By Kristi Alexandra
If you were in public school anytime up until the late oughties, you’d know that education on the indigenous experience was lacking — to say the least.
Documentarian and playwright Marie Clements, incensed to learn more about her own history and share it with the rest of Canada, came upon The Native Voice, a British Columbia-based newspaper run by and for First Nation peoples. The now-defunct paper is the focal point of the Métis-Dene filmmaker’s musical documentary, The Road Forward, which will be debuting at DOXA this week.
The 101-minute film features stunningly shot musical sequences, bringing to life several decades of articles from The Native Voice. Soaring vocals, blues, rock, and traditional beats all back subject matter such as the missing and murdered Indigenous women and moving forward politically.
“Part of the grace of this project was not only finding history I had no idea that was connected to this part of the land or of our collective history, but also understanding that these native activists who formed The Native Voice were [creating] newspapers… that shaped stories that were happening in our communities: socially, politically and legally,” Clements reveals to Loose Lips over the phone.
“For the first time, I was really able to digest news from a First Nations point-of-view, and some of the biggest points of our history were documented: little-known things. It’s just really their ability to share a native reality across borders and across nations.”
Now supported by the National Film Board (NFB), The Road Forward was initially a 10-minute live-performance piece commissioned by the cultural Olympiad in 2010. It was presented at the Aboriginal pavilion during Vancouver’s Olympics.
“At that time, we were really trying to celebrate our history and how that history informed our work as artists and the land we live on,” Clements offers.
“I started researching and came across The Native Voice [and] I was able to go into their offices and have access to 60 or 70 years worth of newspaper articles.”
Raised in North Vancouver, while much of her family resided in the Northwest Territories, Clements admits she didn’t always feel connected to her history locally.
“I think when you go to school at a certain time in this country, a lot of that history was overlooked or rewritten that really didn’t celebrate the truth,” she says. “The more we know, the more we can understand that it’s a really a shared history, and that just makes us smarter and better, and, to be honest, it’s just more interesting.”
The Road Forward moves from the 1930s onwards, with political movements and stories being told through music, juxtaposed by moving interviews with the musicians and singers speaking intimately about what it means to be contemporary First Nations artists.
“We also played with styles and with time periods all the way up to present day, because the musical is also allowing artists to give voice to their experience through their work and through their words,” the documentarian says.
“Contemporary aboriginal musicians and artists really worked to create the sound that I think mirrors the experience of the film.”
Another prevalent element of the film? Women, she says.
“Organically, one of the great finds of The Native Voice was also understanding that at a time when women’s voices were not heard or silenced, The Native Voice had a very strong female presence and the founders were women. We rarely see pictures or movies about women in the newsroom in the ’30s, ’40s, or ’50s or even the ’60s, so I think that was kind of unique to this newspaper,” Clements beams.
“Originally, it was really looking at what we’re dealing with now. These social movements like Idle No More and even just recently Standing Rock, and looking at the idea that this is not a new phenomena; this is an accumulation of a long history and tradition of movement in North America. I was just really honoured to be able to go back and understand this history in a way that a lot of us feel we’re benefitting from, what a lot of early native activists did in this country. It does really feel like there’s this acceleration.”
The Road Forward kicks off DOXA festival this Thursday, May 4 at The Vogue Theatre. DOXA Documentary Film Festival runs May 4 –14, 2017. Tickets are available online at www.doxafestival.ca.
Kristi Alexandra is an unabashed wino and wannabe musician. Her talents include drinking an entire bottle of cabernet sauvignon, singing in the bathtub, and falling asleep.