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Miles Morrisseau

TORONTO, Canada — A new documentary celebrating the unparalleled life of Buffy Sainte-Marie kicked off the Toronto International Film Festival Thursday, with her dynamic life of music and light keeping the audience enraptured by her story, personality, wisdom and joy.

The film, “Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On,” played its world premiere to a packed house at the Bell Lightbox Theatre on the opening day of the international film festival.

At the screening, the 81-year-old Cree legend told the audience she always wants to lift people up with her music, even after facing hard truths.

“Some of my songs, like ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee’ or ‘Now that The Buffalo is Gone,’ they are painful,” she said. “They’re painful for both what happened to us and the people who are descendants of the people who did these things in the world. And when I sing a song like that, I always follow it with something super positive.

“I really believe that music can really hurt you, but it can also really be healing and medicinal,” she said. “And so I'm always very careful to follow one of those hard-hitting songs with something like ‘Starwalker’ or ‘Carry It On,’ or ‘You Got to Run.’”

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The film’s director, Madison Thomson, Ojibwe/Saulteaux and Russian/Ukrainian, told ICT the documentary celebrates the childlike joy and wonder that Sainte-Marie resonates.

“It really is having some time to know her,” Thomson said. “It's all really tied to the fact that I don't think she ever lost that childhood energy and spirit and sense of curiosity and play. It's so there even when you talk to her now.”

The event began with a prayer by Lisa Meeches, executive producer of Eagle Vision, which produced the 2022 documentary with White Pine Productions. She took the stage with her daughter highlighting the role that Sainte-Marie has played for Indigenous girls around the world for a half-century.

After the film, Sainte-Marie was greeted by one of her few peers – documentary filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin, who appears in the film.

Inimitable spirit

The film moves through Sainte-Marie’s extraordinary life, though there are numerous points in which the truth is hard to reconcile.

Anger wells up inside as she talks about being abused as a child, being blacklisted from American radio because of pressure from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, and losing the publishing royalties to her song, “Universal Soldier” as a young artist.

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Legendary Cree musician Buffy Sainte-Marie, left, was greeted by iconic filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin after the premiere screening of a new documentary, "Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On." They are shown with the film's director, Madison Thomson, Ojibwe/Saulteaux and Russian/Ukrainian. (Photo by Miles Morrisseau/ICT)

In the film, though, she laughs off the news that her music disappeared from the radio stations at a time when music of protest and counter-culture messages were all the rage. She says she thought she had just gone out of fashion.

Yet the hurt is balanced by her inimitable spirit and undeniable success on her own terms. She is one of just a few musicians of the 1960s generation who remain relevant, and she continues to tour and make music that is contemporary and also classic.

Her 2018 album, “Power in the Blood,” was chosen for the Polaris Prize that year, beating out Drake and Arcade Fire, and her work in the Cradleboard teaching project is her commitment to Indigenous children and culturally sensitive education.

‘What are we going to do next?’

And she’s not stopping yet. The film has been nominated in the Best Canadian Feature Film category at the Toronto festival, and Sainte-Marie is set to receive the Jeff Skoll Award in Impact Media presented to artists who are leaders in connecting cinema and social impact.

Director Thomson said Sainte-Marie’s enduring passion and drive is the film’s coda.

“Not to give away spoilers to anyone,” she told ICT, “but the film ends with Buffy asking at the end of her four- or five-day … master interview, ‘What's next? What are we doing next?’ And I think that really sums her up as a person.”

Indeed, Sainte-Marie told the audience Thursday night about an upcoming retrospective on her music and pioneering digital artwork at the National Arts Centre in Ottaway, and a planned concert.

“It's going to be a tribute show of other artists doing my songs. And my artwork is going to be presented immersively throughout the entire place, and I am so excited about it. And then I have a concert in Vancouver and then I'm gonna go home with the goats,” she said, drawing laughs from the crowd.

“I'm gonna stay there as long as I can. And I'm not going to come back until the airlines are fixed.”

As usual, she delivered bad news and left the audience smiling. That is Buffy.

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