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Yasmine Mathurin found her voice as a filmmaker while telling a story about identity
Yasmine Mathurin didn’t consider herself a filmmaker when she started making One Of Ours. She began the five-year journey to tell a story that felt close to her, but was constantly consumed by fear driven by imposter syndrome, which many POC can relate to. How could she picture herself even attempting a career in the film industry while there were so few examples of women who look like her doing it, never mind succeeding at it?
And yet she ended up making one of the year’s best and most urgent films.
Her delicate and emotional documentary, which premiered at Hot Docs, follows Haitian-born Josiah Wilson. He was adopted and raised by a Heiltsuk First Nation family but barred from the All Native basketball tournament that pulled the blood quantum card as an excuse. The film, which is driven by curiosity, empathy and an active pursuit for healing, covers the emotional aftermath of that exclusion and the attempts to reaffirm community, while asking questions about identity, anti-Black racism, blood quantum, trauma and even homophobia.
There’s a lot packed into an intimate story about a young man who just wanted to play basketball with his people.
One Of Ours just happens to live at the intersection of complicated and heavy conversations we have had over the past year regarding “pretendians” and anti-Black racism. Mathurin was still filming and editing while the Michelle Latimer controversy compelled questions about who can claim Indigeneity. And then came the fallout over George Floyd’s murder, which forced communities and institutions to check the blatant and systemic racism in their own ranks.
I knew the film that I was trying to make,” says Mathurin, about the journey she began five years ago. “In the editing process, the stakes got higher. I’m sitting with a film that is holding these themes, handling these things that the world is wrestling with.
“There was so much fear for me to make sure I don’t fuck this up,” Mathurin adds, reminding me that this is her first feature film. “But then I also wanted to have the freedom to fuck up because that’s how I learn. I was praying for the grace of that.”
On a Zoom call, Mathurin can laugh and smile now about some of the more intense moments of making One Of Ours. But the weight of the story is still there in her voice as she processes the memories. You can feel the care she took in slowly working her way through it, not just for the sake of making a powerful film, which One Of Ours is, but to do right by Wilson and his family and others affected by questions regarding anti-Black racism, Indigeneity and identity. And you can feel the way Josiah Wilson’s story resonates with her.
She has a personal connection to the story. Mathurin knew the Wilson family from her teen years living in Calgary and connecting with the Haitian community there. But there’s also a subjective connection she has to a story about trying to place your identity and belong somewhere.
Mathurin is a Black woman who has moved around a lot. She’s repeatedly had to question whether she was Haitian enough or Canadian enough. Telling Wilson’s story was a way to work through her own feelings while also discovering herself as a storyteller, completing a rather circuitous and somewhat unintentional journey towards becoming a filmmaker. Mathurin didn’t really figure out that she was one until Wilson’s story came calling.
“I can call myself a filmmaker… I think,” she says, almost as if asking a question. “I think now I will.”
Finding a sense of belonging has been tricky for Mathurin, who spent much of her childhood moving back and forth between Haiti and Montreal, before moving to Calgary during her teen years, and Toronto as a young adult. A temporariness always hung over wherever she was, complicating the idea of home. And that in turn affects how she sees her identity, since she’s shifting between locations where interacting with one’s own Blackness is fluid and at times tricky.
“There isn’t like a unified Canadian Black identity,” says Mathurin, comparing her experiences between big cities like Toronto and Montreal, and also Calgary. She calls living in the latter city in particular “a lot” for any Black person. She has a hard time coming up with the exact words to describe the sense of isolation and cautiousness around the very notion of being Black in Calgary. Even the Black Student Association at her school was nervous when using the word Black in their title.
“It was just like, ‘Oh shit, we’re really being bold here,’” says Mathurin. “That was the climate. Every city I’ve lived in gave me something else to chew on. But there was never a connection.”
Pulled towards work in social justice, she pursued working for the United Nations, taking political science at York University. But after scoring a fellowship at the UN in 2011, she became disenchanted with the bureaucracy of politics. She then went back to school to try out journalism, affecting change through storytelling.
“I think at that point there was a small part of me that wanted to do film school but I was too scared to admit that to myself,” says Mathurin, “let alone tell my parents that after I came back from the UN I was going to go into film school. That’s like, nah, you wanna get killed.”
But she also purchased a T3i and used YouTube videos to learn how to make shorts, developing skills that she would eventually sharpen in a Scarborough incubator workshop run by Nayani Thiyagarajah and Muna Ali of Refuge Productions in 2015. Before that, Mathurin created her own web series called The Conversation Project, engaging her own friends in conversations about being Black.
“At the time, not a lot of people were talking about Black identity and so I just wanted to have conversations with my friends about the moment that they realized that Blackness was a thing,” says Mathurin. She describes an almost Lacanian mirror stage for Black people, typically an incident where they lose their innocence, see how they are perceived and begin to understand their place in the world.
“Something happens that lets you know that you’re Black. I was really curious about that.”
Mathurin discovered Wilson’s story on Facebook while she was living in Toronto. The news of his exclusion from the All Native Basketball Tournament was popping up on her feed and helping her discover things she never knew about the kids she hung out with in Calgary. “Josiah’s Indigeneity was invisible to me as a kid,” says Mathurin, who saw all these headlines posing big questions about identity on the shoulders of her friend, who just wanted to play basketball. “It felt like a lot. He was 22 at the time.”
After grappling a little with the story, Mathurin decided to pursue it. By this time, she had already worked an internship at CBC and even produced a couple of long-form radio documentaries. She intended to make a short film, but the story kept getting bigger and would lead her to making her first feature as a sort trial by fire, with the support of the DOC Breakthrough program. This was going to be her film school.
But the challenge of telling Wilson’s story goes beyond Mathurin’s own relative rawness to filmmaking. Wilson himself wasn’t exactly keen to tell his story. He didn’t even return Mathurin’s calls until his parents told him to. And his reluctance is there onscreen, which is part of what makes the film so fascinating. He’s guarded, often trying not to appear too pressed about the events unfolding around him, which says a lot about how he’s feeling.
“His reluctance is this kind of armour,” says Mathurin. “If you’re hurt, you don’t want to talk about the wound. I’m asking him to poke a wound. And that’s a tall order.
“I knew I had to earn my trust with him,” she adds, explaining how much time she spent just hanging out with Wilson and his friends. “I knew in wanting to tell a story about healing and digging into these questions, he may not necessarily be comfortable answering or even know how to answer. It would take time. Also, we might not get there.”
Wilson’s family do a lot of the talking in One Of Ours, explaining the circumstances around Josiah’s adoption as a baby, his closeness to his late-Indigenous grandfather and his upbringing as part of the Heiltsuk First Nation. They lead a discussion on what it means to be Indigenous – beyond a status card and blood quantum. They explain the politics around the basketball tournament and their refusal to apologize for an act of discrimination. And they reveal other family dramas – particularly a divorce and a member in the family coming out – that would cumulatively make Josiah feel like his world was unravelling, leaving him questioning who he is and where he fits.
“There’s a lot that he’s still processing and sitting in his own feelings about,” says Mathurin.
According to Mathurin, Wilson loves the film, though he got to that feeling with some work. He learned a lot about himself when seeing the first cut, but also felt uneasy about aspects of it. “He had a lot of questions for me,” says Mathurin, explaining how she had to talk him through moments that he was apprehensive about but that she felt were important to keep in the film. But she also adds that his family’s reaction gave him comfort, especially since they learned a lot about each other. Mathurin was able to have conversations with each of them that they couldn’t have with each other.
“Now, at the stage where people have seen the film and have responded to him, there’s a levity to how he’s sitting in his own story that I don’t think he really had before. I feel that’s such a gift.”
When it comes to what we saw on screen in 2021, the conversation around anti-Blackness within Indigenous communities didn’t stop at One Of Ours. Reservation Dogs, the Indigenous-led TV series we named the year’s best, was accused by some viewers of anti-Blackness.
The comedy series about healing is set in Oklahoma’s Muscogee Creek Nation. Viewers called out the lack of Afro-Indigenous Muscogee characters on the show. They also add that the erasure coupled with supporting characters who use Black vernacular and appropriate Black culture (from rapping to grills) accumulates, suggesting the show’s anti-Blackness.
Mathurin admits that, like most of us, she’s not familiar enough with the world and specific context in Muscogee Creek, where there is reported to be a significant Afro-Indigenous population as well as a history of anti-Black discrimination. She enjoyed Reservation Dogs, as well as Netflix’s hip-hop and reggae Western, The Harder They Fall, which could be accused of Indigenous erasure – characters like Nat Love and Cherokee Bill were Afro-Indigenous but played by actors who only identify as Black.
Mathurin understands the anger. She points to the scarcity of stories reflecting the Afro-Indigenous experience, which is why the community would want to seize on any opening where they could be represented.
“When you have an opportunity to and you decide not to, then people have the right to be upset because these opportunities seem few and far between,” says Mathurin.
Mathurin also considers the conversation around the Black culture in Reservation Dogs.
“It made me think about how much hip-hop has sort of held space for both Black folks and Indigenous folks,” she says. Mathurin’s not sure she agrees that Indigenous characters rapping and using African-American vernacular is anti-Black. But, she also points out, it’s complicated.
She speaks about the legacy of solidarity between Indigenous and Black communities throughout American history, but also the fact that there were Indigenous people who owned slaves. And she reflects on the history of activism “that has been led by Black folks,” tools that Black Americans gave as a gift to Indigenous and other marginalized communities. And she ultimately points out that she’s not the one who can decide what is what in these matters.
“I’m a Black woman,” says Mathurin. “I’m not an Indigenous person. The conversation around anti-Blackness within the Indigenous community needs to be something that is led by Indigenous folks.”
One Of Ours arrives on CBC Gem in January.
Make-up by Jodi Urichuk, lead artist for L’Oréal Paris Canada, provided by the 2022 Woman Of Worth program. Nominate a remarkable and inspiring women hero at lorealparis.ca/women-of-worth by December 23.