Did you hear the one about the first nations’ comedy?

By Randy Shore, Vancouver Sun, September 16, 2009

VANCOUVER — A made-in-B.C. film project aims to expand one of the least-explored film genres, the first nations comedy. The screenplay by Sto:lo/Ojibway writer Andrew Genaille will neatly double the number of films in the category.

While Discussing Mr. Darcy may not warrant a Native Comedy section marker at Blockbuster, the film might just thaw the frosty image that first nations people wear in TV, movies and in the news.

In a nod to Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, two young native men who plan to participate in a native roadblock spend hours talking about their issues in every way under the sun. One is university-educated and urbanized in the white world, the other a rez boy, who has never lived anywhere but on the reservation.

The main characters are played by veteran actor Nathaniel Arcand (Heartland) and newcomer Justin Rain.

“The issues that we deal with are universal to aboriginals: poor reserves and how living there affects natives psychologically,” Genaille says.

The anger and desperation that lead to flashpoint events such as roadblocks result from cultural oppression, generational dysfunction, disenfranchisement, substance abuse and all the darkness that accompany them.

“Humour is how we get through those dark times,” Genaille said. “The humour between them is the kind you see between aboriginals all the time, there’s teasing and they are making fun of themselves.”

It’s an image of first nations people that the broader community seldom sees.

“When aboriginals are in the media, it’s always something dark, a confrontation,” Genaille said. Images from roadblocks are fraught with tension and the threat of violence, but that’s not all that’s going on.

“If you visit a roadblock, the natives are there for their political reasons, but they have a weird sense of humour about it,” he said. “I’ve seen the RCMP sitting around with the guys drinking coffee and laughing, but you don’t see that in the media.”

“Natives are a silly bunch of people.”

Humour plays multiple roles in native culture, in particular gentle mocking and teasing, as a way of forming friendships and defusing tension. It is often so subtle that overly earnest Caucasians miss it entirely, a fact many natives exploit for their amusement, just to see how long it will take their hapless victims to catch on. Teasing functions like a first nations IQ test for outsiders.

“I do that myself,” Genaille said.“When I’m with minority people, not just aboriginals but all different minorities, I see a racially based teasing just to see how far you can take it and get away with it.”

“It’s a way of testing other people. If they laugh at your jokes you have something in common.”

Beckett’s masterpiece and the existential comedy Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead provided the minimalist model Genaille needed to deal with his issues on a low budget.

The film is set almost entirely on the reservation and was shot on the Squamish first nation’s Capilano reserve in North Vancouver with only six cast members. Director Sara McIntyre is financing the film with a personal loan and has spent a microscopic $25,000 on the nine-day shoot that concluded last week.

“The dialogue is based on conversations that I have had with friends and family members over the years,” Genaille said. The fast-rising screenwriter for the 2005 Adam Beach film Johnny Tootall lives on Sto:lo land in the Fraser Valley. “I’m related to half the people in Chilliwack.”

“The perspectives of these characters are common to the reserve,” he said. “On my reserve we have younger university-educated natives who are coming back and living with elders who follow the traditional ways.”

Genaille and McIntyre met through a friend and Genaille started sending scripts to McIntyre at a pace of about one a week until she read Two Indians Talking, the film’s working title.

“He really whips them off, in a week or a week and a half,” said McIntyre. She was smitten with the dialogue and laughed out loud when she read it.

“It felt like a conversation that I had not been allowed to have,” she said. “I know we are surrounded by native culture, but I had never felt safe asking questions about it, there’s just so much political correctness.

“But this story is so frank and so irreverent, it’s completely disarming,” she said. “These two very different guys have to come to terms with their commitment to the roadblock and the possibility of even dying because once you start you are in it until the end.”

The humour is how they find their courage, she said.

McIntyre expects to have the film completed by the end of the year, in time for next year’s film festival entry deadlines.

Genaille is keeping busy with a new documentary series in which urban natives are taken from the city to live in the bush for a week. He is also working on a feature film, Paul, another dark project.

“It’s about a suicidal man who is saved by a girl who is then murdered by a serial killer, but it has all kinds of humour in it,” he said.

It’s how we get through dark times.

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