The ninth annual Winnipeg Aboriginal Film Festival offers entertaining, enlightening cinema that both challenges and transcends ethnic identity

By Kenton Smith, published in Uptown

Is Winnipeg the ideal place for an Aboriginal film festival?

Emphatically yes, says Coleen Rajotte, artistic director of the ninth annual Winnipeg Aboriginal Film Festival, which kicked off on Nov. 24 and runs through the 28. “Winnipeg has the most urban Aboriginal people in Canada. And this is an event that celebrates our culture.”

The WAFF is a celebration of culture from around the world; in fact, its mission statement is to showcase the best of global Indigenous cinema. While over 50% of the content is Canadian this year, the rest of the program originates from the U.S., Germany, Greenland and New Zealand.

The festival is also a great opportunity for films to cultivate audiences. “It’s fantastic to have themed fests like this,” says Sara McIntyre, director of the feature Two Indians Talking, which previously won the People’s Choice Award for Most Popular Canadian Film at the 2010 Vancouver International Film Festival.

“What it does is provide a framework for the programmed films. A lot of good work can get lost in the larger film fests out there.”

Still, McIntyre would hate to think the WAFF’s appeal would be limited only to Aboriginal audiences. “It’s very important for any group of people to see itself represented in media,” she says. “But film also has the power to let us learn about each other. It enables a perspective we didn’t have before we walked into the theatre.”

The WAFF certainly has the power to raise wider awareness of issues pertaining to Aboriginal peoples. One featured short that tackles pertinent local issues head-on is Wabama 2010, starring Wab Kinew, a local Anishinaabe hip hop artist, news reporter for CBC TV in Winnipeg and host of CBC Radio’s The (204).

The premise? Kinew runs to be Winnipeg’s first Aboriginal mayor, in mockumentary fashion.

“A large part of our intention was to push buttons,” says producer/director Carl Karp. One featured staged stunt was to offer passersby at The Forks a (brown) sample of actual drinking water from Peguis First Nation reserve. (Kinew also speculates, in rap form, that Winnipeggers would probably expect an Aboriginal mayor to come late every day and legalize gambling.)

Entertainment, however, remained the No. 1 priority. “There has to be a balance of comedy and a barbed point,” Karp says. “There’s no question a lot of non-Aboriginal Winnipeggers are having trouble coming to terms with certain realities for the Native population.

“Still — that message is easier to swallow if it’s conveyed through comedy. So our first goal was to be funny. However we hope that reflection follows the laughter.”

“Our festival welcomes everyone — we really hope people don’t see this as an Aboriginal-only event,” Rajotte says. “It’s a way to bring people together.”

The theme this year is Moving Towards Healing. As Rajotte says, “I think that can be brought about by sharing our stories and experiences.

“The most outstanding films over the years, like Chris Ayre’s A Thousand Roads (2005), stand out precisely because they challenge stereotypes about Aboriginal people. They bring a new understanding to audiences about who we are.”

The Winnipeg Aboriginal Film Festival runs until Nov. 28 at various venues around Winnipeg. For complete program and showtime information, visit