John Ware Reclaimed | Shaun Robinson / NFB

Resilience and Representation in Alberta

Tracing the evolving landscape of BIPOC filmmaking

14 mins read

In the heart of Canada’s wild west, where the majestic Rockies meet rolling prairies, Alberta’s film and television sector has witnessed unprecedented growth. Over four decades, Alberta’s independent documentary filmmakers have consistently illuminated the diverse topics and often untold stories of this breathtaking province, infusing the cinematic landscape with their unique perspectives and unwavering commitment. Grand-scale service productions have cast Alberta’s rugged landscapes in the spotlight, but amid this frenzy, another story unfolds. It’s the tale of Alberta’s vibrant independent documentary culture and its embrace of diversity and inclusion.

This story is about the untamed spirit of documentary filmmakers who dared to question norms and redefine the very essence of “Alberta content.” At its core, it’s a story of diverse voices coming together to paint a richer and more nuanced portrait of this province.

Through decades of dedication and unwavering determination, Alberta-based filmmakers, many of whom belong to BIPOC communities, have been pushing the boundaries of storytelling and representation.

As a Person of Colour, I had the privilege of witnessing the remarkable journeys of stalwart BIPOC documentarians who have paved the way for my career and whose resilience is a testament to their indomitable spirit.

Undertaking to write this article, I was met by a significant challenge: Where is the archive, the curated storehouse of celebrated films created by our BIPOC community? Outside of the NFB, there is no database to which film enthusiasts or historians can refer to relive our history through the points of view of our preservationists of culture, our filmmakers.

In the absence of such a record beyond that of the NFB, I connected with a few dear colleagues to explore our history, victories, and crises and to envision our future.

In 1980, Tom Radford, one of the few acclaimed independent Alberta documentary filmmakers at the time, established the NFB’s North West Studio and began the process of building an industry in the province. By 1988, producer Bonnie Thompson, a continuing stalwart in Alberta’s documentary landscape, embarked on her journey with the NFB, which has maintained a strong focus on Indigenous stories. At the time, renowned Alberta Métis filmmaker Gil Cardinal had just completed his classic Foster Child (1987) and was co-directing The Spirit Within (1990) with Wil Campbell.

Foster Child, Gil Cardinal, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

The NFB’s Studio One, which produced films exclusively by Indigenous filmmakers, was established in 1991 with Michael Doxtater (Mohawk) and Carol Geddes (Gwichen) at the helm and its headquarters in Edmonton. Like Cardinal, their contribution to opening the doors for Indigenous filmmakers in Alberta is undeniable. “Historically, our stories were either not told at all, or told through a lens that wasn’t our own. This is why it’s important to remember filmmakers like the late Gil Cardinal, who made room for films like mine and others’ to exist,” acknowledges acclaimed Cree/ Métis filmmaker Tasha Hubbard.

When Studio One shut its doors in 1996, the NFB launched the Aboriginal Filmmaking Program to replace it. “It was expected that all NFB studios across the country would subsume Indigenous film projects into their general programming, which the North West Studio definitely did, more so than any other NFB studio,” Bonnie Thompson recalls.

Thompson remembers the joys of collaborating with Indigenous creators like Loretta Todd, Cardinal, and Hubbard, ensuring that Indigenous voices and stories remained at the forefront. Thompson recalls, “Gil was an important Indigenous narrative filmmaker, writing/directing the mini-series Big Bear (1998), which is very interesting Canadian history from an Indigenous perspective; they used many Indigenous crew members, and of course actors, who went on to work on their own productions, like Tasha Hubbard.”

Hubbard began her journey in 2004 with Two Worlds Colliding, a documentary exploring the tragic collision between Indigenous culture and the Canadian justice system. The NFB provided the initial stepping stone, a launchpad into the world of documentary filmmaking. Tasha’s trajectory demonstrates the transformative power of support from institutions like the NFB. She has directed two more feature documentaries, Birth of a Family (2017) and nîpamistawâsowin: We Will Stand Up (2019), with another, Singing Back the Buffalo, which debuted at festivals in 2024.

nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up | NFB

Hubbard is only one of a new generation of Indigenous talent that is continuing the legacy of pure Alberta filmmaking. “Blackfoot filmmaker Trevor Solway is an exciting filmmaker whose work is getting stronger. His last film Kaatohkitopii: The Horse He Never Rode (2022) was nominated at the Alberta Film and Television Awards. He’s one to watch,” she notes.

Alberta’s cinematic landscape has witnessed not only the rise of Indigenous filmmakers, but also of Black creators who have made significant contributions. Fil Fraser, Canada’s first Black television host on a commercial network, left a significant mark by producing feature films such as Why Shoot the Teacher? (1977) and Marie-Anne (1978). Fil paved the way for many to follow him, including Selwyn Jacob, who directed We Remember Amber Valley (1984) and The Road Taken (2006). But it was rarely an easy path for these pace setters. “When I pitched my first documentary We Remember Amber Valley in 1984, I was told by the gatekeepers: Nobody wants to see a film about Black farmers on the prairies. I didn’t listen—or I listened to my inner voice,” remembers Jacob.

Cheryl Foggo similarly defied rigid sentiments about “the audience” and how they view our province. Foggo’s John Ware Reclaimed (2020) challenges viewers’ preconceived notions of the Alberta prairies by examining the story of John Ware, the legendary Black cowboy who settled in the province before the turn of the 20th century. Winner of the CTV Audience Award for best Alberta feature at the Calgary International Film Festival, the film speaks volumes about the power of prairie-based African Canadian stories to captivate audiences. “What I learned from that honour is that…[my film] can reach a wide and varied audience,” comments Foggo.

The way has been paved for the entrance of some outstanding Black talent that Foggo and others are excited to see emerging. But that talent needs support. “What do we need to do in Alberta to increase opportunities for those documentary filmmakers and many others, like Kamika Bianca Guerra-Walker, Misha Maseka, Dana Inkster, and Nauzanin Knight?” questions Foggo.

Cheryl Foggo and Bonnie Thompson on location | Shaun Robinson/NFB

Alberta’s Black and Indigenous filmmakers face unique challenges in terms of access to decision makers. NFB producer Coty Savard spoke to me about the centralization of decision-making power in Ontario and Quebec. The struggle to have our stories understood and accepted has been a recurring theme. “One of the biggest challenges for Albertan creatives is that the majority of greenlight power is in Ontario or Quebec, and non-BIPOC individuals hold most of the positions of official greenlight authority in Canada. So, as a creative, you have to write your proposals for a reader who may have never stepped foot in Alberta and will never comprehend the ground-breaking importance of the idea because they have no personal reference for it,” says the Cree/Métis Savard.

Kenda Gee’s experience making the breakthrough documentary series Lost Years in 2011 illustrates similar issues. It became the first Chinese Canadian-directed documentary series to be broadcast on a mainstream network with a focus on the East Asian community. Gee notes that Lost Years was a result of community-driven efforts. It broke Canadian film-industry barriers through persistence and resourcefulness. Remembers Gee: “We were stonewalled for many years. Our funding model, the way we promoted it. Everything.” Funders included the Chinese Graduates Association of Alberta, the Government of Alberta’s Multimedia Development Fund, and Bell Media.

DOC board member Taghreed Saadeh, an Arab Canadian documentarian, also commented on the centralization of power and the difficulties it poses for BIPOC women filmmakers in Alberta. “There is a difference between the standard in Ontario and [that of] Alberta. As an immigrant, I often find that the [film community in Alberta] does not recognize my Canadian experience. There is still a white, male majority in leadership positions here, even on industry boards. There is lack of support and trust for newer filmmakers,” she explains.

Taghreed Saadeh

Saadeh’s experience is relatable to many South Asian filmmakers in Alberta, which makes it even more inspiring when we see breakthrough films by documentarians from this community. For example, Najeeb Mirza and Shazia Javed, with documentaries like The Sweetest Embrace (2008) and Namrata (2010), respectively, have enriched Alberta’s documentary landscape with stories of immigrant experiences.

More recently, Niobe Thompson’s The Great Human Odyssey (2015) brilliantly celebrated Alberta’s rich indigenous heritage, while Alexandra Lazarowich crafted Fast Horse (2018), a documentary paying homage to Thomas Many Guns of the Siksika Nation, who revitalized Indian Relay racing within his community. The film earned laurels at festivals including Sundance and imagineNATIVE.

Alberta has taken steps to foster diversity and inclusion in its film industry. DOC’s free membership policy for BIPOC filmmakers is just one of many industry initiatives to have emerged within the last four years that are paving the way for change.

Tasha Hubbard is optimistic: “I think we’re going to see the positive impact of programs that support emerging BIPOC filmmakers. Those in the industry, including broadcasters and funders, are realizing they need to support BIPOC voices. And there is an increasing amount of aspiring BIPOC filmmakers, because they see the success of that first and second wave of media makers and are inspired to make stories, just like I was when I saw my first Indigenous film. All of these things combined are going to result in an incredible collection of innovative and beautiful work.”

In this ever-evolving landscape, Alberta’s documentary culture continues to thrive as it redefines itself. The success stories and voices that emerge from this region are a testament to the power of storytelling. They remind us that diversity and inclusion are not just buzzwords: They are the lifeblood of compelling, relevant, and truly engaging storytelling. 

Nauzanin Knight is an Alberta-based writer/director/producer of Caribbean and Middle Eastern descent. She is director of 1844 Studios, a film production company based in Edmonton. Her mission is to create thought-provoking and transformative content that highlights the openness of humanity.

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