REVIEW: Inconvenient Indian (TIFF 2020)
Inconvenient Indian, a new documentary from Michelle Latimer, is a celebration of all that Indigenous people in so-called North America have survived. Based on the dense text with the same name by Thomas King, the 90 minute runtime commemorates the resiliency of Indigenous people after all that colonization has used against us. With Mr. King acting as the narrator and guide, Inconvenient Indian examines the past and current fight for Indigenous visibility and access to land while also celebrating the resurgence of cultural practices once forbidden.
The Indigenous groups from North America are too often seen through a corrupted lens. The inaccurate portrayals of Indigenous people have created what King calls a “dead Indian” which are those usually seen in old western films. He is a non-combative, silent individual that cannot exist in the modern world. This has created a monolithic and priminitive idea across unique groups of people that deserve to be seen for their differences. This “dead Indian” is only good for the entertainment of the white gaze.
Halloween costumes, festival outfits, and cheap t-shirts from big box stores with a headdress on the front are all examples of a simplification that has happened to Native people. This is why when land and water defenders speak out about injustices, like Standing Rock, the masses are astonished. Actual modern Indigenous people do not fit the model of the “dead Indian”, which is what motivates the myth that those native to so-called Canada and the United States no longer exist.
Latimer introduces these issues but does not leave them hopelessly unanswered. The documentary goes on to show various Indigenous people, from different backgrounds and cultures and skill sets, who are resisting the false narrative just by existing. Native people still exist and the powerful message of Inconvenient Indian is that despite the forced assimilation, boarding schools, and suppression of Indigenous practices: we are still here.
What makes this documentary unique is Latimer’s direction. There are images that are hard to see, such as protestors who are protecting the land being violently attacked with rubber bullets, but these moments are never exploited. Inconvenient Indian refuses to make Indigenous people the victims. Because of this, the harder-to-watch moments of the documentary are not there to trauma bond with the audience, but to inform and fill in some of the gaps left behind from a bad history education.
Every time a moment of agony or misrepresentation is mentioned, it is then counteracted with the truth. While this is evident in individual moments, the entire narrative also flows in a similar way. The beginning of Inconvenient Indian explores how Indigenous people became so erased from society but the ultimate conclusion of the film is hopeful.
Hope is built through moments where different Indigenous people and youth, from different nations and tribes, show their reclamation of cultural practices. For example, Inuk filmmaker and activist Alethea Arnaquq-Baril is shown getting her traditional face tattoos. Practices like these were once banned, criminalized, and forced to be forgotten – but not anymore. The generation before underwent a great amount of pain and sacrifice due to some one-sided laws that banned most Indigenous traditions but currently, there is a reawakening. For Indigenous people, surviving colonization leaves us in a post-apocalyptic world and we have the chance to make something even greater for the generations to come.
While being Indigenous might bring people together, the diversity in our cultures and practices is what makes the community unique. Within that, opinions vary regarding what it means to be Native. These conversations are difficult and nuanced and a documentary like Inconvenient Indian is a step in the right direction to create room for hard topics. Despite our differences, we have a common enemy in our erasure and not having opportunity to be in charge of our own stories.
Inconvenient Indian is evidence of a director that is handling the subject matter with care. While the conversation in the film industry is all about diversity, the real questions should be: “What stories should be told? Who would be best to tell this story?” Inconvenient Indian is an example of the correct person handling a story that needs to be told. The documentary appropriately tells a history, informs on current events, and builds a feeling of hope for the future.