Modest Livelihood challenges stereotypes, clichés
Part documentary, part art film and part commentary on hunting, the newest exhibition at The Banff Centre’s Walter Phillips Gallery provides a unique view into modern aboriginal culture.
Shot in Super 16mm film, Modest Livelihood presents a 50-minute story of a moose hunt undertaken near Fort St. John in northern B.C. by First Nation’s artists Brian Jungen, a member of Dane-zaa of the Doig River First Nation, Duane Linklater, Omaskêko Cree of Ontario and Jungen’s uncle, Doig River First Nation elder Jack Askoty.
On the surface, Modest Livelihood appears to simply be a record of the hunt, a common and traditional activity for both members of the Doig River First Nation and the Omaskêko Cree, but underneath that are a number of layers or subtexts that quietly play out.
Modest Livelihood is a part of dOCUMENTA (13) an international art exhibition based in Germany, but includes exhibitions in Cairo/Alexandria, Egypt; Kabul, Afghanistan and Banff, as well.
One of those layers, according to Jungen and Linklater, refers to the ethnographic films the National Film Board of Canada produced in the 1970s that documented the lives of Cree and Inuit families, capturing a sense of nostalgia and what was perceived as a dying culture.
Linklater said Modest Livelihood, edited at The Banff Centre challenges the feeling or belief of those films that First Nations cultures were waning.
“Some of those films… have an ethnographic tone to them, capturing what may or may not be there in 30 years at that point,” Linklater said. “It seems like photography and film, since its invention, has always tried to capture (First Nations) people because it seemed like we were disappearing. In some ways, the film is a signal to that.”
But as Jungen pointed out, their film presents the standpoint that First Nations cultures and traditions are still here and still very much alive.
“It also feels like a home movie,” Jungen said, “so it is not necessarily about the idea that this is a culture that is dying.”
As part of that, the film serves as an active reminder to government, industry and the public that those First Nations who signed treaties continue to exercise their treaty rights.
“Another important motivating factor,” Jungen said, “is both Duane and I come from treaty territories where hunting and fishing rights are guaranteed, but even though those are guaranteed, there’s always government and industry interests which try to contest those rights. So it’s important, not only for my band, but also for Duane’s band as well, to have documented proof that treaty band members are exercising their treaty rights of hunting and fishing.
“Any level of government can say they’re not using their treaty rights so they should lose them.”
Although the tools of the hunt have changed, the cultural continuity has not. What Linklater and Jurgen are doing is the same as what their ancestors did thousands of years ago in the same landscapes.
The documentary also provides a view that subsistence hunting – as a way to feed one’s family and community – is very different from trophy hunting.
“I think a lot of Canadians hunt, native and non-native, especially in the North,” Jungen said. “It’s the best way to feed a family and to be outdoors. I think most people who live in the North appreciate it. If you have the inkling to do that, I think it is quite common.”
And the presence of Askoty reinforces the cultural continuity, as throughout much of the film he can be seen guiding the two younger men and sharing his knowledge with them.
But as the film is silent, the viewer can only imagine what Askoty is telling Jurgen and Linklater, and the silence throughout the course of the film is purposeful as it focuses the film on the visual and serves to protect the Doig River culture and its cultural understanding of moose hunting.
“We wanted focus on the visual. If the sound isn’t as professionally captured as the film, then it will detract from the visual because it is full of ambient sound. You almost have to have a sound engineer and we’d all have to be miked,” Jungen said. “And it was something we wanted to keep to ourselves. Going back to the NFB stuff, we wanted to protect our own subjectivity. You get to see us, and my uncle tells us stories, but you don’t know what it is he’s saying.”
Surprisingly, the lack of sound doesn’t detract from the film. Instead, along with the way the film was shot, it enhances the feeling that the viewer is there with the hunters as they search the forest gloom or walk through broad, hillside meadows.
“There’s an everydayness in the work and I think that is quite unique in what has been presented in other films and photographs; where that fiction has taken over the everydayness,” Linklater said.
For the viewer, that feeling of being there heightens the tension of the hunt and in the moments when the film slows down, the tension inherent in any waiting game heightens interest.
And by including the viewer in the hunt – especially non-native viewers – comes the challenge of stereotypes and clichés, especially how aboriginal people tend to be portrayed in film and in photographs.
“There are so many examples of that since the beginning of film and the beginning of photography,” Linklater said. “People like Edward Curtis, using the camera to create a fiction around native people, posing them. I find that particular fiction that is created in those earlier films and photos still has some presence into today.”
In some ways, those clichés are used in Modest Livelihood, but the difference is the filmmakers are not playing up the clichés of aboriginal hunters; instead they are showing the truth in its simplest terms.
“On the other hand what we’re doing is cliché. There are fictions to clichés, but there are truths too. That’s what makes them cliché. We’re not dressing up what we’re doing,” Jungen said.
On Thursday nights, the Walter Phillips Gallery is offering exhibition tours of Modest Livelihood Aug. 16, 23 and 30; Sept. 6, 13, 20 and 27; Oct. 4, 11, 18 and 25; Nov. 1, 8 and 15 at 7 p.m. The exhibition tour is free.
Walter Phillips Gallery curatorial assistant Shauna Thompson is leading the tour Oct. 25 and curator Jesse McKee will lead the tour Nov. 25.
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