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“Storytelling Is So Much a Part of Indigenous Culture”



Indigenous Canadian director Shaunoh - repped by Circle Productions - tells LBB’s Addison Capper how his heritage is reflected in his filmmaking, the importance of vulnerability and his concept of “vibration”

“Storytelling Is So Much a Part of Indigenous Culture”
Photo credit: Rob Antill / @digitalantill

Canadian director Shaunoh joined Circle Productions in February of this year. On the phone to me just last week he said that the entire team there didn’t just support him on a production level but on an emotional one too. “They recognise that my personal work informs my professional work so they’re supportive of that,” he says. “If I go up to the high Arctic and shoot a piece about a dog sledger for no money, the first question they ask is how they can help.” 

And that should inform you as to the type of filmmaker - and person - that Shaunoh (full name Shaunoh Anderson McCrea) is. He was born and raised in Alberta, just outside Calgary, by his dad. But around eight years ago he reconnected with his mother’s side of the family and, upon doing so, discovered that he was Iroquois, a Native American confederacy from North America. His life up to that point had been spent “off-reserve” and the revelation of his First Nation heritage has informed both his work commercially and personally, he believes. 

“Storytelling is so much a part of indigenous culture,” says Shaunoh. “I’m just learning but I really try and offer myself up as a vessel. It's given me a sense of place as a storyteller and I guess permission to approach my work with a sense of vulnerability. It's really changed the work for sure. A lot of my work is based on vibration. A film is a living, breathing thing. You know when you have your finger on the pulse and what you are capturing is true emotion. I really lean into that sense of vibration to bring that to life.”

Rob Antill / @digitalantill

Intrigued by his use of the term, I press Shaunoh and what he means by ‘vibration’. “If I would try to define it,” he ponders, “it’s when you’re really on a path of honesty. There’s real emotion happening in front of camera and you’re in a space that is helping nurture that. It’s about genuine emotion happening in front of the lens and us [the crew] being able to dance with them to capture that.” 

Shaunoh pauses for a second to think and continues: “And it’s really about vulnerability. It’s so fucking beautiful. This comes from working with real people - there’s a moment when you break through their apprehension of being on camera and you can begin to sculpt and direct as they’re living that experience.

“I’m not saying that just because I have indigenous blood that I’m the only person with this. If you’re in tune you know when it happens. Some people call it magic, I call it vibration. I can feel it in my blood.”

Like so many filmmakers, Shaunoh’s first experiences with a camera came about because of a relationship with action sports. He was an aspiring snowboarder and moved to Whistler to pursue a career in the sport but soon realised he was more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it. But unlike the majority of filmmaking around those kinds of sports - “action porn” as Shaunoh says - he was more interested in communicating narratives around the culture that was so important to him. He loves the visual aesthetic of the action but it was the stories that meant more to him. 

Since then Shaunoh’s focus has mostly been on real-person, docu-style stories set against the effortlessly stunning backdrop of the Canadian landscape [mostly produced by his own production company TSU North]. But his move to Circle marked a shifting point in his career. Looking to push his creative vision, he’s now exploring more big, visual projects but working with actors while staying true to the humanity and realism that’s so important to his earlier work. Despite this shift, his approach to craft hasn’t really changed. “I still approach my work with a deep sense of authenticity - although I know that that’s an overused word. Truth is what people respond to. We get blasted with so much media, we know when we’re being bullshitted.”

Rob Antill / @digitalantill

When pressed on the challenge of authenticity and truth when working with actors, Shaunoh refers back to the importance of vulnerability. “Gone are the days where you can cheat the audience into an artificial experience,” he says. “We’ll do rehearsals in casting but more importantly it’s more of an interview and I’m trying to get a sense of if we jam and if they have a piece of that character within themselves. Work is really personal for me. On set it’s about offering myself up as much as them. If you’re asking for vulnerability you should provide if yourself so we can share in the experience.”

As a filmmaker of First Nation heritage, I’m intrigued to know Shaunoh’s views on the representation of indigenous people in the media and the way that brands communicate with them. As a point of reference, in this piece on Media Smarts, Canada’s centre for digital media literacy, Canadian Ojibway playwright Drew Hayden Taylor is quoted as saying, “We were well into the second half of the 20th century before it occurred to filmmakers that Native people were still around, and even leading interesting lives.” 

“Out of the gate it’s about respect,” says Shaunoh. “More importantly you need to have a deep sense of humility and you need to engage the communities that you’re working with and allow them to carry as much of the weight of telling that story. You can’t dictate. It’s about being vulnerable on your own. Share your story. The first thing you do in a First Nation space is open up. What’s your background? What’s your story?”

Shaunoh always tries to ensure that each and every member of his crew can in some way see a piece of themselves in the work. It’s an aim that he admits is particularly “romantic” but that doesn’t make it any less important. “And that’s not to say that people need to be on the same journey that I’m on,” he adds. “But, for example, your DP is the frontline. They need to have a sensitivity to how to talk and operate in that space to encourage vulnerability from the cast. That’s the vibration again. It’s hard to explain but you feel it.” 

On top of his job as a filmmaker Shaunoh is also involved in an indigenous film lab collective out of southern Alberta called Noirfoot (the founding artists are all Blackfoot). The initiative involves going the communities and introducing the people to each of the departments that make up a film. In the span of 72 hours they run a community-led film challenge and act as facilitators - as opposed to instructors - to help make the films a reality. “I was just in Fort McMurray which has had a really rough go - they’re in the middle of a recession due to the oil downturn. They wanted to tackle the story of the economic downturn in a very personal way. In three days they put together a beautiful film and it seriously changes lives. I was working with an autistic woman who stepped up as the lead. She now wants to get into acting. It’s so rad.”

When I press Shaunoh on his plans for the future and developing his work given his shift in style, he mentions some commercial work that he can’t yet talk about. What he can tell me about though is one of his unique pieces of personal work that are so important to him. He’ll be heading up to Nunavut, the high Arctic of Canada, to shoot a narrative-led documentary about a group of the Canadian military that the rest of Canada doesn’t really know anything about. “The Canadian Rangers are this group of Canadian military and 80% of them are First Nation,” he says. They’re basically the eyes, ears and mouth of the north and are tasked with maintaining the sovereignty of the north.”

Rob Antill / @digitalantill

Shaunoh tells me that that the Rangers were set up after World War Two when the government recognised that it needed to maintain sovereignty but didn't have the infrastructure, knowledge or tools to operate in that extreme environment. One potential family that he is researching are fourth generation Rangers. “So they have these epic tales in these wild locations. The idea is to bring the community together and shoot a narrative piece that fits within a documentary that reenacts - I hate that word - these past tales that the community is so versed in. And the light up there! When we’re looking to shoot we’ll get around 10 hours of blue hour.

“I live in Whitehorse which is at the bottom of the Yukon. Nunavut - well it’s a mission to get up there. But these people live subsistently. They live off the land. And there’s this crazy world where they’re tasked to protect the sovereignty of a nation that otherwise doesn’t know they exist. It’s wild.”
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Circle Productions, Mon, 09 Sep 2019 20:27:02 GMT