Toronto Hidden Gem: 'Inconvenient Indian' Offers a Meditation on Circular Indigenous Storytelling

Inconvenient Indian
Courtesy of TIFF

Director Michelle Latimer has replaced a traditional linear narrative with a documentary style in which "the story becomes part of you."

Canadian director Michelle Latimer says she was intimidated when first adapting as a documentary Thomas King’s book Inconvenient Indian, in which the America-born Canadian writer meditates on what it means to be "Indian" in North America.

"I don't consider myself a historian, or an academic," Latimer, a Metis/Algonquin filmmaker, tells The Hollywood Reporter ahead of her film's world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival on Saturday.

So she adopted King's circular style of literary storytelling – where animals are used to tell cryptic tales, and the past is the route to the future – to chronicle on screen the relationship of non-Natives and Native Canadians and Americans over time. "That for me cracked open the storytelling because I started to see the images. King is beautiful with language, but cinema isn't language," Latimer explains.

Indigenous circular storytelling is unlike traditional linear storytelling, where the protagonist is front and center and propelling the narrative forward. "In indigenous storytelling, we consider the storyteller and the listener to be one. And as you hear the story, the story becomes part of you and then you embellish that story and you tell it forward," Latimer explains.

King narrates Inconvenient Indian the documentary, but often while sitting in a movie theater and eating popcorn as he watches early movies about Native peoples, or while seated in a Toronto cab where his driver is fully clad in a coyote fur pelt. "I really didn't want to privilege the voice. I wanted to show how imagery is complicit, and the long history of Native people with the camera and media and their representation of us," Latimer explains.

Her documentary, from 90th Parallel Productions and the National Film Board of Canada, has a dramatic re-enactment of Custer's Last Stand, where the defeated soldiers get back up on the battlefield after their performance, clips from Hollywood westerns, a West Hollywood parade where local ravers dance in primitive Indian costumes, and profiles of Native artists as they paint, make movies or music or dance.

Some stories are wrenching to watch. The film interviews contemporary Cree artist Kent Monkman as he paints "The Scream," in which Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Catholic priests and nuns brutally take a child from a screaming mother's arms on a Native reserve. "These are basically (Native) people who are reclaiming what it means to tell stories with images and through art," Latimer says.

Elsewhere, Inconvenient Indian has storylines cross and diverge to illustrate a thematic relationship between different Indigenous actions. An example is the story of a hunter in Iqaluit who shoots a seal on an ice flow, before clubbing the wounded animal twice on the head to ensure it has died.

Latimer knows that seal-clubbing scene will divide audiences for Inconvenient Indian. "I'm hoping that people have a reaction, a very emotional reaction," she adds unapologetically.

That's because her documentary follows up another scene, in which members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota confront local police officers to protest against the Dakota Access pipeline project, with the Iqaluit hunter next visiting a home to distribute some of his seal meat to an appreciative family.

"That was very deliberate because, okay, if you're so appalled by a man who hunts a seal for meat, and you're not appalled by these images of protesters being desecrated by the state and the federal police, what is the problem here?" Latimer questions.

The tapestry of voices that make up Inconvenient Indian followed Latimer directing Rise, a Viceland documentary series that chronicled the 2016 Dakota Access Pipeline protests. "I had been documenting an ongoing occupation, which meant I was sort of chasing a story. So I wanted to do something different and more formal and also more meditative in how the story was told, so it became much more like a visual poem than an actual on-the-ground chasing a story," the director says of Inconvenient Indian.

Besides the world premiere of her documentary, TIFF will also screen during its 45th edition two episodes of Trickster, a CBC drama Latimer directed based on Eden Robinson’s novel that follows an Indigenous teen struggling to support his dysfunctional family as myth, magic, and monsters seep into his life.

Latimer says book-to-movie adaptations allow the veteran writer/director get out of her own head and follow an author's lead. "That's helpful to me as, okay, there are my instructions and I'm going to work with them. It hones in my focus," she says.