Indigenous Cinema Soars in Ontario Thanks to Studio Growth, Inclusive and Educational Initiatives

For renowned Kanyen’kehá:ka (Mohawk) multimedia artist Shelley Niro, the decision to film “Café Daughter” — a coming-of-ager about a Chinese Cree girl in 1960s Saskatchewan — in Northern Ontario was key to its success.

Filmed in the streets, schools and businesses of Greater Sudbury in 2022, “Café Daughter” is based on a 2013 work by Cree playwright Kenneth T. Williams that was inspired by the early life of Lillian Dyck — the first Indigenous woman in Canada to earn a PhD. in science, first Indigenous female senator and first Chinese Canadian senator. Niro, who recently received the first major retrospective of her work at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, tells Variety that the generous grant from the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corp. helped secure a professional, caring working environment.

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“It allowed us to hire local Indigenous people in crew roles and access locations and general services. Having Indigenous people working on set gave [the production] a warm and community feel,” Niro says.
Acquired last year by Paramount+ (Canada) for 2024 release, “Café Daughter” premiered at Cinéfest Sudbury Intl. Film Festival last September and won the audience award at the imagineNATIVE film festival in Toronto. The film was produced by Ontario’s Freddie Films and Circle Blue Entertainment, with additional support from Telefilm, the Indigenous Screen Office, Ontario Creates and Cultural Industries Ontario North.

“If it wasn’t for the Northern Ontario fund, [we] would have had difficulty capturing the sun, the scenery and the spirit [of] this film,” Niro adds.

One of North America’s fastest-growing production jurisdictions, Northern Ontario offers generous financial incentives and a vast (roughly 800,000 square kilometers, larger than France and Germany combined) geographically and culturally diverse region encompassing six cities (Sudbury, North Bay, Parry Sound, Timmins, Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay) that, for well over a decade, have been working together strategically and alongside adjacent Indigenous communities to attract notable screen projects and related private investment.

These incentives and efforts (not to mention real, longer-lasting, Christmas-movie-ready snow!), have resulted in a film-friendly region that is actively improving, expanding and diversifying its creative and crew workforce and infrastructure base.

Recently, new studios have been popping up in Indigenous communities. Mukwa Studios, which opened in 2022 in Nipissing First Nation near North Bay, is a 30,000-square-foot space where seasons of Canadian series “SkyMed,” “Essex County” and “Hudson & Rex” have lensed. Indigenous-owned White Owl Film Studios is collaborating with Volume Global, an L.A.-based company that specializes in LED volume design and pop-up soundstages, on a 20,000-square-foot soundstage, which is set to open this spring in Wahnapitae First Nation, near Sudbury.

“The NOHFC — through which selected projects receive support of up to C$2 million ( $1.5 million) in the form of a non-recoupable grant — is the biggest driver of activity up here,” says Devin Mahesh, the director of industry development and production services at CION, the non-profit organization that promotes and stimulates the region’s film industry and provides educational programs for emerging tech and creative talent.

NOHFC holds four application intake rounds for its Film and Television stream. Assistance consists of a conditional contribution of up to 50% of eligible costs to a maximum, capped on a tiered basis according to the total northern spend. Eligible projects include theatrical features, scripted series, TV movies, and documentaries.

“Over the years, we’ve matured as a filmmaking destination thanks in large part to the learning of the local filmmaking community,” says Mahesh. In addition to offering detailed online resources (productions guides, crew listings) and in-person services (location tours, the quarterly Project Pitch Exchange), CION offers the Media Arts Production: Practiced, Employed, Developed program, which is intended to supplement (up to a maximum of $10,000) existing funding sources and allows producers to hire and train local film and television workers.

While not exclusively geared towards the Indigenous community, MAPPED is one of several programs and partners Indigenous film productions can access to turn their sets into collaborative learning environments for both creative and technical talent.

Anishinabe filmmaker Darlene Naponse, whose films include the 2018 imagineNATIVE festival audience award-winner “Falls Around Her” and the recent “Stellar,” is a member of Atikameksheng Anishnawbek First Nation (near Sudbury), where she works closely with her community in her film storytelling, which includes the active participation of paid mentees.

“Unsettled” (2021), a 10-part drama series about an urban Indigenous family’s identity crisis after moving up north, was shot almost entirely on Nipissing First Nation (near the City of North Bay). Produced by Anishinaabe/Ashkenazi multihyphenate Jennifer Podemski and Derek Diorio for TVO and APTN, “Unsettled” cast 50 Indigenous actors, some playing characters who only speak Ojibwe, and mentored 10 Indigenous students and grads of a local digital cinematography program, who shot second-unit scenes.

For those considering working with Indigenous stories or storytellers, Podemski’s nonprofit organization the Shine Network Institute offers PACT — an online cultural awareness certificate course designed for non-Indigenous industry colleagues and stakeholders working in the Canadian screen sector.
And the Indigenous Screen Office’s online resource On-Screen Protocols and Pathways — an expansion and refinement of the industry-shaking 2019 publication “Pathways and Protocols: A Media Production Guide to Working with First Nations, Métis and Inuit Communities, Cultures, Concepts and Stories” — is an essential read.

“When you give Indigenous people the opportunity to make content the way that they want to, they’re going to make it in their home communities and bring economic opportunities to those regions,” Kerry Swanson, ISO CEO, tells Variety.

“And in those communities, you’re going to create jobs for Indigenous people — which happened on [Oklahoma-shot] ‘Reservation Dogs,’ for example. You create infrastructure so other productions can shoot in those communities as well. We’re seeing that happen a little bit in Northern Ontario, which has high populations of Indigenous people.

“But there’s more to be done in terms of training Indigenous crew to work on those productions and to really engage with the First Nations communities in those regions,” she adds. “[This] ensures that protocols are being met and that capacity is being [built] in the community instead of productions coming in in an extractive way.”

In March, Swanson hits the SXSW conference to join “Reservation Dogs” creator Sterlin Harjo, director Danis Goulet (whose 2021 feature “Night Raiders” was the first co-production between Canadian and Aotearoa/New Zealand Indigenous companies), and cast members Devery Jacobs and D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai on a panel discussing the ethos and global reach of today’s Indigenous storytelling.

“[The ISO is] pushing to change the definition of Canadian content to have a distinct definition for Indigenous content which could create more opportunities for collaboration across the borders,” Swanson says. “We should look at having an Indigenous co-production treaty because the existing treaties are not necessarily working for Indigenous people to work together. We don’t see that many co-productions happening through the treaty process.

Ontario Creates, which has offered Diversity Enhancement Addendum as part of its Film Fund Production program since 2017, has partnered with the ISO on “Café Daughters,” “Night Raiders” (shot around Toronto) and Gail Maurice’s “Rosie” (Hamilton).

“Big projects like ‘Night Raiders’ have helped establish that talented Indigenous crew base in the province,” Erin Creasey, Ontario Creates director of industry development, tells Variety. In March, Ontario Creates leads a trade mission to Aotearoa. “Of the 25 producers we’re bringing, half are Indigenous and were selected by the ISO. The producers will spend a few days in a kind of summit with the goal of finding co production opportunities.

“Working with ‘Raiders’ really helped set the path for these kinds of opportunities,” she adds.
In the 2010s, Volume Global co-CEO Christopher Harrington directed and produced dozens of films — “a few Christmas movies and horror thrillers” — pulled by the NOHF grant. There was minimal crew and infrastructure. He and his partners were shooting throughout the year, mostly in Parry Sound, repurposing logging warehouses for shooting. “These are seasonal towns,” Harrington says, “and during the winter that is a huge deal for local economies. We started to realize the larger impact our production spending was having.”

More recently, Harrington met White Owl Film Studio’s Roy Roque — a Wahnapitae First Nation businessman whose background is in mining, construction and hospitality — by chance at a film industry event in Sudbury. “He is a fan of our [pop-up soundstage] technology and understands the growing demand for space,” Harrington says.

“Soundstages over 7,000 square feet are becoming nonexistent. All of the streamers and studios have been snatching up soundstages with long-term leases — a great example is Amazon’s deal with (Toronto’s) Pinewood. This kind of thing is happening all over the world. So [White Owl] was a no-brainer for us, and on top of that it creates jobs on the reserve.”

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