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imagineNATIVE film & media arts festival

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By Marc Glassman

Now in 11th year, the imagineNATIVE film & media arts festival (www.imagineNATIVE.org) has carved out a niche for itself in the overcrowded Toronto calendar. In a city that hosts over 75 film festivals a year, imagineNATIVE is definitely in the upper echelon, with a highly respected curatorial approach and a canny ability to reach out to their community–and beyond—every fall. Like Reel Asian and The Toronto Jewish Film Festival, the festival has assiduously pursued international partnerships while flying the Canadian cultural flag.

Knowledgeable Torontonians count on the imagineNATIVE programmers to choose artistic and hard-hitting films, videos and new media works from First Nations societies in New Zealand and Australia as well as ones from North and South America.

2010 is no exception. The Opening Night film Boy is a Sundance award-winning coming-of-age drama set in the aboriginal community of New Zealand. And the festival is dedicated to the pioneering Maori filmmaker Merata Mita, who passed away earlier this year.

The organizers of imagineNATIVE have created a panoply of events to entice their core audience to return many times over the five days of the festival. Workshops, master-classes, radio works and live music dot the calendar. New media installations and on-line works emphasize interactive role-playing ranging from “truth or dare” games to the recreation of ancient myths on computer screens.

And there are films—mainly shorts but with a highly selective list of features. Boy has already played but the Closing Night video A Windigo Tale is also a feature. (It plays at the Bloor Cinema at 7 pm this Sunday.) In it, the brilliant First Nations actor Gary Farmer (Dead Man, Adaptation, Smoke Signals) leads an ensemble cast including Jani Lauzon, Andrea Menard and author Lee Maracle in a tale of guilt, abuse, vengeance and the supernatural.

Ojibway producer, writer and director Armand Garnet Ruffo has created a complex story-within-a-story narrated by Farmer’s Harold to his grandson Curtis (Elliot Simon). Combining mythology with an unflinching look at the scandalous residential schools system that tore First Nations families apart for more than a generation, A Windigo Tale moves inexorably towards a stunning denouement.

The story Harold tells Curtis is about Doris (Jani Lauzon), a mother who sent her daughter Lily (Andrea Menard) to the City when she was an adolescent for reasons that only become clear towards the film’s conclusion. When Lily returns to the small Northern town where she was born to help her mother get over the death of her stepfather, they quickly encounter the demons of their shared past. Doris’ husband was an abuser and she fears that he’ll come back from the dead as a windigo, a terrifying, cannibalistic supernatural figure.

Hanging over this fantastic and highly personal tale is the memory of the reservation school that traumatized Doris thoroughly–and had a powerful influence on Lily’s life as well. Emotional, political and well written, A Windigo Tale rises above its low-budget video look, becoming a tragic and effective story that a larger audience would appreciate.

It’s not too likely that Ruffo’s feature will ever receive a commercial release. It’s a drama that will find its viewers at niche festivals–like the wonderful imagineNATIVE.

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