The Spirit Buffalo approaches the fire at the center of the Arbour. | NFB

This Is Not a Ceremony Review: A Healing Process

Sundance 2022

4 mins read

Niitsitapi artist Ahnahktsipiitaa (Colin Van Loon) immerses audiences in an exercise of oral storytelling in This Is Not a Ceremony. This virtual reality work from the NFB invites audiences to witness a healing process and observe firsthand the lives affected by colonialism. Viewed through a headset, The Is Not a Ceremony lets a user plant their feet in a fire as a spirit buffalo gallops around the arena. A dark night sky shines with the stars as the flames of the campfire flicker at one’s feet. Intricate visuals, particularly the dazzling dimensions of the spirit buffalo, offer an immediate hook. However, as the project yields to sobering images, This Is Not a Ceremony lets reality sink in.

Two poets, played by Taran Kootenhayoo and Tawahum Bige, emerge from the darkness. They invite the user to snap out of his or her enchantment with the magical sights around them. The poets yield the floor to elder Lillian Howard. The sky then opens up and gives her room to speak. Howard introduces the stories of two men and This Is Not a Ceremony whisks users back in time to bear witness to moments in which the settler state failed them.


Witness to History

Howard invites Adam North Peigan to speak. As the user and the poets look to the sky, Peigan testifies to abuse he faced in the foster care system. This Is Not a Ceremony exits the healing circle and teleports the user to a farm in Alberta where Adam grew up. Standing amid the gravel driveway by the farmhouse, the user watches a car pull up to the farm. Adam recounts the abuse he endured and the day on which he thought a social worker came to save him. As a user, one can only approach the house so much. This Is Not a Ceremony keeps users at a distance. One therefore feels an overwhelming sense of passivity as all one can do is watch what unfolds. Ahnahktsipiitaa makes one witness the cost of doing nothing, and then see the lingering effects in Adam’s adult self.

The second storyteller invited to the fire is Robert Sinclair. He testifies to the life of Brian Sinclair and lets the user see why Brian is no longer here to tell his story. This Is Not a Ceremony then takes the user to a hospital room where Brian sits in a wheelchair. Parked haphazardly in the waiting room, he anticipates treatment that never comes. People don’t notice him, and one might do the same while scanning one’s head around the hospital to take in the hustle-bustle. As this story unfolds, one observes the system’s indifference to Indigenous lives as Brian deteriorates before one’s eyes. With both these stories, This Is Not a Ceremony challenges users to experience systemic injustice from an Indigenous perspective.


Stories Get the Respect They Deserve

The stories in This Is Not a Ceremony are indeed difficult, but exploring them through the vr world implores one to give them attention, whereas an online short might allow a viewer to click away. Ahnahktsipiitaa, moreover, respectfully balances the awesomeness of the visual effects with the sobriety of the storytelling. The initial images are dazzling, but more so are the direct address testimonies that follow. This Is Not a Ceremony affords the speakers the respect they deserve. It’s not an easy experience, but a healing one.


This Is Not a Ceremony premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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