imagineNATIVE at 20

Mother + Child Shorts Program Q&A, ImagineNATIVE, 2017, at TIFF Bell Lightbox, Toronto. Photo: Michael Tijoe. Courtesy imagineNATIVE
Mother + Child Shorts Program Q&A, ImagineNATIVE, 2017, at TIFF Bell Lightbox, Toronto. Photo: Michael Tijoe. Courtesy imagineNATIVE

In October 2019 the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival celebrates its 20th anniversary. As the world’s largest presenter of Indigenous‑made screen content, the Toronto‑based imagineNATIVE plays a central role in the international Indigenous screen sector and a vital role in the Canadian media arts landscape. With a specific mandate to support the work of Aboriginal directors, screenwriters, and producers, imagineNATIVE has been a leader in its adherence to fostering and supporting Indigenous narrative sovereignty on screen, at a time when screen‑based storytelling continues to grow in prominence and as more Indigenous storytellers create work.  

Pauline Clague_This year you celebrate 20 years of the Festival and you are now seen as the premiere Indigenous film festival, did you ever imagine you would get to this stage?

Jason Ryle_I’ve been with the Festival since 2002 as a programmer and I remember the year we celebrated our eighth anniversary. For me this was a very big milestone as I often heard that 75% of film festivals shutter after their sixth or seventh year. So after reaching the dizzying heights of turning eight, it was exciting to imagine our tenth year and even our twelfth, but truthfully I didn’t envision as far as our 20th. It’s extraordinary to look back and see all the hands, hearts, and minds that made this journey possible. Inasmuch as imagineNATIVE is very much a 21st-century baby (our first Festival was in 2000), the organisation owes its life to the hard work, passion and talent of the filmmakers and activists who cleared a path in the decades prior.

When I became Executive Director in 2010, imagineNATIVE had already become an anchor festival in Toronto’s busy film festival calendar. For me, imagineNATIVE was the most important thing in the world and it was my task to do as much as I could to fulfil and further its mandate and mission. My first Festival as ED was our eleventh and I do clearly remember thinking about the coming decade and envisioning how it could unfold. So for me, the 20th Festival was always a goal in some ways – an aspiration for sure, and also an end point. This year will mark my last Festival leading the organisation.

Have you seen an evolution of the Indigenous cinema industry over these past two decades?

This century has been an exciting one for Indigenous filmmakers. Not since the invention of the camera have our nations seen as many screen storytellers as now. When we first started with imagineNATIVE, it was a consistent challenge to find work to present. Part of this was because we were a new festival, but also part of it was because there was not as much Indigenous‑made content as today. And we were committed to our mandate of only showing Indigenous‑made works. Much of the work was short, social justice documentaries, which is still a vital aspect of our screens. As the years have come and gone, we’ve certainly seen a great diversification of genre, form, and content.

Part of this is the increase in opportunities for Indigenous filmmakers through targeted funding, presentation opportunities, and, importantly, an awareness of the vast significance of Indigenous people telling Indigenous stories.

Why is it important for Native peoples to have films made by us for us?

I’m consistently reminded and struck by how much we’re still in a time of firsts in our industry and in our screen cultures. Each year through our programming there’s always a work that’s a first of something. The first female Greenlandic director to make a feature film. The first feature film in the Aymara or Haida language. And this is all so exciting. So many strides have been made this century in terms of our people telling stories never before seen on screen. That’s such a refreshing, profound experience and there are so many reasons why this needs to be cherished and protected.

Indigenous cinema is not a fad or a cinematic trend, regardless of the ever‑increasing desire of non‑Indigenous filmmakers to tell versions of our stories. Narrative screen sovereignty really is a determinant of wellbeing, of our cultural health, our spiritual health, and our artistic integrity. So when I look back at the 20-year history of imagineNATIVE, in so many ways it’s actually about looking forward and that’s when I get really excited. Because while this archive and body of work represents a lens of Indigenous cinema through imagineNATIVE’s programming, it also represents the emergence of a depth and diversity of work where we can start discussing more thoroughly various aspects of Indigenous cinema, and the nature of “Indigenous Cinema” itself.

By this I mean we see the fleshing out of so many First Nations’ cinemas. With every work created by an Anishinaabe filmmaker, the vastness of Anishinaabe cinema or screen culture grows and expands. This is true for every one of our nations. It’s my expectation – and I think this is true for many people – that we will get to a point a generation from now where we are speaking more distinctly about our own national cinemas in the same way the discourse is around “European Cinema” and the various national cinemas within that label.

While the opportunities for Indigenous filmmakers have increased in the past 20 years, there are still very real threats and risks. There’s a perception that our industry is primarily an emerging one, but the reality is that there are master filmmakers who are Indigenous from around the world who are waiting for meaningful opportunities from the mainstream industries.

Certainly in Canada, the pattern has been  that films with Indigenous content are too often placed in the hands of non-Indigenous directors, and there is a very serious risk here. Theirs is not the perspective or artistic vision of an Indigenous person and this is what we need to see on screen.

As a programmer you get to see the breadth of the industry, watching around 400–500 films a year, is there any patterns that you can see emerging in Indigenous cinema?

Indigenous filmmakers have created and are continuing to create a new independent lens through the diversity of the stories they tell. I love the slogan for the NATIVE – Indigenous cinema stand at the European Film Market in Berlin: “Original Storytellers”. It’s so simple and obvious on the one hand, but it so deeply represents how dynamic and eye-catching our storytelling traditions are within screen media. There is an appetite for this work and it’s growing. The next step is really to see forward strides being made in distribution and sales.

In seeing approximately so many Indigenous-made films each year, one does see annual themes and larger themes emerge – and the contents of this can really fill a book or two. What’s exciting for me is to see how a particular filmmaker’s body of work flows over time and how often these represent the times we find ourselves in. I think social justice documentaries and stories of the impacts of residential schools and other (post)colonial practises will always be – and should be – an aspect of Indigenous cinema.

This is similar I think to how Jewish filmmakers will tell stories of the Holocaust or how African American filmmakers will tell stories of slavery and the civil rights movement. These stories are part of our history. What we’ve seen are a diversity of stories emerge alongside these stories, including science fiction, comedy, and experimental films (which are incredibly strong amongst our nations).

In late 2017 you launched the imagineNATIVE Institute. What are your hopes for the institute?

The Institute has emerged as a vital department within imagineNATIVE. With a relative dearth of professional development opportunities for Indigenous filmmakers in Canada, imagineNATIVE has often filled this void through initiatives such as labs or video‑making workshops. The vision for the Institute was to increase and elevate our role.

In so many ways we’ve always looked to Sundance, the Sámi Film Institute, and to all the incredible initiatives being undertaken in Australia for inspiration. My hope for the Institute is that we present a year-round slate of meaningful and well-funded labs for Indigenous producers, directors, and screenwriters, in addition to other Festival-related opportunities such as panels, workshops, and creative commissions.

It’s also the department through which we have undertaken a series of reports on aspects of Indigenous cinema through a Canadian perspective. This includes the recent framework on protocols for filmmaking with Indigenous content that was inspired by the version published by Screen Australia. In many ways, Canada has been at a forefront of supporting Indigenous screen content and in many others we have lagged. Canada’s first Indigenous Screen Office (ISO) was only founded a couple years ago and will soon be a funding body, and this organisation is one that fills me with great hope and excitement.

I think some of the work that imagineNATIVE has undertaken over our history is work that can be taken on and further developed with the ISO. imagineNATIVE is primarily a presenter and we will continue to focus on this aspect of our mandate as we move forward.

One of the ways that Canada is leading is in the world of gaming and VR. What can you tell us about that aspect of imagineNATIVE?

There is a lot of exciting discussion and creation around all things digital and immersive media. We’re blessed in Canada to have Indigenous leaders in this sector with the likes of Jason Lewis and Loretta Todd and all the exciting work they’re doing. For imagineNATIVE, digital and interactive media has long been part of our programming, but we have recently made the strategic decision to further develop and enhance how we present this work at the Festival, and how we foster and support Indigenous digital media artists.

Later this year we will be kicking off a two-year project that will consult with Indigenous artists, leaders, and thinkers on how we can do just that. In 2018 we also created a new venue at the Festival called the Indigital Space that showcases all our programmed digital works and we will continue to invest in this going forward.

I was not too long ago at a conference on Indigenous Futurism at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in November and there was a particular day that really made a deep impact on me and it took me a couple weeks to figure out why. On this day three Indigenous youth in their late teens and very early 20s gave presentations unlike any I have ever heard. And it took me a while to process what it was about then that struck me so profoundly. When it finally clued in, I realised this was the first that I heard Indigenous youth speak from a generational perspective that I feel we have been waiting for.

These youth all grew up in a world where they were exposed to a variety of Indigenous artistic content in many media, created by Indigenous people from many nations. They grew up various Indigenous role models in different fields and came to adulthood at a time of cultural renaissance and pride. This was the world I wished I could have grown up in and the world that I have long wanted to help create for my nieces. And the connections they were making between their cultures and artistic expressions were so incredibly profound to me. It was beautiful and filled me with such hope for the years to come.

Jason Ryle, 2019
Jason Ryle, 2019


Jason Ryle is Anishinaabe from the Lake St. Martin First Nation in Manitoba.

The 20th imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival takes place 22–27 October 2019.

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