Filmmaker and multimedia artist Lisa Jackson celebrated the Indigenous film community as she accepted the BMO-DOC Vanguard Award on Tuesday. The prize honoured her documentary career, which began with the intimate and experimental short Suckerfish and continues with her upcoming hybrid doc about Wilfred Buck, an elder, educator and expert on Indigenous astronomy.
“The Indigenous film community is incredible,” said Jackson, whose mother was Anishinaabe from Aamjiwnaang First Nation. During a heartfelt and inspiring acceptance speech, she recalled how she was supported by her people over the past two decades. “I’ve invited several of them to be here because I feel that we all share in this award.”
The multimedia artist received the prize during a virtual celebration at the Documentary Organization Of Canada Institute’s annual general meeting, with fellow filmmakers Tasha Hubbard (Nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up) and former Vanguard recipient Alethea Arnaquq-Baril (Angry Inuk) in attendance.
The prize is awarded to mid-career creatives who demonstrate “a keen artistic sensibility and forward-thinking approach to the craft, with the potential to lead the next generation of doc-makers.”
“This award is really overdue,” said Hubbard in a conversation with NOW after the celebration. “The breadth of her work is really stunning.”
Jackson has a long and eclectic filmography. She co-directed the documentary Indictment: The Crimes Of Shelly Chartier with Shane Belcourt. Her adventurous dramatic short Savage features kids in residential school busting out into a coordinated Thriller-like dance. Her poetic IMAX short film about a resilient alien-looking organism Lichen played at the Sundance film festival in 2020. She imagines nature taking over Tkaronto in her Indigenous futures VR experience Biidaaban: First Light.
Her most recent project Citizen Minutes was commissioned by Hot Docs and made available to the public for free. Jackson along with producer Lauren Grant oversaw eight short docs about Canadians making a difference in their communities. Jackson’s body of work is distinguished not just by the affection apparent in how she tells stories but also the mix of forms and refusal to pick a lane.
Lisa Jackson’s path to filmmaking
“I did discover in film school that I did not want to do things in the straight ahead, narrow way,” Jackson tells NOW. Her departure from accepted paths of filmmaking or storytelling is evident in her tender first short film, Suckerfish. The very personal and emotional documentary is about Jackson’s relationship with her mother and the effects of residential school trauma. Jackson approaches that story, which also explores her understanding of her Indigenous identity, by meshing animation, re-enactments, old photographs and narration. “And let me tell you: re-enactments and narration are the two things everyone says you should absolutely avoid.”
Jackson also didn’t come to filmmaking on a linear path. She was always into arts, whether it be dance, sculpture, pottery or creative writing. But she initially intended on pursuing Aboriginal law to fight for Indigenous rights. She even signed up to take the LSAT before having a sit-down with Aboriginal lawyers, who explained that such cases typically take years if not decades and usually involve a lot of politicking. Jackson decided that wasn’t for her and instead entered the work force doing work as a writer and researcher, finding inspiration when writing magazine profiles of people who motivated her.
“What drew me into filmmaking was loving the people that I would meet,” says Jackson. There is something you can capture on a camera when interviewing people that you couldn’t in print. That’s what Jackson was chasing when she went to work in educational TV before pursuing her own storytelling in film school, all the while working varied jobs 20-30 hours a week to make ends meet. That diverse life experience guided by various passions and the drive to find the best way to tell a story is how you get a body of work that mixes up documentary with animation, VR and multimedia installations.
“I think when you can mix modes in filmmaking, you actually kind of speak to different parts of people,” says Jackson. She says that her penchant for various forms of storytelling will coalesce in her upcoming hybrid documentary about Wilfred Buck, the Indigenous astronomer who survived poverty and addiction to become an educator knowledgeable about the stars. Add she adds that the drive to unite various forms of communication also feels deeply Indigenous.
“There’s an integrated understanding of our place in the world that I find to be quite different from the mainstream Euro-Western perspectives,” says Jackson.
In the same way that she brings different art forms together, Jackson also brings people together. I personally reach out to her for guidance whenever I write a story because she usually puts me on the right path or connects me to the right people. And what was obvious as she received the DOC Vanguard Award in a virtual room among her peers is how much Jackson – the filmmaker who stumbled into filmmaking for her love of people and their stories – is loved as an integral part of the Indigenous film community, and how much that affection is returned.
“Receiving this award is not just about me,” Jackson said at the beginning of her acceptance speech, which was very much about how she was embraced by the community. Her first film Suckerfish (see it below) premiered at Hot Docs. Danis Goulet ran up to Jackson after a Hot Docs panel and invited her to bring the film to imagineNATIVE.
“It was a small, struggling festival,” Jackson recalled in her speech. “They found a couch for me to sleep on. I was so welcomed and embraced.”
“We’ve stood together through so much,” Jackson continued while fighting back tears. “The genuine support and the understanding that we have and what it means to look around a room when you’re at Hot Docs – or even right now in the Zoom thing – to know that they’re standing there and they have my back is unbelievable. And that’s what we do for each other. And I would not be here without their support. And we celebrate each other for every step that we all take because we understand that it’s for all of us.”
The Indigenous film community celebrates Lisa Jackson
Both Alethea Arnaquq-Baril and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers (Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning Of Empathy) were reaching for the Kleenex when I spoke to them after Jackson’s speech. In separate conversations, they both described the speech as “so typical Lisa,” explaining that the generosity, selflessness and focus on communal progress defines everything Jackson does.
“She’s a filmmaker who never lost sight of the community,” adds Hubbard. While Jackson was giving a speech about the support she received from the community, Hubbard says it’s Jackson who continuously gives to her fellow creators and emerging artists. “If she’s going to succeed, she’s figuring out ways to make things better for everyone else.”
Tailfeathers met Jackson when she first started out in the film scene. “She helped me navigate an industry that can feel very alienating as an Indigenous person,” she says. Tailfeathers says Jackson’s mentorship helped her overcome feeling intimidated by the industry and uncertainty over whether she could even make it as a filmmaker. “She was one of those people that that really lifted me up, believed in me and gave me advice any time I ever needed it. She makes not only the Indigenous film community a better community, but she makes the documentary film community a better community.”
There’s another part of Jackson’s acceptance speech that resonated deeply with the documentary community. Jackson explained how they could better welcome and support new BIPOC voices that come with very different lived experiences. She spoke openly about her family’s history with residential schools and trauma, and their resilience. She explained how coming from a different background with her own insecurities left her struggling with imposter syndrome in the film world, making it challenging for her to confidently stand in a room at networking events with really experienced filmmakers. The way she connects and supports others all of a sudden made so much more sense.
“This industry really pushes you to project competence and confidence,” says Jackson, who explained that this expectation is a barrier. She struck a nerve with that line, mostly because so many fellow BIPOC creators have felt that uncertainty in their bones.
Yasmine Mathurin, whose exceptional debut One Of Ours won a Special Jury Prize at Hot Docs, reached out to Jackson immediately after that speech to express her gratitude for speaking to her own experience. “Had my community not held space for me, I think I would have given into my imposter syndrome very early on,” Mathurin said.
“I texted her afterwards to thank her,” says Arnaquq-Baril, reacting to Jackson’s speech. “It reminds me of when I was starting out in this industry. It just felt like there were layers of embarrassment and shame she lifted off of me by hearing her put words to that experience. The reason she described it is to remind all of us that if you really want to make room for racial minorities and people who don’t have the easiest access to making it into the industry, then we have to remember that those feelings are there. Not everyone has arrived in that moment with a life that just gives them that kind of unshakable confidence.”
“Honestly, every single interaction I have with that woman, I leave it smarter and more empathetic,” adds Arnaquq-Baril. “She’s just so full of inquisitiveness, joy and humanity. Her very presence makes people more kind to others. When you combine that kind of bone deep empathy with the natural and completely selfless curiosity, that’s where great documentary comes from. And she has that through and through.”
Watch Lisa Jackson’s debut short film Suckerfish below. Watch Lisa Jackson’s BMO-DOC Vanguard acceptance speech here.
SUCKERFISH from Lisa Jackson on Vimeo.