Toronto: Indigenous Filmmakers Talk Cultural Appropriation, Narrative Sovereignty

Chelsea Winstanley - Getty - H 2019
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"Our history has often been told in a romantic or colonized way or from the colonizers' perspective," 'Jojo Rabbit' producer Chelsea Winstanley told a TIFF industry panel.

The Toronto Film Festival on Thursday grappled with the issue of Hollywood co-opting minority cultures for story content as Indigenous filmmakers challenged White directors not to take on the voices of underrepresented communities as their own.

"The history of cinema has not valued authenticity. It's been okay to tell any story you want. The perspective that I bring adds layer upon layer to that story," Canadian director Tracey Deer, who has brought her coming-of-age tale Beans to Toronto for a world premiere, told a TIFF panel on narrative sovereignty.

Amid a reckoning over race, the major studios and film financiers elsewhere are looking to tap more diverse voices to tell stories just as Black, Indigenous and People of Color push back against what they see as inaccurate representations of their communities created by White artists.

"Our history has often been told in a romantic or colonized way or from the colonizers' perspective. And therefore that authenticity will always be skewed towards their worldview," Chelsea Winstanley, the Maori producer behind Taika Waititi's Jojo Rabbit, warned during the Thursday afternoon panel.

N. Bird Runningwater, director of Sundance Institute’s Indigenous Program, cited as "encroachment" and cultural appropriation Martin Scorcese's Killers of the Flower Moon, which is to be based on the David Grann nonfiction book about the 1920s murders of Osage Nation Native Americans and will star Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro.

As an antidote, Runningwater praised efforts to diversify movie production for global audiences as the film industry pivots from traditional storytelling tropes. "I'm really proud of the work that we at Sundance have done to push filmmakers to not just do cookie-cutter films that are really rooted in a three-act structure, and very basic western canons of what cinema is," he argued.

"The more that we decolonize that, and restructure it, the best is yet to come in terms of what indigenous stories will be and the influence they have on the industry," Runningwater said.

The Toronto Film Festival industry conference continues through Sept. 14.