For the 17th edition of the Vancouver Latin American Film Festival (VLAFF), I caught up with artists, filmmakers, educators, and programmers Sonia Medel and Sarah Shamash to learn more about the Indigenous Film from B.C. & Beyond Program and their process co-curating together for the first time. Sonia has been a part of the program for approximately six years, while this is Sarah’s first year curating for the program, she has been curating for VLAFF for three years.
The trust, respect, and understanding for one another and their work is evident. They speak passionately about this year’s special edition of the program, which centres Mother Tongue, and weaves a hemispheric dialogue across Turtle Island and Abya Yala.
Angie Rico: On VLAFF’s website I read that this year’s Indigenous Film from B.C. & Beyond program is in line with the UN’s declaration of 2019 as the Year of Indigenous Languages, can you tell me more about how the idea for this year’s program came about?
Sarah Shamash: Both of us are involved with other Latin American film festivals; Sonia in Colombia with the Cartagena Film Festival, and I in Brazil at the Cine Kurumin Festival. We had both been watching all of this material, and were so excited about it that we could have made 10 programs. That was a big influence on creating this program for us…also being connected and inspired by a lot of the local Indigenous filmmakers across Turtle Island.
The United Nations declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages. Obviously, Indigenous languages are important independently of the UN’s declaration, but we thought this was a good year to draw attention to language sovereignty and to align our focus with the UN’s initiative.
Sonia Medel: It would have been hard for me to jump into Mother Tongue if there wasn’t a personal need and desire to learn something about the growing conversation of the importance of it. Sarah and I were on the same page about looking for cinematic content that was really powerful, even if it was from a few years back. We both wanted to honour the work that has been done and respect the fact that there are filmmakers and educators that have been really fighting for this in their practice for decades.
AR: What was the curatorial process like?
SS: We didn’t have a strict idea that we were trying to impose. The process became about figuring out what these artists and filmmakers were telling us in terms of the issues and topics they were covering, and what we could draw out of the themes that they were presenting to us. One of the things that came from thinking about Mother Tongue is how language is connected to land, history, future, and Indigenous sovereignty. It opened up into how we can think about language in different ways. Being connected to a Latin American perspective, the issue of how we were to bring this here came up. We were thinking about the audiences: Metis, First Nations, diasporic Latin Americans, the Vancouver public. It was, and continues to be, an interesting challenge to think about that balance.
SM: Sarah and I have always wondered what the role of the curator is. We are also on the other side of doing art, so we have emotions on both sides of that line. There are conversations happening about the colonial origins of curation, but it’s not a conversation that is very active yet at least within the Latinx context. There are always dangerous possibilities depending on how you do it and what you bring together. We are speaking lightly about it now, but I think up until the last minute we were questioning what to put in. What happens if we take something out? Are we excluding a perspective? Every film has had so much conversation around it. There was a little bit of fear of over-curating, or clamping down too tightly on what Mother Tongue is. We have a lot of material that didn’t make it, and its not because it’s not great, it’s just that we had to make cuts, which is why we hope to do something else with this program beyond this festival screening.
Steeped in film culture and education, both women recognize the potential of film as a cultural force. They cite Dr. Dorothy Christian, David Hernández Palmar, and Amalia Cordova as a few of their influences on the ways they continue to learn and think about Indigenous film. Another important influence for them was Jules Koostachin, an Attawapiskat First Nation filmmaker, producer, scholar and poet whose work both Sarah and Sonia agree is critical for understanding First Nations perspectives and perspectives of land of self, culture, motherhood. Koostachin is credited as cultural advisor for this year’s program.
SM: Sarah and I are collaborating on a publication project. In reading books from different leading Indigenous and Afro peoples throughout the world, we found there’s a lot of work being done and thoughts offered on what the role of a “cultural advisor” is. To be honest, it was just another term for me. Our work with Jules was more an opportunity to have all of our content and someone we respect as an academic colleague, as an artist, as a woman, etc. and say “if there’s any problem or anything you don’t agree with, we will look at it, have a conversation and remove it.”
SS: We’re both really big fans of Jules and have connected with her in different ways, we have a big trust and respect for her. Having her bring her perspective, experience, and expertise on board felt really natural for both of us and our mutual interest for highlighting women power in film as well. For me as a non-Indigenous person to have somebody who can bring a First Nations perspective to any kind of cultural work is critical.
SM: I am still curious about what’s going to happen to film festival work and I’m concerned as to how I can encourage someone who is in that role to feel comfortable saying that they don’t approve of something. I highlight that because as it becomes important to include Indigenous content (specifically in a Latinx context), for those that don’t identify as Indigenous, or those who are just on the process of coming to value that history, I think that there can be a little bit of a manipulative approach, a tendency of wanting to go with someone who you think won’t question your programming.
Sonia details how the program has seen a slow, yet significant shift from all angles; beginning with public attendance. When she first formed part of it, there was maybe 30-40 audience members, last year there were about 110.
SM: Generally speaking, short films don’t draw the biggest audiences, and then secondly as a Latin American (and I say that as a big term cause maybe not everyone identifies with that) community, this was not something that we were used to here in Vancouver, there’s more of a draw to international big-hit films. As a festival we’ve slowly come to understand that “Indigenous” cannot be a side thing, we should be looking at how it should form part throughout the festival. I don’t think we’re alone in that, a lot of festivals are grappling with the same thing.
SS: I think there is a shift happening. I’ve talked to a lot of younger generations and I recognize an interest in connecting with Indigenous heritages and histories that maybe wasn’t there before. The films in this program may be challenging to a general public in some ways, but we do hope that people challenge themselves and are able to see and appreciate these other ways of working. It’s not about putting the emphasis on high production value and slick editing, but rather focusing on the cinematic language of these filmmakers in terms of their access to production and technology and the stories that they want to tell and how they want to tell them.
AR: What do you hope audiences take away from the program?
SM: The immense power of revitalizing, honoring, learning, and centering mother tongue languages, and the complexity of maintaining these languages. When I talk about complexity, I also talk about personal experience. I am an Indigenous descendant and much more aware of my communities of belonging on one side, I’m struggling to learn Quechua. So there is this vast and continuous struggle, and I hope that people can take away the similarities and differences in these struggles and how this forms a part of identities.
SS: Language is culture, there’s so much diversity and richness, but we didn’t just want to show the beautiful side of things, we also wanted to show how violence and colonization have been a destructive force and in turn show the resilience that Indigenous people have been fighting for for 500 years from Latin America to here. In the case of Brazil, I feel like there’s actually a humanitarian crisis (especially for Indigenous leaders) happening at the moment, so I hope there’s always an opportunity to create awareness about the issues in Latin America, which are always shifting.
SM: From VLAFF as a whole, I hope people take away that we as a festival, are a work-in-progress. I don’t want to perpetuate the assumption that, as a Latinx organization, it’s smooth sailing in any sort of way. We are very different people on our team, we don’t all hold one particular political perspective. In a way, the films we present are a lens into our conversations, differences, and similarities.
SS: That speaks to the diversity in Latin American cinema, we want people to see that.
Sarah and Sonia are committed to encouraging a dialogue around these ongoing questions and issues beyond the screening process. They highlight the importance in engaging with curators of any type of festival in order to hold them, and the entire dynamic of a festival, accountable.