Last October, I had the privilege to take part in Symmetree Theatre’s Connection to Land video series for the 2022 Wood Buffalo Excellence in Arts Awards. Three short films were created in collaboration with Berteig Imaging and production was supported by the Canada Council for the Arts.
Empowering Indigenous Voices in Film – Alyssa Wapanatâhk’s Journey of Reclamation and Representation
I am a Social Worker by trade, a Leo sun sign, and if you follow Myers Brigg’s theory, I am a strong INFJ-T; So, naturally my creative work tends to emphasize some sort of advocacy elements from an Indigenous Rights perspective and used as a platform for social justice.
The story for My Girl was written by me as an ode to the legacy of the late David Janvier and it is quite special to have been able to remake imagery in his honour and use archival footage of him. Finding a message in the bottle acts as a roadmap for my own moral code but my hope is that my words from the letter encourages audiences (specifically our Indigenous folks) to think about their own guiding principles that help you navigate the complexities of life. Sometimes, the most profound insights and revelations come from being out on the land, and by remaining open and receptive to new experiences, we can deepen our understanding of ourselves (specifically our inner child) and the natural world around us.
I remember laying in the moss when we were filming, trying not to scratch the mosquito bite on my face, and I was thinking about how this dreamscape story idea was hopefully going to reach a wider audience beyond the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. If I were to truly give myself the space to dream and think of a future as an emerging filmmaker, I would have hoped that this piece of work would give others the opportunity to see the beauty of the Boreal Forest and to be able to hear the Dene language. Since the release of the film, I have often been asked if the little girl is meant to portray a younger version of myself and the answer is no, because it is a personal story, but she also greets me by saying Auntie (SUHK-GEE-UH) in Dene. The overall My Girl experience was a family affair, and I am thankful to have their support in this creative journey.
International Indigenous Inspiration
Fast forward to 2023, I received an email from Māoriland Film Festival, and they wanted to include My Girl in their 10th year of programming. I had never participated in an event like this before, but I knew I needed to take advantage of the opportunity to travel internationally for work.
My mom joined me at the local airport, and we ventured off to the Kapiti Coast to make the screening at the Civic Theatre in the community of Otaki. We arrived in Aotearoa (now colonially known as New Zealand) after flying a cruel number of hours and it is the farthest that we ever travelled! We went to the market upon arrival, and I saw Mom holding a bar of sunlight soap down the aisle. She has a big smile and says, “My girl! Look, I just found the jackpot!” She is excited because it is quite difficult to source certain items for her moosehide tanning work and apparently this specific bar of soap does wonders to break apart the fibres and soften the hide.
The weeklong festival was a life-changing experience, and I am in awe of the power of Indigenous storytelling, specifically the ability to transcend borders and unite people through shared lived experiences and empathy. Films from 150 nations showcased the universality of the human experience, reminding us that despite our diverse cultures and backgrounds, we share common emotions, struggles, and aspirations.
I really did not know what to expect at this film festival, but I did enjoy getting to participate in the Māori welcoming ceremonies and spending time on the beach with new friends. Listening in on the Q&A Panels made me feel connected to a collective and the chilling Haka followed by the Bones of Crows screening was touching and needed after watching the feature film based on true events. My mom normally does not watch movies that are about Indian Residential Schools, but she did so while we were abroad to support Alyssa Wapanatâhk, who plays the character named Perseverance.
Small Town to International Screens
Your McMurray Magazine readers may recognize her as a young child growing up in Conklin or potentially when she returned home recently for the local screenings of Bones of Crows.
Alyssa recalls a period of her life when she was going to school in town and started getting exposure to the media, she shares, “I was in Grade 3 or Grade 4 when my teacher submitted a short story that I wrote to the radio station. I remember the story was about an act of kindness by my mom during the holiday season and they aired it on the radio!”
Eventually, Alyssa moved to Spruce Grove where she went to high school and started preparing for auditions in Grade 9. “I was sixteen when I booked my first role, it was for a project in the city lead by Georgina Lightning and being on that set is when the spark happened for me,” she adds, “After graduating high school I was working as a health care aide, assisting people with dementia and Alzheimers. I was on the road to taking more school to become a nurse when I decided to follow the tug in my heart to pursue my acting career. That brought me to Vancouver and the journey began in full force.”
Today, Alyssa is basically the Disney Princess we all have been waiting for and you most likely recognize Alyssa from her breakout role as Tiger Lily in the Peter Pan and Wendy movie. It is absolutely heartwarming to have local talent taking up space in the film industry and taking the time to care for their character’s narrative being portrayed on the screen.
Reclamation and Representation in Film
After receiving her Acting diploma from New Image College of Performing Arts, she created a short film called Napes Kasekipatwat – The Boy & The Braid and has now built her portfolio with various projects including a TV role in Riverdale.
Alyssa has worked hard for many years to get to this point in her acting career and it makes total sense that she has earned the job to embody Tiger Lily and go on horse-riding adventures in Neverland.
Alyssa shared some behind-the-scenes details with me and mentioned, “We began filming in 2021 and it was important to me that I remained professional on set, it was hard not to get emotional when I knew what this opportunity also meant for my people. Jude is a phenomenal actor and I think one of the most exciting moments for me was getting to see him in character and in his scenes, improving beautifully.” And I giggle to myself when she tells me this experience cause when I think of Jude Law, I think of him playing a young Albus Dumbledore.
Reclaiming Indigenous languages through film narratives is an essential aspect of preserving cultural heritage and challenging historical narratives that have attempted to erase these languages. By bringing dark and disturbing situations to life on screen, young filmmakers like Alyssa demonstrate a willingness to confront uncomfortable truths and create spaces for healing and reconciliation.
The theatrical debut of Bones of Crows signifies a milestone in the journey of Indigenous Cinema, as multi-generational stories reach mainstream audiences and contribute to a more diverse and inclusive film landscape. I saw familiar faces on the screen from Kikino Métis Settlement during the Spooky Ooky Shorts program and the presence of Alyssa Wapanatâhk as Perseverance speaking the Cree language, it was easy to feel surrounded by community in Aotearoa.
Back in February, Alyssa returned to Treaty 8 Territory to attend the local screenings and seeing the community support was the cliche full-circle moment for her. “We were at the Community Centre in Conklin and the silence after the film finished was eerie. I knew it was going to be hard for family to watch this film because there are some horrifying scenes. I was speechless in front of the crowd but looking back now, I am so proud to have been able to bring this piece of work back to my community,” she said. Alyssa also shared some good news that her labour as Perseverance in Bones of Crows earned her a 2023 Leo Awards nomination for Best Supporting Performance in the Motion Picture category.
“I felt really seen as an Indigenous person when the Director asked me to bring my Nehiyaw culture into the role for Peter Pan and Wendy, my job as a storyteller is to ensure we are being truthful in honour of these powerful characters and I also learned much more about myself while becoming Tiger Lily,” Alyssa said regarding the responsibility of righting the wrongs of the past ways Tiger Lily might have been represented in media. “So much care went into creating this version of Tiger Lily, from the beadwork she wears to her ability to proudly speak in her native tongue,” In the future, you may expect to see Alyssa in more feature-length films and she is also currently working on her own materials.
For myself, Māoriland was the first stop of the festival tour and there will be additional screenings announced soon. I continue to do small videography gigs and I recently finished my first year of graduate studies. I look forward to hopefully being able to work with Alyssa one day, it would definitely be a step up from when we were in our youth playing with Polly Pockets in the backyard. The journey of reclamation, both personal and collective, is an ongoing process, and film indeed serves as a powerful tool in this transformative journey.
Photo: March 14th, pre-festival BBQ and sunset on the beach. Otaki Beach, New Zealand. Photo by Megan Shott
Photo: A still from the short film ‘My Girl’, taken July 2022 at Uncle Shawn’s Cabin. A recreation of an image of the late David Janvier from the ‘Think BIG, Talk BIG, Walk BIG’ YouTube video. Photo by Berteig Imaging
Photo: March 12th, Megan and her mom (Marina Nokohoo) at YMM Airport, bboarding to go to Vancouver before transferring to Air New Zealand flights later that evening. Photo by Megan Shott
Photos supplied by Alyssa from the red carpet premiere in April.