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Q&A with Howard Adler and Chris Wong of Asinabka Festival

By Alessandro Marcon on July 23, 2014


Ottawa’s own Asinabka Film & Media Festival, which celebrates film, art and media made by and about Aboriginal peoples from the world over, begins this Wednesday, July 23rd and runs until Sunday. We caught up with co-directors, Howard Adler and Chris Wong to chat about this year’s edition.

Apt613: Hi Howard and Chris. Thanks for taking some time to talk to us. So, this is the third year of running Asinabka Film/Media Festival. Has the initial excitement of novelty worn off, or are you as amped as ever? How does it feel the third go-around?

Howard: It feels like I’m more excited for the 2014 Asinabka Film & Media Arts Festival than I’ve ever been. Things really fell into place this year, with everything, with our seriously awesome film line-up, with the talented artists that are exhibiting their work in our Gallery Crawl, with our Live Music event highlighting musicians from Peterborough, and with our Opening & Closing Outdoor Film Screenings on Victoria Island.

Chris: I’m super excited that Asinabka has collaborated with an excellent team of artists and organizers to show some beautiful, innovative and quality art and ?lms. As it is our third year, we feel we are more con?dent that audiences can expect to be entertained and educated about contemporary Indigenous arts and issues.

Apt613: How do you feel Ottawa has been embracing the festival?

Chris: Ottawa has shown Asinabka tremendous support. We have had very good partnerships with local arts centre Gallery 101, grassroots support through the Odawa Friendship Centre, and have been honoured to have partnered with the National Gallery of Canada as part of the Sakahan Indigenous Arts Exhibition. Our reviews have been positive and we’ve learnt a lot from the experiences of the last few years.

Howard: I think Asinabka Festival is on people’s radar now, people are starting to know who we are, and what we’re about, they’re blocking the dates off on their calendars, and they’re looking forward to attending our events. I think we’ve had a lot of support from the community, from local artists that are participating, but also from our growing audience. We had a lot more people attending the second year of the Festival, and I think we’ll see a similar growth at this year’s festival.

Apt613: Tell us a bit about the first screening on July 23rd? How do you usually kick-off the festival?

Chris: The Asinabka opening usually starts with a traditional song and greeting by an Indigenous elder welcoming people to unceeded Algonquin territory, of which we have taken the Asinabka name. “Asinabka” is Algonquin for ‘place of glaring rock’ referring to Chaudiere Falls and Victoria Island being a traditional gathering place for people of all nations.

Howard: It’s for that reason, we always kick-off the Festival with an Outdoor Film Screening on Victoria Island. Asinabka is such a beautiful place. You’re in the city but surrounded by trees and water. You can see the parliament buildings in the distance and the lights from Ottawa and Gatineau reflecting off the water.

It’s also summertime, and people want to do things outside, so this year we’re also doing an Outdoor Film Screening (Drunktown’s Finest) on Victoria Island for our closing night.

Apt613: What kind of movie is Rhymes for Young Ghouls, and what will having director Jeff Barnaby on hand add to the experience?

Howard: Set in the 1970’s, Rhymes for Young Ghouls is a dark, gut-wrenching film, told from the perspective of Aila, a 15 year old drug dealer trying to avoid attendance at one of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools. For me, this film does a lot to contextualize the history of residential schools, and it does so in an entertaining way, and I think everyone in Canada should see this film. I’m really excited that the director, Jeff Barnaby will be in attendance to introduce the film and do a Q & A afterwards. I think having Jeff in attendance will add a lot to the screening, it’s always great to hear directly from a filmmaker about why they made a film, and what they were trying to say.


Apt613: There are many screenings of short films this year. Why is this so? Is this a conscious direction in which you’re trying to take the festival?

Howard: Asinabka Festival does a call for submissions every year, and I suppose a significant portion of those films are short works, so we try to include as many of these films as we can.

Chris: Yeah, Wapikoni Films based out of Quebec has made some excellent short ?lms with communities in Central and SouthAmerica, and we have ?lms from Norway and New Zealand, as well as Canada and the U.S.

Howard: I also really enjoy watching short film programs, it’s less of a commitment then a feature length film, it keeps me engaged, and if there’s one film that isn’t to my liking, I can just wait for the next one. It’s also super fun to do the programming and to pair short films together along a theme.

Apt613: What goes into getting ICAROS, an Argentinian/Peruvian film, screened here in Canada? How did you find out about this film, and what attracted you to it?

Howard: ICAROS was actually submitted to our festival when we issued our call For submissions! I have no idea how a filmmaker from Argentina heard about our festival, but I’m ecstatic that they did. We do get film submissions from all over the world, which I think is pretty spectacular!

Chris: The ?lm is beautifully shot and a well written documentary that explores issues that are surprisingly common to the experiences shared by Indigenous people in North America.


Apt613: Do you actively seek out the films to screen or do film agents/producers approach you?

Howard: Yes, I actively seek out the films to screen. Chris and I speak with film distribution companies about new films in their collection that we could screen, and we watch as many films as we can as a part of our research process. We also attend other film festivals all year long, and if I see something that I find compelling, I’ll bend over backwards to try to bring that film to Asinabka festival.

For example, my favourite short film this year is called Før Hun Kom, Etter Han Dro (Before She Came, After He Left) by Director Marja Bal Nango (Norway). I saw this film at imagineNATIVE in Toronto, and it was so good I knew that we had to get it screened at Asinabka Festival this year. I made a few phone calls to the distribution company in Norway, and even tried writing in Norwegian!

Chris: The research process is never-ending but fun. It’s encouraging to see new ?lms and art coming from all over the world as well as locally. There is a vibrant arts community in Ottawa that is creating some amazing work and we seek to show respect by displaying art from emerging artists as well as established artists who have trailblazed a way already.

Apt613: What was it about Drunktown’s Finest that made you think, “We’ve got to screen this one”?

Howard: It has real characters struggling with real issues. It humanizes Indigenous peoples and I think that’s so important for challenging stereotypes. The director actually made the film in response to a news story referring to her reserve as “Drunktown, USA”. There’s also a character in the film that is Trans, and I think that in itself challenges concepts of who and what Indigenous people are. There’s also a character that was adopted, and I think with the 60’s scoop here in Canada, a lot of Indigenous people here can probably identify with this character.

Chris: The film really captured the rawness of reservation life, and the added social difficulties of being LGBTQ and coloured. The story is entertaining, dealing with a transgendered person entering a beauty contest on an Apache reservation, but it also comes with a mature audiences warning that this is for those over 18 years of age. It’s humorous and human, and tackles the social realities of prejudice that exists across many cultures and communities.


Apt 613: Do you feel that Indigenous films are getting a good amount of exposure?

Howard: I don’t think Indigenous films are getting as much exposure as they could be getting. I know that Jeff Barnaby had a hard time getting his film screened in Ottawa. The Mayfair eventually picked it up for 4 days, but that’s not really a long time. I think Festival’s like Asinabka are important in celebrating and showcasing Indigenous arts that might otherwise be overlooked by the mainstream.

Chris: No, de?nitely not enough! Hence the need for festivals like Asinabka!

Apt 613: On Thursday, July 24th you’re having a Gallery Crawl. What can people expect from that?

Chris: A hip hop show at Gallery 101 is happening with music, live art, dancing, cyphering, artist talk and exhibition of works by Ernie Paniciolli, Jordan Bennet, Fiya Bruxa , Nyle Johnston and Erin Kosmo as well as tunes by DJ Kinewone as well as performances by Test Their Logik, Just Jamaal the Poet, Vera Wabgijig, with traditional dancing and drumming by Elaine and Theland Kicknosoway, Frazier Whiteduck and the Capital Warriors. Simultaneously an art show is happening next door to Gallery 101 at Platform Gallery featuring works by Carmel Whittle, Brad Henry, Ronald Noganosh, Howard Adler and Jaime Koebel. It’s going to be fun!

Apt 613: Lastly, you’ve dipped in Peterborough’s talent pool to bring us an evening of tunes. Will this evening be more along the lines of a soft serenade or a ruckus romp?

Howard: I think it will be a bit of both. Peterborough has a lot of soul, and I think that’s just what Ottawa could use!

Apt 613: Thanks, fellas!

Visit the Asinabka Film/Media Arts Festival website to check out and download the full schedule of events.