At a certain point in the journey to get to Ōtaki, New Zealand, for the Māoriland Film Festival, the 22-strong group travelling to participate began to wonder if they would ever get there.
“It was quite a long journey already,” said Tharonhianente Barnes, a teacher at Kahnawake Survival School (KSS) who accompanied students on the trip. “And then it got a lot longer.”
Their first flight was delayed hour by hour, and finally cancelled, leaving the group to work out how exactly 22 people can find a hotel room on short notice. When they finally got a replacement flight a day later, the group then ran into luggage issues, resulting in a mad dash through security and nearly missing the flight. They boarded their 12-hour flight from Vancouver to Auckland, then Auckland to Wellington, and then hopped on a bus from Wellington to Ōtaki.
“By then, we’d lost all concept of time,” said Barnes.
The group was visiting New Zealand as part of the Through Our Lens project, an international cultural and creative collaboration that connects young Māori filmmakers with Indigenous youth across the world. In October 2022, filmmaker Courtney Montour hosted the first Through Our Lens project in North America, with the films that were made during that two-day workshop being premiered in Ōtaki as part of Māoriland.
“I began to develop the project over four years ago, when I attended the 2018 Māoriland Film Festival with my short film Flat Rocks and spent time with their rangatahi (youth) to learn about the filmmaking initiatives they were leading in Aotearoa (New Zealand),” said Montour, who collaborated on the project with the Māoriland Charitable Trust. “I applied to the Canada Council for the Arts, who supported the overall project, the workshops, and our travel to Aotearoa.”
As well as Montour, Brooke Rice joined the group as a producer trainee on the project, having been invited by Māoriland to participate in a month-long fellowship at the festival. Others in attendance included 12 youth who made films in the first Through Our Lens workshop, as well as eight participants from the second group, who are emerging and established filmmakers.
Members of the group included Kanien’kehá:ka, Inuit, Anishinaabe, Cree, Métis, Mi’gmaq, Atikamekw, and Maya Mam filmmakers and facilitators.
“The festival was so fun, it’s one of those experiences where I can tell you all about it, but it feels like I can’t grasp onto how amazing it was unless you were there to experience it as well,” said Madison Tewentahawitha Montour, one of five KSS students who created films. She collaborated on the film Wannabe, directed by Jarrett Jacobs. “Everyone there is so welcoming and sweet, it felt like they had open arms no matter who or where you were coming from.”
The films made in Kahnawake were premiered on day two of the festival, with the filmmakers on hand to answer thought-provoking questions from the audience during the question-and-answer segment.
For Barnes, it was a special occasion. “I’m a teacher, but I’ve also been making films for the last 10 years,” he said. Of his KSS students in attendance, one had a particular family connection: his nephew Rahahserenhawi Goodleaf, who also worked on Wannabe. “I was telling him how I made my first short film at 17 and it premiered in 2012 at the Legion, and here’s his first movie. He’s 16, and his movie is premiering on the other side of the world at this big international film festival. It’s a huge deal,” said Barnes.
The films were hugely varied in content and style: Wannabe was a satirical slasher, Youth was director – “soon to be famous director,” according to Barnes – Emma Thompson’s narrative about a young woman learning her culture, and Indiqueer Stories shared the perspective of five young people and their experiences being Two-Spirit living in a city.
“I was very proud to see all the films,” Barnes said. “I was wishing I could tell stories like that. It’s truly impressive. It’s so inspiring.”
For Tewentahawitha, the highlight of the trip came at the very end of their stay, on the red carpet.
“Once everything was over and done with, the dance floor was open and everyone started dancing, and I mean everyone,” she said. “From the elders to the children, the dance floor was just for everyone to let go and have fun together.”
As well as sharing their own culture, the group was also able to learn about other cultures.
Participants also watched a haka – a Māori ceremonial dance – and learned more about Māori culture.
“My dad and I had talked about going to New Zealand to experience the place as a whole and to experience the Māori culture and learn about them,” said Tewentahawitha. “I got to do that before he had the opportunity to do so, so it was extremely important to me to learn about them.”
During the trip, Tewentahawitha received a tattoo, and said that she and the artist traded stories about one another’s lives or cultures. It added meaning to an already significant piece of art, since the tattoo is a memorial tattoo for her father.
“I got to learn about some of the stories that are related to my tattoo,” she said. “The overall experience was something I don’t think I’ll ever be able to recreate, but it was so amazing and beautiful.”