’ series “Molly of Denali,” which features a 10-year-old Indigenous girl as the titular character.
And he’s got other ideas in his head too, like a buddy cop film with an Indigenous lead, and an ensemble piece similar to “Superbad,” but set on a reserve.
Lazarowich — whose forthcoming romantic comedy will break similar barriers — says there continues to be a “systemic problem in a lot of the art” that winds up playing in theatres, on television and streaming platforms.
Stories told by non-Indigenous creators often end up “lacking so much” context, she says, at times representing tired stereotypes or leaning too heavily on storylines of misfortune.
“My nieces and nephews don’t have that many Indigenous people to look up to as heroes, and I think that’s a really important thing growing up,” says the director of “Fast Horse,” which picked up the short film jury prize at Sundance in January.
“Who we are is joy, and sometimes tragedy, and we need to see the full spectrum on the big screen.”
David Friend, The Canadian Press