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Miles Morrisseau

TORONTO, Canada — The legendary Buffy Sainte-Marie will be honored with a Tribute Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, which will also feature the world premiere of a new documentary film examining her life as an Indigenous musician and activist.

The film, “Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry it On,” will kick off the festival Thursday, Sept. 8 as one of several Indigenous films featured this year.

“It does feel really cool to open up the festival with that documentary, and having Buffy there is just incredibly exciting,” Kelly Boutsalis, Mohawk, an associate programmer for this year’s festival, told ICT.

“She's such an icon.”

The festival runs from through Sept. 18 with a line-up of films that run the gamut from a midnight-madness slasher film to early Oscar contenders.

It is bringing star power with Daniel Radcliffe, who is starring in “Weird: The Al Yanokovic Story,” Michelle Williams, from 2018’s “Venom,” and Malcolm McDowell, whose works include “A Clockwork Orange.”

The festival will also feature two of the hottest people in pop music, with Harry Styles starring in the film, “Don’t Worry Darling,” and Taylor Swift showing her debut 2021 film, “All Too Well: The Short Film.”

Sainte-Marie, Cree, will receive the Jeff Skoll Award in Impact Media presented to artists who are leaders in connecting cinema and social impact. Other artists to be honored that night include director Sam Mendes, who directed “American Beauty,” and actors Brendan Fraser, “The Whale,” and Michele Yeoh, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”


Sainte-Marie was the first Indigenous person to win an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for co-writing “Up Where We Belong” in the feature film, “An Officer and a Gentleman.” She was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1995.

Her career goes back decades, however, beginning in the 1960s, when she began writing about war, religion and Indigenous issues.

Madison Thomson, Ojibwe/Saulteaux and Russian/Ukrainian, directed the 2022 documentary, "Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On," which is premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 8, 2022. (Photo courtesy Eagle Vision & White Pine Pictures)

“It's every young Indigenous filmmaker’s … dream to make a documentary about someone so prolific, like Buffy,” Madison Thomson, an Ojibwe/Saulteaux and Russian/Ukrainian who directed the new documentary, told ICT.

“Some people know her as an activist first, [other] people know her as a musician first, but with digging into the research, it was just shocking how many different types of fields she had impacted,” Thomson said.

A lifetime of activism

Sainte-Marie was born on the Piapot First Nation reserve in Saskatchewan, Canada, but was taken from her Cree family as a toddler and adopted by a couple from Massachusetts who were of Mi’kmaq descent.

She rose to prominence in the 1960s, writing not just about the Vietnam War but also about treaty violations, relocation, residential schools and land theft. She supported the occupation of Alcatraz in 1969 and the American Indian Movement, and was blacklisted on radio and kept under surveillance by Herbert Hoover’s FBI.

The Longest Walk, 1978. Muhammad Ali, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Harold Smith, Stevie Wonder, Marlon Brando, Max Gail, Dick Gregory, Richie Havens and David Amram at the concert at the end of the Longest Walk, a 3,600-mile protest march from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., in the name of the Native rights. (Photo courtesy National Museum of the American Indian)

Today, she continues to write about climate change, missing and murdered Indigenous women, the invasion of oil pipelines onto tribal lands and sustainable foods.

The new documentary, written by biographer Andrea Warner, examines Sainte-Marie’s life and includes interviews from other music legends, including Robbie Robertson, Cayuga/Mohawk, as well as Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell.

Thomson said Sainte-Marie’s songs connected her as a youth to her Indigenous roots.

“When I was younger, I didn’t understand how someone whose name was a staple in my household could be so overlooked by others,” Thomson said in a press statement. “The journey so far of learning, and in turn sharing, Buffy Sainte-Marie’s life and message? I now find myself saying on a regular basis, ‘What would Buffy do?’”

Thomson said Warner’s biography impressed upon her the importance of Sainte-Marie’s life.

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Author Andrea Warner wrote the screenplay for a 2022 documentary, "Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On," that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 8, 2022. Warner also wrote a biography on Sainte-Marie's life. (Photo courtesy of Eagle Vision & White Pine Pictures)

“Reading Andrea Warner’s biography on Buffy opened my eyes to the active suppression of not only Buffy’s music and artwork, but more importantly her messaging to the world,” she said.

“I was also blown away by how ahead of her time Buffy was, in multiple facets of her life,” she said. “How could someone share the truth and present a solution to the issues not only Indigenous people face, but the world at large, and not grow frustrated when the world isn’t ready for the conversation? How could someone be actively blacklisted by two U.S governments and the music industry at large and still want to share and create amazing art?”

The film has been nominated in the Best Canadian Feature Film category at the Toronto Film Festival.

International films

The documentary is not the only Indigenous film featured this year at the Toronto film festival.

"Bones of Crows,” written and directed by Marie Clements, Métis, will also make its world premiere at the festival.

The film is described as an epic account of the life of Cree matriarch Aline Spears and a powerful indictment of the abuse of Indigenous people, as well as a stirring story of resilience and resistance. The film clocks in at just over two hours and is carried by the lead performance of Grace Dove, Shuswap, of “The Revenant.” Dove is joined by Michelle Thrush, Cree, of “Prey” and “Dead Man;” Gail Maurice, Métis, of “Night Raiders;” Glen Gould, Mik'kmaq, of “Cardinal;” and Canada’s matriarch of documentary film, Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin.

“TIFF represents some of the finest work coming out of Canada and to be presented there gives that kind of shine to filmmakers’ work,” Clements told ICT. “It also really helps the marketability of the film that you're trying to get out internationally and nationally … Artistically you're beside other great artists who are also doing things to capture minds and hearts in this country.”

Anishinaabe filmmaker’s Darlene Naponse’s latest directorial effort, “Stellar,” is also featured.

The film is Naponse’s follow-up to the rock-star-goes-home-to-the-rez drama, “Falls Around Her,” starring the legendary Tantoo Cardinal, Cree and Métis, of “Dances with Wolves,” which premiered at the festival in 2018.

It is a cosmic Indigenous love story with the fate of the universe in the balance. In addition to its leads Elle-Maija Tailfeathers, Blackfoot and Sámi, of “Night Raiders,” and Braeden Clarke, Cree, the film boosts a stellar supporting cast including Billy Merasty, Cree, of “It: Chapter Two:” and Tina Keeper, Cree, “North of 60.”

The film continues Naponse’s commitment to shooting and producing films in the community. “Stellar” is her biggest film to date.

In the film, “Rosie,” writer/director/actress Gail Maurice, Métis — who is seen on screen in "Bones of Crows" — steps behind the camera as writer and director.

The film builds upon a world she first created in her 2018 short film to tell the story of an orphaned Indigenous girl who is forced to live with her reluctant, street-smart aunty and her two gender-bending best friends in Montreal in the 1980s.

The documentary, “Ever Deadly,” co-directed by Chelsea McMullen and Inuit musician Tanya Tagaq, tells the story of Tagaq, a critically acclaimed throat singer and performer whose album, “Animism” won the Polaris Prize in music for 2014. Tagaq is also author of the 2018 novel, “Split Tooth.”

A number of international Indigenous films are also included in this year’s festival, including, “Muru, with Māori director Tearerpa Kahi of the Ngati Paoa tribe.

The action drama, which will make its North American premiere in Toronto, draws from a actual events to tell the story of a local police sergeant who is conflicted between his duty to office and his duty to community.

In October 2007, the New Zealand police conducted so-called “anti-terrorism” raids on the Tūhoe community of Urewera in an event that sparked nationwide controversy. The film opened the New Zealand International Film Festival earlier this year.

Other features include “Mystery Road Origin,” by Indigenous Australian director Dylan River, and the Australian-New Zealand co-production, “We Are Still Here.”

“I'm so proud to be in this particular year of TIFF,” said Thomson, director of the film about Sainte-Marie. “The sheer amount of Indigenous films at the festival and the diversity about all of them … It's strange. It's beautiful. It's experimental.”

Boutsalis said Indigenous filmmakers often struggle to get their works made, but the festival can be an important stepping stone.

“There's definitely still roadblocks for a lot of filmmakers,” Boutsalis said. “We're definitely further than where we were before in terms of having the control, being in the director's seat, writing the stories. So in terms of how far we've come, we have come very far. But there's so much more to go.”

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