Courtesy of the Available Light Film Festival

POV Interview: Jesse Wente – First Director of the New Indigenous Screen Office

Wente’s mandate? To put Indigenous stories on our screens

22 mins read

Canada’s media establishment got it right when they approached Jesse Wente to be the first director of the new Indigenous Screen Office (ISO). Articulate and passionate, Wente has been a cultural columnist for CBC Radio since 1996. Until last fall, Wente was the head of TIFF Cinematheque, where he curated the First Peoples Cinema series. Wente, who is Ojibwe from the Serpent River First Nation in Ontario, is on the boards of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Toronto Arts Council. He was previously a board member and programmer for the imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival and president of Native Earth Performing Arts. He is currently producing a film version of Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian, which will be directed by Michelle Latimer.

POV editor Marc Glassman spoke with Jesse Wente at the Available Light Film Festival in Whitehorse, Yukon in early February.

JW – Jesse Wente
MG – Marc Glassman

MG: Jesse, how did the Indigenous Screen Office (ISO) come to be?

JW: The Indigenous Screen Office is something that the Indigenous screen community has wanted for quite a while. Over the course of the past year, there were consultations done, and a report was filed through the Canada Media Fund (CMF) — Telefilm sponsored it — suggesting the establishment of a Screen Office. It’s very much based on similar offices—Australia has one, for instance. The idea is to serve the Indigenous screen community; get more access to funding, screens and resources; and have a larger presence in Canada. The history in Canada, as with the rest of the world, is that, in filmmaking and screen creation, Indigenous stories have been told by people outside our communities. The Indigenous Screen Office’s central motivation is to strive for narrative sovereignty for Indigenous artists working in screen media.

MG: That’s a large task, to say the least. Who’s funding it?

JW: Right now it’s funded through the various founding partners: the National Film Board (NFB), the CMF, Telefilm, the CBC and the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN). I should say: there’s not much funding. They’ve given a two-year commitment to me and a small budget with the goal of turning it into a permanent office that exists for a very long time, alongside places like the CMF, Telefilm and the NFB. We’d work with all those groups and others to help build up the ISO so that we can develop and promote Indigenous screen arts and Indigenous stories told by those artists onscreen in Canada.

MG: Who do you report to?

JW: Still figuring that out, Marc. Right now, sort of, no one! One of my first jobs will be establishing an advisory circle. Indigenous peoples will populate that from all across Canada, from a variety of the screen industries. The office won’t just support feature films; it’s about television, video games, apps—screens big and small, from the biggest in the theatres to the ones that fit in your pocket.

The advisory group plus one of the funders will offer strategic oversight over my expenses, but I won’t really be reporting to them. This is meant to be an independent office. The goal is not to have it be an office that exists within the CMF or Telefilm; it’s apart from those, and my goal is to build something that doesn’t really resemble them. Those structures have good things and bad things, but they’re also the structures that have ultimately required the establishment of something like the ISO.

MG: What do you think the Indigenous community will say to you?

JW: I have plans built out in terms of three months, six months—benchmarks that have to be hit and long-term strategic planning. I’ll be going out all across Canada to talk to the artists. It’s an opportunity. While we have the report that got us to this point—and that will certainly be a guiding document—it’s a chance for us to build something that is new, that does serve this community. I absolutely want to hear what the artists want and what they need out of something like this, and to build it for them. It’s not about me. It’s about what’s going to serve the community.

Ultimately, my real goal is to change Canadian culture. I think we need that, at this point. It’s knowing that storytelling is part of why there is so much misunderstanding and inequality between First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities and the rest of Canada. Part of the solution is storytelling. In the long term, that’s the goal of this office. Simply by getting more Indigenous stories by Indigenous peoples onto your screens, over time, our culture should shift.

MG: There are so many different Indigenous languages. And there’s also English and French. Will you try to emphasize French too?

JW: Oh, that’s interesting. Yeah, I guess. I haven’t thought all of that through. When you get into even an arm’s-length relationship with the government, bilingualism is something you have to work with to some extent. I think, though, that ultimately the restoration of Indigenous languages—there are 60 different Indigenous language groups in Canada—is key to the restoration and reclamation of our cultures. Those languages were forcibly taken from us. My priority would be, while understanding that French and English are very key, to view multilingualism as something more complex than a binary of French and English in Canada. Linguistically, there are no barriers currently for the office; you can work in any language. Indigenous languages will be central to this. Cinema and screen content can be a great way to get those languages out there and help them become more present in our communities. I wouldn’t necessarily limit it to English and French.

MG: Do you see yourself mainly as an advocate?

JW: You got it. We’ve got a small budget. And the Screen Office is… me. There’s no other staff. There’s actually not even a physical office yet. The office is wherever I physically am at any one moment. Right now it’s located in Whitehorse. Later this week it’ll be located somewhere else. The main thing it does is advocacy as well as strategic planning to build the office. My main role will be one of advocacy. I expect that will shift at some point. That’s certainly my goal.

As funding comes in and we grow our capacity at the Screen Office, not just to have more people than me but also to actually start doing things, then I think the energy will shift from advocacy to programming, whether that be funding, development or education. But it’s a process. It took us a long time to get to here. And it’ll take me a little bit longer to get us to where we can build up a big capacity for growth.

For the first six, nine, 12 months, advocacy will be a major part of the ISO. And I don’t think the office will ever not be an advocate. Because I think there’s still a need for that sort of advocacy at a very high level among our cultural institutions. While we’ve seen great shifts, more needs to be done. That’ll be a big part of it as we grow our capacity to actually start offering services to the communities.

MG: Will you need surveys? How will you be able to marshal your arguments?

JW: A lot of that’s in the report in terms of statistics—numbers and metrics and data and all that sort of stuff. A lot of that work has thankfully been done. I’m not alone; there is a community. There are film festivals; there are other Indigenous organizations working towards similar goals. The office will intersect with all of those elements and get assistance from existing groups that are already engaged in some of this work. The office may be a central place where some of that information is gathered and some of that data ultimately lives. I don’t think that will be the immediate thing.

What’s funny, Marc, is that most know why we need to have more—not just documentaries, but all sorts of storytelling on screen. That’s why we’re here. The founding organizations recognize that they’re not able to do as much as they would like to because they’re not Indigenous organizations. They’re trying to fit Indigenous storytelling into larger colonial structures and organizations that were built in the wake of colonialism. Telefilm is 50 years old; these were not discussions we were having at this level 50 years ago. A lot of them have built infrastructures that are trying to adapt to Indigenous storytellers, to meet the needs of the Indigenous screen community. This is an opportunity to build an office from the ground up that is entirely about that community.

I don’t think we need to have ongoing conversations about cultural appropriation; I would assume and hope that most understand the stances around this. I’m happy to do that if that’s necessary, but I’m actually pretty hopeful that a lot of that stuff won’t have to be brought up. I do think that even Canadians broadly understand why this is important. What would be more interesting would be to look at how this has worked in other places. For example, there’s lots of evidence of how much the Aboriginal Screen Office in Australia has meant for that community of filmmakers. And if you attend film festivals, as you do, you see that work; you see those films come to those spaces. There’s lots of evidence showing how offices or organizations like the ISO can effectively get storytellers and their stories all over the world. There’s a lot of evidence showing why this is a good idea and what success will actually look like for the Screen Office.

MG: Available Light is showing a film that also won at TIFFSweet Country. Is that one that you think of as something that came out of the initiative in Australia?

JW: It’s hard to imagine that film without it. In fact, the director of that film, Warwick Thornton, is a very good friend of mine. He had a lot of support from that office. When I look at a film like Sweet Country, which is huge—it’s a western, basically; it’s a big, expansive, epic type of movie—we don’t really make those. We haven’t seen that kind of movie, outside of maybe Zach Kunuk’s work, from Igloolik.

What’s interesting in Australia is that Sweet Country is one of several—if you look over the last 10 years—similarly big-budget movies. Take Rachel Perkins’ Bran Nue Dae, which is a musical about residential schools in Australia: we’ve never had a film like that made from our communities. We’ve never had a western like Sweet Country, outside of maybe Zach’s Maliglutit. Absolutely that’s the type of movie we need. I would look at that film and say the budget of a movie like that is something that’s been largely unattainable for Indigenous screen artists in Canada. Most of the screen production for Indigenous artists in Canada is what I would call on the low-budget side. There’s never been a Passchendaele or even a 10-million-dollar movie made by an Indigenous artist in Canada. I think that is a very worthy goal. Not that budgets are the be all and end all. But even access to those sorts of resources has not existed for Indigenous artists for a lot of systemic reasons. This is why we need an intervention now.

When we think of Indigenous screen artists in Canada, we don’t have a capacity issue, as you know: there’s an enormous amount of talent. What we have is a gap in opportunity. It’s understandable. If you’re an Indigenous screen artist submitting a concept to any of the existing ways you would get your film funded, who’s reading those scripts? How do they look at that? Do they understand the perspective, or the way you might want to tell that story? Or even the reason you would want to tell that story? This is where the Screen Office can actually intervene and offer a different process to get those sorts of projects off the ground.

My goal is to see the size of productions in Canada, regardless of the medium—whether it’s a TV series or whatever—grow. Even though we have a channel like APTN, it can sometimes struggle to get the size they would need to really make a big impact, not just in Canada but internationally. If the office isn’t able to do that, then I will have failed, and I don’t intend to fail.

Look at the movies that come out of New Zealand, like Waru, which is showing here later today—an omnibus film made entirely by women Maori filmmakers. We’ve had similar projects in Canada but on a micro-budget level, not even on a small or medium budget. And we need to. That’s how you will get equity and equality: if you allow those artists access to funds.

MG: Was Canada 150 good because of the Indigenous protests?

JW: It’s so interesting how you put that. I think yes, in the end. I don’t want to gloss over how painful the sesquicentennial was for Indigenous peoples. Just speaking from my own experience, it was a life-changing year. It was among the most difficult years of my life, 2017. Ultimately I think Canada got the Canada 150 it needed; maybe not the one it wanted, but it got the one it needed. It got a reframed debate and it got a light shone in its eyes.

Many Canadians view Canada as a great place and I’m not saying it isn’t. Canada has had a moral authority in the world, but it was a false one, because there was a lot going on that actually should’ve robbed it of its ability to wag its finger at anyone else in the world. The reality is colonial nation-states on Turtle Island are birthed in hypocrisy. It’s at the very centre of their being. They claim they’re about equality among peoples, but baked into their very constitutions is inequality. You can’t have a big birthday cake based on that and think that it’s actually going to be a celebration. If we want to celebrate Canada together then we actually have to do the work to make Canada a better place.

To me, the Screen Office, the fact that it’s born out of 2017, is a direct result of those conversations and is a sign that Canada is ready to do things differently, to hear different stories from different people, so that they can gain a different understanding. Mutually, we can move to a place where, maybe 50 years from now, we can celebrate together and the birthday will be more meaningful. We can create a country together, which will be something that we can uphold and will have moral authority. What’s great, what I’m enthusiastic about, is that when I talk to Canadians, they want this. They really do.

I have a very loud voice and the only point in having a voice like that is to use it for the benefit of others. It doesn’t matter for me. This is about the future of Canada and the future of Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island. I’m glad that I have this voice, and maybe now’s the exact right time to use it. I’m a big believer that our ancestors always have a plan for us. When I look back on my life, this is what it’s been leading to—and I’m ready to do it.

Marc Glassman is the editor of POV Magazine and contributes film reviews to Classical FM. He is an adjunct professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and is the treasurer of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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