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Nova Scotia filmmaker hopes to inspire Indigenous representation with coming-of-age film

Filmmaker said the coming-of-age film took so long to make because of resistance to the Indigiqueer storyline
Actors Phillip Lewitski, left to right, Avery Winters-Anthony and Josh Odjick are shown in a scene from the film “Wildhood,” in a handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Riley Smith **MANDATORY CREDIT**

Two-spirit filmmaker Bretten Hannam says they hope their new film “Wildhood” will inspire and open doors for more movie makers to show the lives Indigenous people in the LGBTQ community, but also encourage viewers to see parts of themselves in the characters.

Debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival, “Wildhood” follows a mixed-race teenager and his half-brother as they run away from their abusive father and life in an East Coast trailer park, in search of the teen’s Mi’kmaq mother, who he previously thought had died.

Phillip Lewitski stars as the two-spirit Link, Avery Winters-Anthony portrays Link’s younger half-brother Travis, and Joshua Odjick plays Pasmay, a pow wow dancer they meet along the way.

Hannam is Mi’kmaq and two-spirit, a term used by some Indigenous peoples to describe their gender, sexual and spiritual identity.

The filmmaker, who uses they/them pronouns, said the coming-of-age film took more than 10 years to make, in part because of industry resistance to the Indigiqueer storyline.

They recalled facing criticism of the film’s LGBTQ elements in early pitch meetings.

“I had actually let a few people read it and their response was never quite thrilled,” the 37-year-old said in a recent interview.

The filmmaker grew up in Kespukwitk, N.S., in the southern part of the province where they still reside.

They got their start in film after being exposed to it as part of an animation program when they were younger.

Wildhood “becomes a very powerful story because of that journey to reconnect,” they said. “This one story is (about) knowing yourself, knowing who you are, knowing where you come from and knowing where you fit.”

Throughout the film, Link and his companions travel across the rural expanse of Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, and Hannam says he relates to Link’s simultaneous inward journey as he gets closer to his Mi’kmaq heritage after years of ignoring it.

“I didn’t grow up in community, unfortunately,” Hannam said. “I didn’t grow up with my language, I didn’t grow up knowing these things, a lot of people don’t for different reasons.”

However in the last 10 years or so they’ve been exposing themselves to their Mi’kmaq background and ceremonies, and learning the language, Mi’kmaw.

“My goal with this, with whatever I do, is that … it builds a bridge and it connects us together … not just as people but with the land that we live on and the animals around us and the things that we have to learn from each other.”

With the rustic and lush hillsides of the western part of Nova Scotia as the backdrop, Link’s exploration of his Mi’kmaq culture is tied to his exploration of his family. Julie Baldassi, one of the film’s producers from Younger Daughter Films, said “Wildhood“‘s examination of family is at the core of the film.

“The relationships we have with the people who raise us are just so crucial, whether they’re positive or negative or somewhere in-between,” she said in a recent interview. “It forms us. And finding that safe space within those relationships is everything.”

It was a challenge to create an emotionally intimate film while respecting pandemic distancing protocols, said fellow producer Gharrett Patrick Paon of Rebel Road Films.

But he said it was “very important” for him to try to fill a gap in the film world by depicting Indigenous life in Atlantic Canada.

“It felt like an opportunity to contribute something to both the independent film community in Nova Scotia (and) the Mi’kmaq community,” he said. “It just felt like a worthy endeavor.”

Hannam echoed the sentiment, adding that thus far Indigenous representation in film has largely been mired in misrepresentation and inaccuracy.

“When I was young and I would watch films, the only Indigenous people I saw were in spaghetti westerns. They’re not Indigenous people, they’re Italian people and sometimes they’re in terrible makeup,” they said.

More than that, the little Indigenous representation that existed lacked any nuance of the different LGBTQ identities within Indigenous cultures.

Hannam said they hoped their work will inspire and open doors for more filmmakers to show the lives of Indigenous and Indigiqueer people.

“There are so many stories … and they all deserve to be told,” they said. “It’s a big honour. It’s very exciting to be able to share this story with so many people.”

Hannam, along with Baldassi, Paon, Lewitski, Winters-Anthony and actor Michael Greyeyes, attended the festival for the film’s premiere at the Cinesphere IMAX Theatre on Sept. 11. It screens again digitally Sept. 12 and Sept. 17, and in-person on Sept. 18, at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Danielle Edwards, The Canadian Press