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Howard Editing The Marker 01

Photo of Howard Adler by Ed Kucerak

“Yes making this film was a challenge, but I think to a much lesser extent then the challenge that the five indigenous artists faced in designing a heritage marker. I really did want to do justice to their story though, and to show how much hard work and struggle the artists put into creating the commemorative marker”, replies filmmaker Howard Adler when we asked him about his documentary An Object that has Spirit which has its World Premiere at the One World Film Festival on Saturday September 26, 2015.

An Object that has Spirit tells the story of five indigenous artists who came together from across Canada to create a heritage marker to honour Indian Residential School Survivors and entrust their experiences to public memory. Faced with an enormous task, the artists rise to the challenge, transforming what was originally conceived of as a heritage plaque into an object imbued with spirit.

How did you get involved in the making of this film?
I was basically approached by the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), on the recommendations of an advisory committee, which was actually composed of some seriously talented and well known Indigenous Artists. I believe their role was to also make recommendations for artists that could be chosen to create the Commemorative Marker, and I was very honoured that they recommended me for this project.

My job was to document the Commemorative Marker Workshop, a week long gathering in which 5 artists had to conceive and design an object that would commemorate the legacy of Indian Residential Schools in Canada, and to create a short film about the creative process.

The artists 01

“An Object that has Spirit” production still.

The film, along with 139 Commemorative Markers, would then be sent out on flash drives to 139 communities all across Canada that had former sites of Residential Schools. The idea was to provide context for the creation of the Markers, so that through the film, the communities receiving them would meet the artists who designed them, and see how and why they were created.

Why were you interested in making this film?
I was thrilled with the idea of meeting the artists, and watching the creative process. I know how difficult it must have been for them to try to encompass so much history into a single object. We’re talking about over a 100 years of genocidal colonial policy in which children were taken away from their parents, families, and communities, indoctrinated with Christianity, prohibited from speaking their own Indigenous languages, and in many cases malnourished, experimented on, and physically and sexually abused. To quote one of the artists, it was a “phenomenal challenge”, and I know how important it was for them to do this work, and I was very excited to document and film the artists and to be present during their creative journey.

What were some of the challenges you faced in the making of your film?
I think one of the hardest things was to not interfere with the artists as they talked about designing the commemorative marker. I always felt like joining in on the conversation with the artists, to share my experiences, and I confess I might have done so on one or two occasions. It really was a challenge to hold my tongue and to let the artists do their job.

Another challenge was to actually craft the documentary without focusing on the history of Residential Schools to any great extent. But that wasn’t the story, the story was about the artists and their journey to create an object that would have meaning and value to Indigenous communities.

Yes making this film was a challenge, but I think to a much lesser extent then the challenge that the five indigenous artists faced in designing a heritage marker. I really did want to do justice to their story though, and to show how much hard work and struggle the artists put into creating the commemorative marker.

Artists Outside Foundry

“An Object that has Spirit” production still.

As a filmmaker, what does this film mean personally for you?
As the son, grandson, and nephew of residential school survivors, I know how damaging those “schools” were. Personally, I think the entire contemporary Canadian Government’s response to the legacy of Residential Schools was lacking in so many ways. An apology from an abhorrent Prime Minister, lump sum payments to individual survivors (when this is something that also happened to entire communities and Indigenous nations for generations), limited-time offers of financial support to organizations like the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, and a Truth and Reconciliation process that focused on the victims and not the perpetrators of Residential Schools. Indigenous language’s and cultures were devastated by Resident Schools, yet from what I’ve seen, very little was actually included to address this in the contemporary Canadian response to the legacy of residential schools.

Now that I’ve spoken my mind, making this film was important for me because it felt like I was doing something positive, and not dwelling on all the negative things about Residential Schools, both past and present.

Is there anything else that you would like to share with us about your film?
I’d just like to say a big thank you and chi-miigwech to everyone that worked behind the scenes to make the Commemorative Marker Workshop a reality. This wasn’t a project with a top-down model, it was collaborative process led by Indigenous artists, and I think that’s one of the most striking things about the entire commemorative Marker project.

I’d also like to say a big thank you and chi-miigwech to the 5 artists that designed the Commemorative Marker, because I think they did an excellent work!

Howard & Andrew

Howard Adler & Andrew Huggett pause for a moment while working on the sound mix for the film. Photo by Ed Kucerak

Howard Adler holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Indigenous Studies from Trent University, and a Master of Arts Degree in Canadian Studies from Carleton University. He is currently the Workshop Coordinator at SAW Video Media Art Centre, he also works as a freelance Videographer and Video Editor, and is the Co-Director and Programmer for the Asinabka Festival, an annual Indigenous film and media arts festival in Ottawa. Howard’s film and video work has been exhibited in both Gallery settings and Film Festivals, such as ImagineNATIVE (Toronto), Weengushk (Sudbury), Biindigaate (Thunder Bay), and Saw Video’s annual Resolution screening (Ottawa). Howard is Jewish and Ojibwa and a member of Lac des Mille Lacs First Nation in North-western Ontario.

An Object that has Spirit is one of four Canadian Short Documentaries screening at the National Gallery of Canada, on Saturday September 26, 2015 from 12.30pm to 2:30pm followed by a Q&A with the filmmakers. It is the film’s World Premiere.

The four films were curated by Ottawa Indie Fest in association with Ottawa World Film Festival. They are presented as part of the One World Festival’s “Our Home on Native Land” program which explores the themes of journeys, the sacred, and conservation and reinforce the need for governments to respect and honour the needs indigenous communities and preserve something lasting for future generations.

© 2015 Ottawa Independent Film Festival

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