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Miles Morrisseau
ICT

TORONTO — For the first time since the COVID pandemic, the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival returned to Toronto with films on the big screen in front of live audiences eating popcorn, parties across the city and a celebration of the career of Gary Farmer.

The festival honors creative works in digital media, experimental, animation, feature and documentary film. It is the only Indigenous film festival in which the film that wins the Live Action Short film is eligible for Academy Award consideration. This year’s winner was Roxann Karonhiarakwas Whitebean for her film, “Rose.”

The festival screened 19 feature films and more than 100 short films by Indigenous creatives from around the world. There were films for family and friends, romance lovers, horror fans as well as environmental defenders and language warriors.

Gary Farmer, Cayuga from the Six Nations of Grand River, received the August Schellenberg Award for Excellence in recognition of a career that has spread over four decades. His work off screen as media pioneer and activist was noted as well as acting on small stages of independent Indigenous theater productions to big screen acclaim in films with actors like Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro and Edward Norton.

Farmer was acknowledged for his groundbreaking work in theatre, film and television with clips from his performance as Nobody opposite Johnny Depp in “Dead Man,” a role which earned him an Independent Spirit Award as best supporting actor and as his current role as the lovable and wise Uncle Brownie in the popular Hulu show, “Reservation Dogs.”

Farmer received the festival's award for excellence named after the late actor August Schellenberg. He was introduced by multi-disciplinary artist Jani Lauzon. “There are so many facets to Gary's career – actor, producer, advocate, activist, and musician. So much of what we can all accomplish in our industry today is due to the fact that Gary is a dreamer. He thinks big. He believes,” said Lauzon, who is currently directing her play at the renowned Stratford Festival.

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“He knew as a visionary that in creating the Aboriginal Voices Radio Network the community could celebrate and support each other and he knew that having role models to look up to would foster pride in the next generation encouraging them also to dream big. The same could be said about Aboriginal Voices Magazine that Gary founded and helped publish for 10 years from 1993 to 2003. This is all of course on top of an incredible career as an actor which began in 1975 on the stages of Toronto.”

The crowd at the TIFF Lightbox Theatre stood and cheered as Farmer took to the stage to accept his award which he graciously accepted and gave his appreciation to be back in the city where his career started with a greeting and introduction in his language and gave thanks for the gorgeous fall weather. “I thank the sun for shining in our faces today, you know. It's beautiful to be back here in Toronto,” then noting his famous nude performances on stage, screen and most recently (spoiler alert) at the end of season one of “Reservation Dogs.” Farmer said “I'm sure you're all happy that I just got clothes on at all. But it's been a wonderful career, to say the least.”

He acknowledged his first agent Celia Chassels as someone “who got Native America going here in Canada, Native people, in terms of casting. There wasn't many agents that took on Native People in the 70s and early 80s.” He thanked his current agent “because I’m still working away.” Then thanked family and friends in attendance and reminisced on those early days when the Indigenous theater scene which became the Indigenous film and TV scene was being created. “It was a wonderful time Thompson Highway and Rene Highway and all that experience with Eative Earth Performing Arts and of course, The Centre for Indigenous Theatre,” he recalls of two fledgling companies that have become institutions. “I was the first guy that kind of showed up there (at C.I.T) with a bunch of Cape Croker kids who didn't really wanna act or be a part of the scene, but I found my way through all that and it's just an honor to come back to you all.”

Gary Farmer, Cayuga from the Six Nations of Grand River, received the August Schellenberg Award for Excellence in recognition of a career that has spread over four decades at the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival in Toronto. (Photo by Miles Morrisseau, ICT)

Other major winners at the festival include “SAAMSIK - Great Grandmother’s Hat,” which won for best documentary feature, “Stolen: The Search for Jermainby Connie Walker was chosen for the Best Narrative Audio Award, “Mikiwam by Keara and Caeleigh Lightning was chosen New Artist in Digital and Interactive, “We are Still Here” was chosen Best Dramatic Feature at the festival an an epic historical action drama between Maori and Indigenous Australians.

The in-person part of the festival is a wrap but you can still stream many of the films during the online portion of the festival which continues until Sunday. Visit them at www.imagineNative.com.

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