Caroline Monnet

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Caroline Monnet, Mobilize (still), 2015.

Artist Cinemas presents Mobilize
Caroline Monnet

3 Minutes

Artist Cinemas
Week #2

August 26–September 1, 2020

Join us on e-flux Video & Film for the online screening of Caroline Monnet’s Mobilize (2015), on view from Wednesday, August 26 through Tuesday, September 1, 2020.

Mobilize takes us on a journey from the northern lands to the urban south. The rhythmic montage, composed entirely from the archival footage of the NFB (National Film Board of Canada), follows Indigenous bodies constantly on the move through radically different landscapes, performing the strength and skill of everyday life. Edited to the beat of Tanya Tagaq’s song “Uja,” hands thread sinew through snowshoes, axes peel birch bark to make a canoe, a paddler navigates icy white waters, young men and women arrive into the city as construction workers and city drifters. Mobilize negotiates notions of labor and its representation between urban/modern and traditional/native lands.

Mobilize is the second installment of Take Me Back, a program of films, video works, and interviews convened by Jumana Manna, and comprising the third cycle of Artist Cinemas, a long-term, online series of film programs curated by artists for e-flux Video & Film. It is presented here alongside an interview with the filmmaker Caroline Monnet by Jumana Manna.

Take Me Back will run for six weeks from August 19 through October 3, 2020, with each film running for one week and featuring an interview with the filmmaker(s) by Manna and other invited guests.

Caroline Monnet in conversation with Jumana Manna

Jumana Manna (JM):
In 2015 you were invited as one of four Indigenous filmmakers, by the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) to create a new film from their archival bank of over eight hundred films. This sounds like an invitation to rework the power relations in which these moving images, produced by the NFB, came about. After spending time with them, can you share your reflections around their politics of representation—the kind of materials produced to study and document Indigenous people over the years?

Caroline Monnet (CM):
It is only in the late 1960s that the NFB started producing films made by Indigenous filmmakers. The NFB clips that compose Mobilize were taken from earlier films made from a white male perspective, often approaching Indigenous people from an anthropological standpoint where the protagonists are presented as passive, busy working on their craft, insisting on remaining at the margins of Canadian society. Later on, with the resurgence of Native activism in Canada in the late 1960s and 1970s, and political organizations such as the Red Power movement starting to gain traction, it was no longer acceptable for Native people to be portrayed from a different perspective than their own. Indigenous filmmakers were given the space to tell their own stories, with the idea that film could be used as a medium to spark discussion between authorities and communities. Canadian Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin was a trailblazer in changing outdated and essentializing narratives at the time. She began her career as a singer and storyteller before coming to film in 1967 as a consultant to the NFB. Her extraordinary body of work—over fifty films, and still shooting—includes landmark documentaries like Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance. And today, we’re seeing the emergence of a vibrant generation of Indigenous filmmakers who honor the complexities that exist amongst the different Nations in the country.

Given the determined lens of the original materials, how do you find your re-working challenged that representation or intervened in their purposes?

It was important for me to portray Indigenous identity as something vibrant and dynamic. I wanted audiences to feel energized watching indigenous people showing off their skills on screen. I was particularly interested in images presenting First Nations being active and in motion, such as building, canoeing, walking, as this counters the inertia too often portrayed by the media. Using Tanya Tagaq’s music was instrumental in bringing that level of energy, traditional connection while remaining contemporary. One other aspect that was intriguing to me was the use of archival footage to speak about a future time. There’s a tension between the original footage that was created during a time of historical chaos in the treatment of Indigenous people, and between the remix I did in Mobilize, where the visuals are used to summon the mobilization of Indigenous people nation-wide.

The movement from country to city narrated through the assemblage of Mobilize speaks directly to the framework of this series, Take Me Back. How did this clear direction of movement come about?

I feel that in some ways it’s representative of my own family’s history. I did not grow up in my mother’s community, and my grandparents left the region when my mother was still young. With this comes displacement, and it builds on a new narrative in the city. There’s a level of privilege that came with my maternal family’s migration to the city, accessing jobs and education. But that privilege came with the harsh price of assimilation, trauma, and identity struggle. Notions of labor are very different in the city than on the land, or in a place where lumber is the principal industry. It doesn’t require the same set of skills and knowledge. And these traditional skills are often what ground you in your culture and community. Indigenous people were instrumental in building Canadian society, to the extent of contributing physically to building skyscrapers. Our presence in this country can no longer be ignored.

This story is familiar, even if the context I come from is very different. My grandfather had to work in construction after most of their land was lost in the Nakba of 1948, and farming could no longer cover the costs of feeding and educating a family of ten. Both my parents moved from their respective villages to Jerusalem for higher education and work. From a young age I was aware of the differences between our lifestyle in the city—where social relationships were not built on familial ties per se, and were comparatively free from norms and traditions—and that of my cousins’ in the village. As an occupied city, the sense of displacement in Jerusalem is multi-fold; still, Palestinian Jerusalemites never fail to remind us that we are not real Jerusalemites, that we are northerners.

I always felt there was a generation gap between my grandfather’s upbringing and mine. It’s important to point out the complexities of the realities of being an Indigenous person in Canada at that time. The Canadian government was very aggressive with its assimilation policies and was pushing for First Nations to affranchise from their Native status in order to be considered a Canadian citizen—to be able to vote, have a job, or access an education. So once my mother’s family left its home community, it was a real fracture of identity. It was an apartheid system, and with that comes a level of shame around who you are and where you come from. Thankfully this has changed in the last decade as we are getting more recognition within the country. But racism is still very much present and the struggle for our rights is constant. My father is French and I grew up between Brittany, France, and Canada. That shaped my identity in the sense that from an early age, my education was primarily French. We always knew we were Anishinaabe and always felt different from most Canadians, with a foot in both worlds. I started claiming the First Nation part of my identity more actively as I entered my teenage years, with a strong feeling of responsibility to show that the assimilation process from the government had not worked. I now feel deeply connected to my mom’s community.

I noticed two very different lineages of crafts in the film. The first, let’s call it traditional crafts made from organic materials embedded in the landscape; and the second, the crafts of industrial construction. How do you consider the relation between the two—have they existed alongside one another, or would you say the latter has erased the first?

I don’t think the latter has erased traditional building techniques. I consider traditional crafts and skills to be very much present in today’s world. Most people have this belief that our traditional knowledge is dying and our culture is disappearing. On the contrary, there’s a strong renaissance of Indigenous pride and culture. With the help of social media and the democratization of filmmaking equipment, a new generation is active in learning their traditional languages as well as making sure their elders’ knowledge is passed down. What happened over the last century was that most of these traditional skills were not recognized for their merit, and often relegated to mere folkloric crafts. But tradition is not necessarily regressional—it is constantly adapting and inventive.

You work in multiple mediums, in painting and sculpture alongside filmmaking. This is a question I am asked to answer often, and now can be in the comfortable seat of the interviewer: How do you see the relation of the different mediums of your practice? When is the moment you choose to make a film, rather than a sculpture, to work through a particular issue?

The concept dictates the medium, and the choice comes quite organically. Some issues are simply better approached in a sculptural form. For example, I find it more compelling to talk about the cultural genocide of First Nations people in Canada with a sculpture rather than moving images. Sometimes, words can be powerful, but other times they create a framework where it would be difficult to find the right tone. I’ve always been very attracted to materials, wanting to use them to express an emotion and spark a dialogue on certain issues. Lately, I’ve been working with construction materials, more precisely isolation building materials. There’s a real lack of vision when it comes to building materials in remote Indigenous communities and the impact these materials have on the environment. My film practice has evolved over time and I’ve been exploring different forms, ranging from documentary, experimental film, installation, and nowadays narrative. Each work that I do is part of a whole. I notice the same exploration across various discipline. The intentions remain the same. That is, to create an experience—whether physical or emotional—that can trigger a deeper understanding of Indigenous experience as well as start conversations around issues that are important to me.

For more information, contact program@e-flux.com.

Indigenous Issues & Indigeneity, Labor & Work, Nature & Ecology, Film
Craft, Experimental Film
Return to Take Me Back
Return to Artist Cinemas

Caroline Monnet is an Anishinaabe/French multidisciplinary artist from Outaouais, Québec, currently based in Montréal. Her films and visual art works have been shown at Toronto International Film Festival, Les Rencontres Internationales Paris/Berlin, Sundance Film Festival, Whitney Museum (NYC), Toronto Biennial of Art, Contemporary Art Museum (Montreal), Arsenal Contemporary (New-York), and the National Art gallery (Ottawa); and are upcoming at the Shirn Kunstalle (Frankfurt) and the Museum of Fine Arts (Montréal).

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