Weengushk brings cream to the top with first international film festival

Suzanne Shawbonquit and Nathaniel Arcand (centre) with Micheline Blais (right) on the red carpet. photos by Michael Erskine

MANITOULIN—The inaugural Weengushk International Film Festival is now “in the can,” having brought together an “A” list of films created in both established production houses working with budgets in the millions of dollars and through the budding talents of young artists operating on a shoestring and a diet consisting largely of pizza and caffeine. The mix was a popular success with those who are veterans in treading the red carpet into a gala award ceremony and those who were just lucky enough to have scored seats in the audience.

Following opening remarks by master of ceremonies comedian Pat Cheechoo, Aundeck Omni Kaning Chief Patsy Corbiere welcomed the opening reception audience to the festival, followed by a prayer in which elder Sally Recollet invoked the Great Spirit, the Four Directions and the sacred medicines. Cree artists Vern and Karen Cheechoo performed an honour song before Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP Carol Hughes spoke about her admiration for the work being accomplished by the Weengushk students and that of the institute’s staff in the face of diversity. “Your resiliency is just unbelievable,” she said. “This is where you shine, the ability to tell your stories.”

Ms. Hughes brought regrets from her provincial counterpart Algoma-Manitoulin MPP Mike Mantha.

M’Chigeeng Chief Linda Debassige delivered the keynote speech. Ogimaa-kwe Debassige spoke of her own childhood as a shy and insecure child who was bullied in school and the important role that Weengushk founder Dr. Shirley Cheechoo played in helping her to find herself and the role Dr. Cheechoo’s improv classes played in helping her to get past her challenges and find the confidence that led to her becoming chief in her community. She also paid tribute to Weengushk student Josh Yesno, whose life was cut abruptly short just as his diamond began to truly shine, by a congenital health issue.

Following Ogimaa Debassige’s address, Chief Brenda Lintinger (Bear Mother) of the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana, who helped fund the evening’s main screening, the major feature film ‘Wind River’ addressed the opening reception. ‘Wind River’ is the third of three films financed by her band (the others are ‘LBJ’ and the upcoming “Shock and Awe), but the script for ‘Wind River’ “basically fell into our lap. We didn’t set out to make ‘that’ kind of film.”

‘Wind River,’ the story of the search for a young Arapaho woman’s rapists and murderers, is tremendously timely given the focus on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

It was a powerful film in its own right whose story “needed to be told.”

The issue of the murdered and missing Indigenous women “doesn’t seem to get the attention of other minority groups,” she said. “For far too long our stories have been told by other people. We have to take control of telling our stories so it shows history for what it really was.”

Weengushk chair Scott Henderson spoke of meeting the students of Weengushk before even meeting Dr. Cheechoo, when a group of the students came to Cinefest in Sudbury. “I was so struck by their ingenuity, their creativity and their passion,” he recalled. So struck was he that he called Dr. Cheechoo to tell her. From there he was drawn in and began a closer and closer association with WFI that has led to his becoming chair of its board. He went on to congratulate Dr. Cheechoo, the WFI board and all of the staff for their work and dedication.

“Film is a powerful media,” said Mr. Henderson. “(With the films being screened at the festival) we are reminded of how important it is.”

The final day of the festival was capped by the Weengushk International Film Festival Gala Fundraiser in celebration of Weengushk’s 15th Anniversary, fittingly titled ‘Creating a Reality For The Dreamer’ which began at 2 pm on Sunday with stars and guests treading the red carpet into the Four Directions Recreation Complex in Aundeck Omni Kaning, where a screening of the feature film ‘Indian Horse’ and a gourmet dinner served by Hiawatha’s Catering and the talents of Plex and Manitoulin’s own Crystal Shawanda awaited.

‘Indian Horse,’ the story of a phenomenal young Anishinaabe hockey player from Northern Ontario, a contemporary of the legendary Reggie Leach, was a powerful experience for those seeing the movie for the first time. ‘Indian Horse’ is indisputably an important movie that (editorial comment alert) should be a compulsory part of Ontario’s curriculum as part of this province’s efforts towards reconciliation.

The meal for the evening consisted of a menu based on traditional Anishnaanbe fare, including a strawberry drink to start, smoked duck breast, spinach salad with blueberry dressing, bison stew with maple butter baked bannock, fried pickerel with lemon alioli, maple glazed elk meatballs on a bed of wild rice and completed with maple pineapple cake.

In keeping with an eye to reducing single use plastics, all of the food was served on eco-friendly Fallen Palm Leaf Plates and Cutlery, including biodegradable and compostable wooden cutlery, plates formed from palm leaves and water without chemicals, waxes or dyes. A wide range of complimentary wines were available along with good choice of non-alcoholic beverages to chose from.

Saturday’s presentations included presentations at two venues, the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation (OCF) in M’Chigeeng and the Four Directions Recreational Complex in Aundeck Omni Kaning.

At the complex, 10 shorts created by students at WFI were presented, with breaks and question and answer sessions between two sets of five. Then screenings of ‘The Road Forward’ by Maria Clements, followed by an acting workshop with Jennifer Podemski; Dr. Cheechoo’s own ‘Moose River Crossing,’ followed by a Truth and Reconciliation session with Ben Cheechoo and finally a screening of ‘Rumble,’ a film by Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana.

At the OCF, Nathaniel Arcand’s ‘Sister, Daughter’ was screened, followed by ‘Stength of Siblings’ by Alex C. Muñoz; ‘Mountain Sgaana’ by Christopher Auchter; ‘Pray Sister Pray’ by Crystal Shawanda; ‘Birth of a Family’ by Tasha Hubbard and Betty Ann Adam; and a screening of the Neil Debassige outdoor series ‘Fuel the Fire.’ The day at OCF was capped by a cultural teaching workshop provided by the OCF.

Comic and master of ceremonies for the gala was once again Patrick Cheechoo, who kept the audience in stitches as they awaited each course with a hilarious take on what he termed “Nish” humour, simply de-nish-ious.

Finally, the anticipated highlight of the evening came with the awards ceremony where ‘Rumble,’ a feature documentary about the role of Native Americans in popular music history,

secured the Best Film accolade. Best Actor went to Sladen Peltier for his role as the young Saul in the powerful film ‘Indian Horse,’ Best Student film went to ‘Venture in Wager’ by Brian Fowler; Best Director went to Tasha Hubbard for ‘Birth of a Family’ and the Tribute Award went to Joshua Yesno, a young filmmaker who passed away in March and whose time at Weengushk touched the hearts of everyone he met. Josh’s mother accepted the award following a short film tribute and spoke about her son and the role that Weengushk Film Institute had played in his finding his feet in the world after very challenging younger years. The Yesno Memorial Tribute Awards will become an annual feature of the Weengushk International Film Festival to honour that very special young man.

The Humanitarian Award was presented to Juliana Sprott and Linda McCain, tireless foundation supporters of Weengushk Film Institute, while the Award of Excellence was won by Manitoulin’s own Crystal Shawanda. A special Honorary Award was presented to Nathanial Arcand.

In a touching ceremony overseen by Wiikwemkoong elder Roberta Oshkabewisens, Weengushk Film Institute President, screenwriting instructor, actress and “just about anything else asked of her,” Phyllis Ellis, was presented with an eagle feather and cedar medicine chest on behalf of a grateful Ms. Cheechoo.

Ms. Ellis admitted that the presentation came as a complete surprise.

“I was listening to Shirley talk about this special woman and I thought I wonder who it is she is talking about,” said Ms. Ellis. “When she said my name I thought it was because she wanted me to come up and be part of the presentation to her.”

So selfless has been her contribution to the organization, Dr. Cheechoo and the staff and students of Weengushk, that it was only when Ms. Oshkabewisens began addressing her directly that it dawned on Ms. Ellis that this very special woman being honoured was herself.

It was a fitting conclusion of the official events of the festival.

The evening was topped off with a performance by hip hop phenomena Plex and Manitoulin’s own Crystal Shawanda.

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