Sarain Fox’s inclusive music doc Giiwewizh

Series of short docs were shot on iPhone 12s during lockdown

7 mins read

Sahtu Dene musician Jay Gilday sits on a rooftop in Yellowknife, with his acoustic guitar and a microphone aligned with the treetops. Shot on a propped-up iPhone 12, this is the opening scene of Gilday’s instalment of Giiwewizh (the Ojibway/Anishinaabe word for ‘to carry home’).

He is one of 16 musicians who shot their own footage from their homelands as part of the International Indigenous Music Summit’s short documentary project.

All segments were remotely directed by Landback Studio’s Sarain Fox (Inendi) and produced by RedCloud Studio’s Jennifer Podemski (Future History). The 16 films made for Giiwewizh premiered from June 8 to 11 during the Summit.

Last fall, the idea behind Giiwewizh (pronounced Gi-weh-wish) was born out of brainstorming by the Summit’s artistic director ShoShona Kish, operations manager Amanda Rheaume, and Fox, as they were planning on how to showcase the musicians during a pandemic.

Sarain Fox
Sarain Fox | Phtoo by Tara Barnes, Land Back Studios

“Over the last year we’ve seen musicians live streaming from their living rooms and there have been some really beautiful intimate concerts,” said Fox. However, many Indigenous artists don’t have the same access to strong internet and Wi-Fi signals, or to superior cameras and sound. “We know so many beautiful artists in the north with choppy shows and sound quality [issues] so that was on the hearts and minds of the Summit,” she points out.

Fox, Kish and Rheaume decided to go forward with short documentaries, instead of live streams, and it was important to give the musicians themselves the control of their own narrative. “When I was on the ground at Standing Rock, I became obsessed with the power and the potential of cell phones as tools for media,” says Fox, recalling seeing her friends on the frontline live streaming and making films from their phones. Apple provided each artist with an iPhone 12, and everyone received training on the capabilities of filming, a list of questions from Fox, and sent on their way to capture their own footage.

“I heard time and time again that this exercise of thinking about home was both heartbreaking and uplifting, especially for so many musicians who really can’t do what they love, which is playing music for the people,” says Fox.

Most of the artists had two weeks to capture all their footage, and a team of six–including Landback Studios’ Fox and Tara Barnes, and Redcloud Studios’ Podemski and a skeleton team of editors, as well as the Summit’s Kish and Rheaume—had one month to edit that, which ranged from DIY handhold material from Gilday, to the Snotty Nose Rez Kids’ drone footage.

The artists were asked to film 10 minutes of slo-mo, 10 minutes of landscape, and five minutes of close-ups. Fox says some people ignored those directions and did their own thing. She was open to all the footage she received. In the end, she wanted the narrative to be what the artists want to share with the world.

The participating musicians, including hip hop duo Snotty Nose Rez Kids and folk-pop singer-songwriter Kanen, were asked to show how their identity is informed by the land, and how their music and creative process is informed by where they create. A lot of the material included places and sights that would’ve been difficult to bring a whole camera crew into, like Hasaatuk, who lives with her family on a remote island in Nuu-chah-nulth territory in British Columbia, without running water or power.

In addition to the homeland footage, each short doc includes a studio performance, shot by hired DPs. They were done in studio to manage sound for equity issues, which because of various lockdown orders, made things tricky. Some musicians in Ontario had to make special arrangements in their own communities to have access to a performance space.

After the premiere of Juno-award winning artist G.R. Gritt’s film, Fox says she received the most beautiful feedback. All of Gritt’s performances were shot by their partner Krystal (Gritt uses they/them pronouns), and told Fox they’d never felt more seen.

“As a Trans artist, they were saying they can tell when the people filming or editing them don’t believe in who they are and don’t stand behind them and that affects the way that people amplify their voice,” says Fox. “When G.R. says I’ve never felt more seen, it’s because all of the people who are working on this love them and I think that’s a dramatic difference in the way that we often see content created especially for minority and marginalized communities.”

If it weren’t for COVID, Fox doesn’t believe Giiwewizh would have looked this way. It would’ve been a social media project, rather than an entirely digital one. But because of the feedback already, next year’s summit is going to do a hybrid next year, with both videos and live events.

“At the final premiere of the shorts I just realized that I actually haven’t rested or thought about anything else for the last four months,” says Fox. “I’m feeling both sadness, because this has been such an incredible journey to embark on and so much joy, because the artists are seeing films for the first time as they premiere. I want to cry.”

After the Summit, the films are heading to the Summer Solstice Indigenous Festival (SSIF), which continues until June 30, and Fox says, fingers crossed, they’ll be broadcasting in the future.

Kelly Boutsalis is a writer and journalist, based in Toronto, formerly of Six Nations. Her words have appeared in The New York Times, Chatelaine, The Walrus, Elle Canada, Flare, The Toronto Star, and more.

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