Collaboration and Relationality: Creating the Digital Sutures Website

Film still from Caribou in the Archive (2019). Image courtesy of Jennifer Dysart
Figure 1: Film still from Caribou in the Archive (2019).  Image courtesy of Jennifer Dysart

This post was authored by Dr. Kristin Dowell.

My project for PEN & Inc. involves creating a website for my book project, Digital Sutures: Family & Cultural Memory in Indigenous Women’s Films. This book honors the long-standing role that women have played as leaders and visionaries within the field of Indigenous cinema and builds upon over two decades of collaborative research with Indigenous filmmakers and artists. Digital Sutures analyzes films by Indigenous women that push new cinematic ground in rendering Indigenous stories, ancestral knowledge, and family histories on screen. The films I write about are vibrant examples of filmmaker’s adept use of the medium’s inherent capacity to collapse time and space, to suture their personal histories with larger Indigenous cultural narratives. Their work is part of a larger global movement of Indigenous women speaking back against the silence and erasure of Indigenous women’s stories, experiences, and voices. 

There are four chapters of my book each focused on a filmmaker who works in a specific medium including stop-motion animation, handmade analogue cinema, archival remix, and sonic sovereignty. Their films recuperate intergenerational family histories, explore an ethics of care in relationships to place, and support Indigenous language reclamation. Circulating through film festival screenings and art exhibition installations, the innovative films by Jennifer Dysart, Marcella Ernest, Lindsay McIntyre and Amanda Strong are reflective of the ways in which media production can facilitate and deepen social relationships and community ties off-screen while bringing to the screen powerful narratives and inventive filmic aesthetics. 

My goal in creating a website for the book is to have a digital platform with an abundance of visual resources to vividly bring their films to life for readers and visitors to the website. The website will include more images than will be printed in the published book. In addition to film stills there will be family photographs, behind-the-scenes images from film productions, and archival images. Perhaps, most importantly, film clips and where possible, full-length version of the short films will be available for viewing on the website. The advantage of a digital platform like this website is the capacity to include color images (something which will not be available in the book), additional images and to watch the films and film clips talked about in the book. This amplifies and extends the analysis of the book into a more accessible and visually rich format.  

My research and creative practice are rooted in collaborative ethics and methods.  The book Digital Sutures has been written in a collaborative way with each filmmaker. The content for the website is also being co-created together with each of the four filmmakers featured in Digital Sutures. Each filmmaker is selecting the images, film stills, family photographs, and film clips that they want to include on the website. As a non-Indigenous scholar working with Indigenous filmmakers, collaboration is a critical aspect of my process.  One of the ways in which I wanted to reflect this collaborative ethos was to work together with my long-time friend and collaborator, Vera Wabegijig, an Odawa and Ojibwe (Anishnaabe) poet and filmmaker from Mississauga First Nation. I have known Vera for twenty years and worked with her at the Indigenous Media Arts Group in Vancouver many years ago. She is a brilliant poet who writes in Anishinaabemowin (The Anishinaabe language) as well as in English. I asked if she could write a poem to honor the four Indigenous women featured within Digital Sutures as well all the many other Indigenous women filmmakers past, present and future leading the way in reclaiming the screen and building capacity within Indigenous media.  I envisioned her poem to be a digital landing and a welcome page for visitors to the website. It was important to me that the website honor the four filmmakers included in the project and that the website is centered within the ethical frameworks of collaboration, reciprocity and gratitude that guide my research and creative practice.

It is especially fitting that Vera’s poem, The fire lives in us and we spark each other’s light, welcomes visitors to the website as my initial ideas about writing about Indigenous women’s filmmaking practices were forged over conversations and endless cups of tea, dinners together, hanging out with Vera’s daughters Grace and Storm, and walks with Vera. It is through Vera that I came to understand the multiple ways in which Indigenous women carry the stories forward for the next generations and the depth and weight of their commitment to bring Indigenous stories to the screen. I’m deeply grateful for the opportunity to work with Vera Wabegijig, Jennifer Dysart, Marcella Ernest, Lindsay McIntyre, and Amanda Strong on this website. Go raibh míle maith agaibh, I’m so thankful to you all.

I am grateful to the PEN & Inc. program for providing support, training and resources to bring this website to life!

I share here an early view of Vera Wabegijig’s poem, The fire lives in us and we spark each other’s light, the website will also have an audio recording of Vera reading the poem.

The fire lives in us and we spark each other’s light 
By: Vera Wabegijig

Once we sat around fires inventing myths, legends, stories rooted in blood and marrow memories emerged from a flickering and distant light carving a path for dreamers to pursue a divergent vision. 
Ready to shatter stereotypes encapsulated from a white lens. 
Hands of our ancestors hold us up as we reclaim our stories. 
Survival through secrecy, there is a resurgence of stories. 
When the earth is cold and deep in snow, we share our myths and legends through a cultural lens. 
Black and white 8mm films family memories, a new generation emerges to explore, to revision, in our hands film exposes pictures in a red light. 
In a small-town theatre, a girl touches the dust traveling on projected light. 
Frame by frame images take shape, revealing a new way to tell stories. She asks, Who came before? Who had the original vision to smash stereotypes and go beyond myths and legends? 
Reaching back, she dares others to move forward with our memories. 
She says, let our focus reframe the existing lens. 
Her journey is many a woman’s journey seen through a political lens. Indigenous women are producing a spotlight in their communities, providing space to share memories. 
It’s time to decolonize our histories, our stories. 
Writing and weaving narrative, the retelling of myths and legends, a new generation of filmmakers pave the way for an illuminated vision. 
At festivals we acknowledge ancestral land, it’s a collective vision, as we marvel how light travels through our personal lens. We release the Indian from myths and legends, exposing the truth and directing light. 
Voyaging through space and time we emerge in our own stories, our Indigenous languages are thriving memories. 
There is a resurgence of blood and marrow memories, we remember those who came before who dared to have a vision of our children seeing themselves in our own stories. 
Images of us seen through an Indigenous lens. The fire lives in us and we spark each other’s light, shaking loose from the myths, we become living legends.

Photograph of Vera Wabegijig on the left and Kristin Dowell on the right taken at the ImagineNATIVE Film & Media Arts Festival in Toronto, Canada in 2019.
Figure 2. Photograph of Vera Wabegijig on the left and Kristin Dowell on the right taken at the ImagineNATIVE Film & Media Arts Festival in Toronto, Canada in 2019.