Since June of this year, people all across Canada have been putting on virtual-reality headsets and seeing different visions of an Indigenous future. 2167 is a series of four short VR experiences as part of Canada on Screen, made by Indigenous filmmakers and artists who have imagined Indigenous life 150 years from today. In addition to its run at TIFF Bell Lightbox and imagineNATIVE this summer and fall, the project has toured around Canada, from Yellowknife to Fredericton, and has been shown all over Ontario thanks to the support of our sponsors and donors.
One of the 2167 VR experiences was created Danis Goulet, a Cree/Métis filmmaker and TIFF Short Cuts programmer. The Hunt begins with a Mohawk man and his son, showing how they react to a patrolling security orb accosting them while they hunt on sovereign Mohawk territory. The Hunt is Goulet’s second sci-fi short film after Wakening, which showed at TIFF in 2013. She sat down with us to discuss the importance of telling Indigenous stories and the challenges and opportunities of using VR as a filmmaker.
What is the process like when making a 360° film in VR?
The editing is so different... you could be looking over in one direction and as soon as you cut, you could be facing a new direction. [T]he only way I figured that it would work was cutting between scenes. Otherwise you’re teleported in the middle of a scene.
Working in an immersive environment is completely different than film. It’s a very different language, because tools like editing are not at your disposal in the same way at all. You’re basically staging scenes.... [As] soon as you try to get actors doing a scene, if you can’t cut, you’re basically doing one-ers... you also don’t have a frame. It’s so different! I can’t even tell you how many times my mind hiccupped in this process.
Did you find yourself using other tools in the place of cuts? Like using sound to direct attention?
Yeah, absolutely. In VR it’s all about “how do you direct people’s attention?” In classic cinema, the director is telling you what to look at all the time. In VR, if you want to tell people what to look at —because the user has their own volition — you have to prompt things. I think up to this point, I haven’t seen a lot of VR or 360° video that can do that in sophisticated ways. It would kind of be going “oh, look over where the crow caws!”.... When we’re making films, we hopefully want people to just be in the story, and things that take you out of the story, like a bad cut, or a bad performance ... it’s the same in VR: you’re trying not to take people out of the story.
VR is often advertised as being highly immersive. Do you find that when you watch VR pieces?
Virtual reality and 360° video [are] kind of surreal, because you are totally immersed. It does feel like the intensity is ratcheted up a notch from watching something on a screen... it’s almost like a hyper-mediated space. I’ve watched documentaries in VR where you literally feel like you’re at arm’s length from a child, and that is a hyper-real experience, but of course you know it’s not real. The first time I tried it, it was super bizarre.
What do you think were the most interesting things about some of the other pieces that are part of 2167?
Each Branch Determined: I love the tone that was achieved... I felt like it had a strange uncanny energy about it that I was really into. Those artists were doing amazing things.
Blueberry Pie under a Martian Sky: I love the abstraction. To me that one had a real futuristic quality, and I’m really interested in work that transcends notions of time as linear.... I love what [Scott Benesiinaabandan] was doing with language and thinking of these concepts that have yet to have Anishinaabe words associated with them.
We had a similar thing in The Hunt. The entire piece was in Mohawk, so the linguist and translator were working to translate words like “terrain cruiser” which don’t really have Mohawk words associated with them.... [Our linguist was] calling around to Indigenous elders to get a consensus on what these things should be called. It’s really cool because it really counters the idea that Indigenous people are stuck in the past, it’s like we’re not relics or these old archaic people that are running around on the prairie — you know, the total stereotype.... it’s cultural evolution, and Indigenous communities are absolutely involved in that.
What drew you to sci-fi?
I think as Indigenous artists we can sometimes feel the weight of Indigenous experience under colonization. We hear so much in the media — we’re just inundated with the harsh realities of Indigenous life. So sci-fi and genre becomes a new entry point to looking at the Indigenous experience; that to me is really new and exciting, and my foray into sci-fi really felt liberating. [I] became interested in it as a way of coming at things that I want to talk about that might be political in nature, but from a different angle.
How has the history of bad depictions of Indigenous people in media impacted your approach to filmmaking?
Cinema history has a very fraught legacy when it comes to the depiction of Indigenous people that’s highly problematic and probably the reason I started making film.... I was in a casting room where these really amazing Indigenous women were brought in to read for this role that was the opening of a US television pilot and it was basically like an Indian princess, so the Pocahontas stereotype that we’re all familiar with, silently sacrificing herself over a waterfall. And that’s what opened this piece. I saw these amazing actors that I had looked up to and admired... and they could do nothing. They were literally silenced in front of my face. Their only function was to die.
Growing up in Saskatchewan, I was well aware of the fact that I didn’t see myself reflected anywhere or my experience, but I think it comes to a new level when you start to realize how troubling and problematic the current representation is and continues to be. [So I thought] “Oh my god! We have to do this, we have to tell our stories!” It was a “Why not me?” moment... [I] was feeling compelled because things had to change. Do you find it challenging to be an Indigenous filmmaker facing up against this history?
We struggle under the weight of that history and it changes the Indigenous approach to filmmaking. We know that we are accountable to our communities and we know that we have a great responsibility given that most of the time, the representation is still gotten wrong. Even when there are the best of intentions, or representations are not overtly racist — it still continues to perpetuate problematic ideas or simplistic ideas, or ideas that don’t go very deep about Indigenous people. It’s very important for us to have autonomy over our stories.
Colonization has had a profound impact on all aspects of Indigenous life, including our imaginations, and I think that’s something that isn’t totally understood when people think about colonization. If you look at the residential school experience as one example, every aspect of a child’s life was regimented and they were taught to be subservient, and to obey, and not counter anything. So imagination was so powerful in that context; residential schools were in place over seven generations of Indigenous families. So the minute you bring the ability to imagine the future into that context, you have hope instead of despair.
What’s your next sci-fi project going to be?
I’m actually writing a dystopian feature, and I don’t know when it’ll be done. I’ll just leave it at that — I haven’t left this terrain yet because I’m really excited about what imagining an Indigenous future holds.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
2167 is commissioned and produced by TIFF, imagineNATIVE, Pinnguaq and the Initiative for Indigenous Futures, and is supported by the Government of Ontario, the Ontario Trillium Foundation, the Harbinger Foundation, and Canada Council for the Arts.
Canada on Screen is co-produced by Library and Archives Canada, the Cinémathèque québécoise, and The Cinematheque in Vancouver, and is made possible by presenting partners the Government of Canada, the Royal Bank of Canada, and the Government of Ontario, and supporting partner Telefilm Canada.
L'exposition 2167 a été organisée et produite par le TIFF, imagineNATIVE, Pinnguaq et l'Initiative pour les avenirs autochtones, et c'est soutenue par le gouvernement de l'Ontario, la Fondation Trillium de l'Ontario, la Fondation Harbinger et la Conseil des arts du Canada.
Canada à l’écran est une coproduction réalisée par le TIFF et trois partenaires principaux : Bibliothèque et Archives Canada, la Cinémathèque québécoise et la Cinémathèque de Vancouver. Canada à l'écran est rendu possible grâce à nos partenaires de présentation le gouvernement du Canada, la Banque Royale du Canada et le gouvernement de l'Ontario, ainsi qu'à Téléfilm Canada, notre partenaire de soutien.