A little while back I did an interview for the on-line magazine “Mason Journal”. They had some questions about urban aboriginal identity and I think I avoided crashing and burning in my responses. (You can read the article on their site here)
Not sure Claire, how much of this is going to matter to you in your future identity quests … but here’s what I rambled on about …
Discovering your personal identity is a long journey; discovering your personal identity as a minority with a mixed heritage in a multi-cultural context is even more so. Toronto based filmmaker and writer, Shane Belcourt, provides insight into his understanding and exploration of his Aboriginal identity. Born to prominent Metis Rights Leader, Tony Belcourt, and Nova Scotia musician, Judith Pierce Martin, Shane adopts film as a medium to explore his own roots. Mason Journal recently had an opportunity to speak with the award winning filmmaker to learn how he describes Aboriginal identity in an urban context, the stages it took to discover his own identity and how this discovery currently informs his work.
Mason Journal: Is filmmaking something that has always been important to you, or is it something that you came into later in life?
Shane Belcourt: My first observation with your list of questions here is that there are no yes or no’s, true or false’s … so this is about to get verbose. And the first question here is a doozy. I’m going to be honest with you: I have a love-hate relationship with filmmaking. There are times when I’m an absolute film geek, watching them, studying them, breaking them down, carding a film and finding the perfect turn in an act, seeing two shots come together on a monitor during editing and seeing how the film comes to a whole new unplanned level. Love that. But I’m not going to win any contests that involve being patient. The time it takes to write a film, the notes and re-writing, the pre-production planning, breaking things down and adjusting for funds; it’s a “busy-bee” life that has few “completions” over the course of an entire creative life. So much work goes on behind the scenes, into authoring a film beforehand, and looking at an empty page and asking, “you think you have something to say? Let’s hear it.” Then the clock starts to tick-tock louder and louder. I’m saying it’s harder than I thought when I first ran towards this and I’m whining a little about it.
On one level, I wasn’t really interested in film until high school. I watched shows – you could not keep me away from the TV when the Dukes of Hazard was on! But I wasn’t aware of the “art form” that people made these things. It was happening right there in front of me and I was totally immersed in it as a kid. In high school, as I started to get into Letterman, I started to read articles where people worked in “writing rooms” and lived in New York. That was interesting. All things were New York to me at the time and Catcher in the Rye was THE book that launched my interested in reading (in grade 10 – nice, I know). Watching all of Woody Allen’s films through high school was the most logical step and I was suddenly aware that people made these films and stories and it involved a whole host of art forms and collaborations. What I was most interested in was the authorship in film; that someone had internal longings and questions that were put forth in a drama or a story that had music, tempo (editing), and photography. I was hooked.
I should also mention that around high school, my father who had been involved in the Aboriginal communications his whole life, was now running a docudrama educational production company out of our house. We had a little off-line editing suite in his office upstairs. I would watch him do his work and wound logging footage. I was taken on set where I would hold reflectors or cue cards; lucky coincidence?
But just to be clear, there is a level of filmmaking that is a nerdy surface level and that for sure started in high school – not sure if that counts as “later in life”. This involved trying to figure out HOW to do it (camera, shots, framing, story arcs, act structure, etc.) The basis of the art (emotions and story) is the WHAT and WHY of filmmaking; I can trace that back to being 4 years old rocking it out to the Rolling Stones at full volume. With “Get Off of My Cloud”, I would be jumping with aggression; then quiet contemplation and picturing in my mind the images of “As Tears Go By” and FEELING something. Being allowed to feel something without being made fun of or scolded at school. In that core way, film, arts, creativity, life/living has always been vital to me.
MJ: Can you describe what an “urban aboriginal identity” is in a Canadian context?
SB: It took me an hour and forty minutes in Tkaronto to scratch the surface of this question, so let me try to narrow it down here (be prepared for an epic failure). On one level, historical images depict one story or message about what an “Indian” is – buckskin clothes, feathers, horseback, living off the land immersed in nature. In the city, you can’t exactly live out in the bush, honing the abilities to track deer or maintain your trap line. Like everyone else, you live a modern lifestyle. But the message being sent by media (even ones we send to ourselves) is that “Indian” is out there and outside of the city. To join the city you have to leave “Indian” out there and become something else. Obviously, it’s insane that “Indian” is reduced to a historical image or lifestyle, and it begs the question: is there something deeper than appearance (dress) and survival lifestyle that defines “Indian”? So, um, my “answer” to your question is that being an “urban aboriginal” is in many ways a search or a challenge. I think many “ethnic minorities” can relate to because on the one hand you want to join the urban bustle and work side by side with everyone, but on the other hand, you want to maintain your cultural roots.
When you’re an Anglo Saxon living in the West, it can be hard to understand this “outsider-ness.” You get the outsider part, but the cultural-outsider part can be a stretch. I’ve heard many say to me in a free-flowing conversation, “yeah, I don’t have a culture, I’m just Canadian.” If you aren’t this “Canadian” thing -the “white” thing – you can more obviously see that the cultural Canadian “norm” is not you or your background or your culture. “Outsider-ness” is what prompts you to want to come together with other like-minded “outsiders” and form a community and see yourself in the people around you. That is the urban aboriginal identity in a nutshell.
(If I may: “Jesus, this Shane dude looks white, he’s ‘Metis’, whatever the hell that is, what gives him the right? He doesn’t have a clue.” I grew up in a city, my Mom’s White, what the hell do I know? I’ll take you one farther: music is music, spirit is spirit, soul is soul, and the ultimate awakening is beyond culture; it’s Universal. But culture is the grounding to go deep within towards the Universal or to look up and out and see the Universal. In a way, these cultural identity questions don’t matter, in some ultimate truth awakening sense, but in the immediate day to day people need and can’t escape their cultural roots. If you’re Aboriginal in an urban environment, it’s a celebration, a question, and a challenge. The more intact “they” are, the better an urban Aboriginal person does in everything -including transcending cultural towards the universal soul.)
Well, fuck, I tried right?
MJ: How do you describe your own urban aboriginal identity? What are some important factors or stages in your life experience that contribute to the discovery of this identity?
SB: I describe my own urban aboriginal identity as “community”, or family. On my own, I think I know it a little, a smudge or what have you, but I don’t know it-know it. I’m just a guy stuck in his own head. However, when I’m with family and friends from the community I know it as something living, a connection from within us all that connects us and it only “turns on” when we’re together with each other. In those times I “know” my aboriginal identity because it is being lived. In a sense, it’s not a thing, it’s not static, and it’s hard to pin down.
In terms of coming to grips with being “aboriginal,” it’s been and continues to be a life-long journey/struggle/celebration. On the street I grew up on, Dads (parents) looked white like my Mom, but my Dad didn’t. He didn’t wear buckskin or ride a horse like Tonto, so he wasn’t an “Indian” in my mind as a kid – he was my Dad. My Dad had certain jewelry on that was different, he brought friends home that look like him and could talk like him, and he took us into these worlds that only existed wherever he went, like pow wows, gatherings and ceremonies. You’re a part of it, but you’re not a part of it because other than doing it with your Dad, you’re at school with everyone else or playing street football hoping to be Warren Moon. As you get older and you can choose to do things, go to events, participate with this or that community and exercise your choice – that is when the “discovery” and understanding of identity and culture begin to emerge. What do you want to be a part of? As I became more of an adult (still struggling with that, or “emerging”), I chose to participate with my Aboriginal, Metis and ancestry/community. Did I choose it, or did it want to express itself? Either way, I went out in “search” of it – only to find that you never find “it” you just live “it” with others.
MJ: Is the investigation of Aboriginal concepts in your film an exploration of self, or a method to inform?
SB: At best I consider myself an idiot savant, and the “savant” part is yet to be determined. So for me to “inform” someone and to showcase what I know would not only make a boring film, it would make for an embarrassing one. In that way, I’m making films that may or may not have Aboriginal issues or concepts in them, as I’m trying to explore and understand myself and people who are in my community of family and friends that are like me. And of course, the irony of art is, when you try to be completely personal and individual, you stumble unknowingly into a Universal. And for those moments in a film of mine where there is “information”, a teaching, a wording of an idea: those aren’t “mine.” Those are things that I have learned from others that I want to put in front of “me” as a character in the film hearing it again for the first time. Re-enacting the discovery opposed to consciously trying to inform the audience about something.
MJ: You are involved with a number of community based organizations. How does the involvement in these activities inform your work?
SB: I’m lucky enough that my involvement with community based organizations is my “work”. My nine-to-five (yeah right) job is working with organizations in its most basic level as a storyteller; teaching others how to tell stories, make films, use technology, find their voice, etc. Or it involves working on an educational or promotional video that tells the story from their perspective. The work part of my life is really about honing the storytelling skills, attuning the brain to wipe away the decorations and get right down to the base level meaning, the core, and then pick and choose the “decorations”, the creative options from that “discovery”, the core, the “what this is really about is __________.”
But I will absolutely admit that a life lived informs the stories I tell (the characters, perspectives, ideas, struggles, etc.) For example, in Tkaronto, much of the lessons that the Jolene character learns from the Elder Max were in fact expressed to me by Lewis Cardinal while I was on tour with the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards directing and shooting their inductee interview videos. Sometimes, in that case, it’s literal, others it’s layered down.
MJ: Your background is in both film and music; are there similarities in process in these two realms?
SB: Last night I was sitting with my daughter Claire as she was practicing writing down numbers. She has her letters down, A to Z, easy as pie. Numbers for some reason, she can read them but when she writes them, things get turned around. As she was writing them out, and I would try to help her through the tough ones, she would hide her face and get embarrassed and start to get really stressed out. So, we had one of our talks. I asked her what she thinks her Dad does all day and she rattled off a list of things she’s heard. I told her that what I really do all day is make mistakes, constantly, never ending. That it seems is my job, and the work of any artist: try stuff, make mistakes, think “hmm, that’s interesting”, and wash and repeat. To me, the first similarity between music, film and in all arts or creative life in general, is that you have to pursue and embrace failure, learn from the short comings and develop a fearlessness that has nothing to lose. You don’t sing good notes until you’ve sung hours of bad ones. Hopefully behind closed doors (I can’t say the behind closed doors is true in my case).
Aside from the base level “artist as explorer” approach to film and music, what is most obvious between the two is that they’re a temporal art form: the count in or count down and then go! The art plays out over a set continuous time with a beat, movement, rhythm or pace and works towards a climatic ending and resolves to silence at the end. As with the music or the films I’ve made, I’ve been fortunate to play not solo projects, but been highly collaborative, and in many cases left with loads of room for improvisation. I started in music, when I got my first guitar and amp it was to learn how to play Blues music (Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert Collins, etc.), and in that you know the basic form. You hit the major marks but in-between you feel it, you go for it and you let emotions come forth. If you pre-think it too much and play some pre-arranged “perfect” solo, then it’s not going to have the feel. The “it” comes out in the moment; you know the form, the lines of the scene, and then you forget them and play the song for the first time. That desire to feel, to be in a moment, to be surprised, to fall into something is obvious in music or as an actor in front of the camera. The trick is as the director or filmmaker for me was to push the creatives to be “collaborative”; to create a space where others can feel free to improvise, to try things, to fail, and to reach these unplanned heights.
But ultimately, in both forms it comes down to this: you have a world of emotion, both combustive and harmonic inside and the only way to “deal” with them is to create a platform to let them out or for them to unfold in a story over time. The song and the film are the same thing at the core in my mind.
MJ: How has the Canadian film industry evolved since you have been in involved in the community?
SB: To be honest, I don’t identify with the “Canadian” film industry. It’s a success level I’m still striving to achieve; I don’t feel I have an experience in it to speak about it. However, in regards to the Aboriginal film industry, we spoke earlier about the urban Aboriginal identity and the struggles there within, that moving to the city is an exercise of living with technology (modernity) and moving away from nature (living off the land). The irony in regards to film is that the advances in technology have been without a doubt the biggest boon to Aboriginal filmmaking. Technology such as digital cameras, editing on your laptop, etc. does not replace the need to learn skills or even remotely alleviate the struggles of trying to tell a story or having something to say. But, the tools can be placed into marginalized communities’ hands so if they so choose, they can now tell their own stories with themselves at the helm. This is no small thing. As such, more and more Aboriginal filmmakers are diving in, picking up a camera, and not only exploring the medium, the art form, and developing their skill set, but they’re telling their own stories.
The first thing you notice when you go to an Aboriginal film festival, where films come from all over Canada or North America, is that this “Aboriginal” thing is actually VERY diverse. There is no single beads and feather “Indian-ness” – it’s nuanced, regional and differential. And you won’t necessarily capture these differences in the Aboriginal community if a “Canadian” filmmaker makes a film about “Aboriginals”. When an Inuit filmmaker makes a film from and about their community, it has a life to it that is its own. Same too with a film from a Navajo filmmaker or a Metis filmmaker, so on and so forth. Yes, there are “Aboriginal” similarities amongst all, but the specifics astound; not to mention the other massive variable of what outside filmmakers or genres mostly influence said filmmaker and their “Aboriginal” work. You can’t have this discussion and start splitting hairs or be amazed unless technology makes filmmaking more accessible to all communities as it has.
The technology is here and the audience is here. There are many new platforms to share work and god knows the stories are out there in the communities. It’s a matter of developing the skills and the professionalism on both sides of the camera.
(My father has been an Aboriginal rights leader/politician for 40 years and apparently in that last bit, the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. And yes, my fellow Aboriginal community members, the use of “apple” here can be a bit loaded, but I mean it the other way, the common way, you know that I’m like my Dad … look I’m white on the outside, so … forget it.)
MJ: Are there any aspects of the Canada film industry that are unique compared to an international realm?
SB: I’ve had the pleasure to travel to Los Angles and meet with a few folks and those travels have provided me with an awakening. I can see a crystal clear the difference between the Canadian film industry and the American (Hollywood) one. In Hollywood, the question is not “what do you want to say and how can I support that unique and important singular voice.” Rather, it is “what can you bring to me that we can package, get green lit, and make money off of – go!” Huge difference. Our Canadian Industry is smaller with smaller budgets, but the funding bodies look towards empowering an artistic voice – film as art and expression as opposed to purely commerce. (I have no idea what the inner workers of Telefilm are at this point. Perhaps this has changed or is changing). Suffice to say, this is a huge opportunity that is unique to our Canadian industry that your voice and vision for small personal films are going to be supported here. Doesn’t mean they aren’t south of the border or internationally, but it is most certainly the case here. So, great to know that that box is ticked off, now onto the actually writing a story that has something to say part…
I would also add that Aboriginal films, like “foreign language films” (Quebec films), are in a unique position to take advantage of not only the production opportunities but also the audience opportunities. There can be a temptation to think, “my film’s in English, like Hollywood movies, and therefore I should make a Hollywood style genre film and rich and famous!” However, when you are starting from “my film is in a language no one really speaks,” or “my film is about this marginalize group of people that no one really knows about and isn’t really packed with bankable movie stars,” you start with what can be seen as a handicap. But really, it’s an opportunity: to be more specific, be more honest, and to be more fearless. It can’t be an exercise in making a film “marketable” or “relatable to a movie going audience”. That’s sunk from the get go – it’s a low budget film (relative) with no stars. BUT it’s from this unique world and with these unique story/character elements, that comes from this specific voice/culture; basically embracing fully that all of us in Canada are making “foreign” films.
(This message has been brought to you by some guy you never heard of with a semi-informed opinion. Proceed with caution.)
MJ: Do you have any words of advice to budding filmmakers in Canada? Or more specifically, do you have any advice for budding Aboriginal Canadian youth looking to enter the world of film?
SB: When I give my “talks” with budding young filmmakers, Aboriginal or otherwise, it always begins with: “I’m jealous”. To come up now and to be able to have these new technologies available to you to learn on and experiment with that are damn near professional grade? Unreal. Unimagined back in the day (yeah, I’m old enough in this technological world to use “back in the day.” I sported a cassette Walkman dude!). There’s opportunity to just do, so just do. The first works are going to suck, but they’ll be these flares, these moments, this style, this you-thing that will start to emerge. And that’s why you play and mess about.
Going to film school to advance your career seems odd to me. Just use the time with no stakes to explore and make mistakes and try shit and discover your voice; that is what this early development time is about. When you get old, you discover that there is no difference between “then” and “now”, or old technology or new ones, or emerging and arrived; filmmaking is storytelling, and storytelling requires voice and vision and spirit and all of that elusive, ever-changing, unexplainable, non-static, swing blindfolded at a piñata “success” and “knowing.” Forever a child.
MJ: What new projects can we look forward to seeing from you?
SB: After all of the above gibberish I’m sure the reader is DYING to know what my answer is to this one! (Does the sarcasm read?)
I’m working on completing another super low budget film script which “in-house” (my home) we (my wife and I) refer to as “Tkaronto 2.” A film about a couple that is struggling with marriage; a total “wow, where did this film idea come from?!” (Like I said, “Tkaronto 2″) The hope is to shoot it next year
(I’ve been saying this for 2 years).
Also working on feature film script that Telefilm paid for and is now rightfully demanding from me (long overdue) about a boy who loses his mother and searches for the “better place” where he has been told she’s gone.
And the other “big work” I’m chipping away at is a TV series that is being developed through the National Screen Institute Totally Television program. My co-creator (Duane Murray) and I head off to Banff in June to…well, we’ll see. The hope is that we’ll successfully sell the idea to a broadcaster, but with any opportunity comes the rope to hang yourself with (and I mean that in a funny fun way).
Ongoing: I try to have some fun with a camera and make short films for Vimeo. Towards that end I should have a new short film, “Say Yes”, online middle of April.
And with that, I better get back to it…
MJ: Thank you Shane for your time to do this interview and for launching your short film, “Say Yes” on Mason Journal. To learn more about Shane Belcourt, visit his website at www.shanebelcourt.com or view his work at www.vimeo.com/shanebelcourt