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Dan Ninham
Special to ICT

Anishinaabe core values and stories drive Ajuawak Kapashesit as a storyteller, actor, writer and filmmaker.

Born and raised on the White Earth Ojibwe Nation, of Ashinaabe, Cree and Jewish descent, Kapashesit draws on that knowledge in his latest film, “Language Keepers,” a short documentary now in the works that is set to be released next year.

“I let the stories I was told and things and people I've experienced bleed into my work as an actor, writer and director,” Kapashesit told ICT.

“Whenever I'm approaching or exploring a project, I have to frame it from the perspective of where I come from and what that means to me as an audience member," he said. "That connection to the audience member is crucial for creating something with resonance.”

His work is certainly resonating in the film industry.

The 32-year-old Kapashesit directed and wrote the 2022 short film, “Seeds,” with Morningstar Angeline. It was cited as one of the best films in February by the Independent Shorts Awards and was screened in person at the Māoriland Film Festival on June 30. He also directed the 2021 short documentary, “Carrying the Fire,” about Water Protectors.

His acting credits include the feature films “Indian Horse” (2017), “Once Upon a River” (2019) and “Indian Road Trip” (2020), along with work in the “Bad Blood” and “Outlander” series. He was a story editor and contributing writer for the sketch comedy show, “Tallboyz,” on CBC in 2020 and 2021, and has a short story, “A Fresh Start,” selected for publication in the anthology, “Before the Usual Time,” according to his website.

Filmmaker Ajuawak Kapashesit directed the 2021 short documentary, "Carrying the Fire," about Water Protectors. His latest project is "Language Keepers, set for release in 2023, about efforts to preserve the Ojibwe language. Kapashesit was born and raised on the White Earth Ojibwe Nation and is of Ashinaabe, Cree and Jewish descent. (Photo courtesy of Ajuawak Kapashesit)

And he attended the CBC Actor’s Conservatory at the Canadian Film Centre in 2019, was an Indigenous Film Opportunity Fellow with the Sundance Film Institute, and is currently a fellow with Nia Tero’s 4th World Media Lab.

“I try to bring different things to each film,” he said. “Some, I want an audience to come away with a new perspective; others, some form of cathartic release. And others I think, can, and should, be just used as an escape.”

An early start

Kapashesit’s interest in film started at a young age.

“When I was growing up, I watched a lot of ‘80s and ‘90s movies,” he said. “My siblings and I would watch 'Goodfellas' and 'Casino' a lot. Those were some of our favorites. Then a lot of Native films, like 'Once Were Warriors,' 'Skins,' and 'Smoke Signals.' Plus movies that aren't by Natives but were about us, like 'Thunderheart.' We watched a lot of stuff.”

The first film he tried to shoot was related to “Star Wars.”

“I'd say I was really influenced by ‘Star Wars,’” he said. “I would also be influenced a lot by books, which for me at the time were the ‘Harry Potter’ series as well as the ‘Redwall’ series. Fantasy like that always was my favorite.”

By then his father had given him access to a video camera.

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“I remember my dad let me use a little handheld camcorder,” he said. “With that, I got used to using a camera, which was a great influence in learning about the process, especially how not to do certain things. That was up on the Moose Factory side in Canada. I was lucky that I got to travel a lot as a kid, it really opened up the world to me.”

He lived in Ponsford, Minnesota, and attended Detroit Lakes High School before moving on to Macalaster College in St. Paul, Minnesota.

But his film career didn’t materialize in college. He graduated in 2013 with a degree in linguistics.

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“I didn't really pursue film in college,” he said. “I was more on the linguistics and language revitalization path at that time. I still try to do what makes sense to me in that realm where and when I can.”

His fellowship with the 4th World Indigenous Media Lab has helped fueled his most recent work. He said he gained experience with documentaries, was able to attend the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival and the Seattle International Film Festival, and met other Indigenous artists and directors.

“The 4th World Indigenous Media Lab was a great experience,” Kapashesit said. “I got to meet so many great Indigenous artists on both sides of the camera and learn more about the business side of the industry, which is a lot harder to get an education in.”

He continued, “There are tons of talented writers, directors, and producers in our communities, but one of the biggest issues for them getting work is access to networks and funding. 4th World really helped with that access which was so great. It’s helped my career a lot.”

He said the media lab gave him an opportunity to work with another fellow, Angeline, on the “Seeds,” project, which is being shipped out to festivals now.

“I feel like some parts of my creative process have slowed at moments during the last couple of years, with the pandemic especially making it hard,” he said. “But I've also had some great opportunities to grow as an artist, one of them has been working with Morningstar Angeline.”

Still, he finds it hard to watch his own films from the audience.

“I'm usually hyper-critical of it or maybe just self-conscious,” he said. “But this wasn't one of those times. It was a really special experience to shoot and work on for many months and now to have seen it, it's really rewarding.

“I'm proud of what we did. And to do it all during Covid, pre-vaccinations, it was surreal.”

Looking ahead

Kapashesit’s interest in linguistics is evident in his latest project, “Language Keepers,” about efforts in Minnesota to revive and preserve the Ojibwe language.

“My newest piece, ‘Language Keepers,’ is something I've thought of for a long time,” he said. “I have worked in language revitalization for over a decade, and once I got into filmmaking I wanted to find a way to include that part of me.”

Angeline, who co-directed “Seeds” and produced “Carrying the Fire,” is now editing “Language Keepers.” The latest film is one of eight selected for the “Homegrown: Future Visions” project, a regional short-film initiative overseen by a partnership among Firelight Media, PBS and the Center for Asian American Media.

The Homegrown initiative provided $37,500 to eight emerging filmmakers who identified as persons of color to produce 8- to 10-minute documentaries. Firelight and the center will work with the filmmakers through development and distribution.

Kapashesit said the film “really dives into the language revitalization work around technology that I have been exposed to in Minnesota. It's a super interesting part of the field that I don't typically see or hear as much about and wanted to highlight through film…

“I guess I try to make movies that relate to me, my experiences, and my emotions in some way and just hope that I'm not alone in those interests or feelings,” he said. “It's really interesting meeting people who respond to my work because of that.”

He’s focused lately on writing and directing.

“It's an intensive process and devoting the time and energy to do it right is important to me,” Kapashesit said. “I'm not sure if I'm planning on mixing those processes, as they're different for me. But I would love to jump back into direct character work with the right project at the right time.”

“But for now,” he said, “these movies are plenty.”

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