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Montreal's First Peoples' Film Festival

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MONTREAL, Quebec - Inside a cinema on the trendy Rue Saint-Denis in Montreal, spectators settle in for an afternoon matinee. Instead of the latest overpriced Hollywood blockbuster or avant-garde art house picture, they gather to partake in a growing artistic trend among Aboriginal peoples.

For two weeks in June, the 13th annual First Peoples' Festival showcased some of the best in Aboriginal filmmaking. Increasingly, the world's indigenous peoples are looking to film as a medium for their personal and cultural expressions. Similarly, film and video has proven to be a valuable tool to document Native cultures, practices, and struggles from a Native point of view. Both works of fiction and documentaries took to the silver screen in this cosmopolitan city better known for its European flavor than for cutting edge indigenous films.

Organized by Terres en Vues (Land InSights), a cultural organization dedicated to the promotion of Native cultures, the festival featured a retrospective of works by acclaimed Maori director Merata Mita. The stunning "Hotere" - a documentary about the work of Maori artist Ralph Hotere - raises the bar for indigenous documentary filmmaking. "It's wonderful to have a retrospective of my work in Montreal," Mita said, "and present it to a whole new audience."

Collectively, New Zealand and Australian works were well represented. Explorations, a collection of short films made for television, were both edgy and urban as well as poignant and rooted in indigenous cultures.

The French language was well represented with various works including the world premiere of the clever "Attache ta Tuqu?" (a regional expression roughly translated as "hold on to your hat"), a low budget but effective road movie about an Algonquin man and a Russian woman on the run from the Russian mafia throughout First Nations lands.

Alanis Obomsawin (Abenaki) - one of North America's most accomplished documentary filmmakers with over 20 works to her credit - sees Native filmmaking as an extension, or evolution, of indigenous oral traditions. "Films fit everywhere in the Native storytelling traditions," she said. "It is a natural extension. An image may say a thousand words, but words alone can be much more specific and powerful."

"Is the Crown at War with Us?" which played on closing night, explores why Canadian government officials attacked Mi'qmak citizens for exercising fishing rights that had been affirmed by the nation's Supreme Court.

Just as Native filmmaking is pushing the boundaries of world cinema, within the selected films themselves certain works experimented with form and narrative. One of the most powerful experimental shorts - "Thorn Grass" - imagined the life of 16-year old Fred C. Martinez Jr., a young Navajo transvestite, before his murder in Colorado in 2001.

At a lavish awards show, the festivals bestowed two prizes each for fiction and documentary. Winner of first place in the Creation (fiction) category, France's "Tu es, je suis ... L'invention des Jivaros" traced the origin of shrunken heads on auction in Paris to an indigenous community deep in the Amazonian jungle.

Second prize in the same category was given to Brazil's "The Bow and the Lyre," a touching examination of one woman's love and the music she creates to express it. Upon receiving her award, director Priscilla Ermel spontaneously performed two songs in her native Portuguese much to the audience's delight. "We always like to sing in Brazil," she said.

Winners in the Communities (documentary) category were given to two powerful Canadian films. Elisapie Isaac's (Inuk) "Si le temps le permet" - a touching tribute to her late grandfather - won first place. Her film documents her journey back to her birthplace in Nunavik where she finds the struggle to preserve traditional life persists.

Mi'kmaw filmmaker Catherine Martin's "The Spirit of Annie Mae" - the second place winner - explores the life and humanity of Annie Mae Aquash, the American Indian Movement activist who was killed in 1975. Rather than focusing solely on her tragic, and as yet unsolved, death, Martin explores her life and the choices that brought her to Wounded Knee. The film marks the first time, Annie Mae's daughters granted permission to a filmmaker to tell the story of their mother's life.

At the festival's close, Andre Dudemaine (Innu), a founding member, and Mary Ellen Davis, festival coordinator, pleased with the audience attendance levels look ahead to next year's event. Judging by the quality and diversity of work on show for two hot and humid weeks in Montreal, it seems that at the heart of French Canada beats a First Nations drum.

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