Exclusive – Loretta Todd is an Award Winning Cree Filmmaker and Mentor

I remember a time when talking to strangers wasn’t breaking a cardinal rule. People that barely knew you went out of their way to help. I miss those times because communication and good advice were more plentiful. Staying home meant your parents would invite their friends over. They’d tell jokes, perform a magic trick or start a story with, ‘Did I ever tell you the time I got myself into such a pickle I…’ If they caught you listening, they’d usually throw you some good advice to use later in life. As your path begins, the people that come into your life have the potential to leave quite an impression. I’ll never forget the day my dad told me his good friend had passed away. As he lay on his hospital bed, he turned to my dad and said, “kill them with kindness”. His candle burned out shortly after.  When my dad told me his last words, I didn’t fully realize the connotation until later in years. Considering my dad’s friend could’ve said anything else, continues to impress me. 

As we transition into adults, we sometimes look back at our youthful days and acknowledge our mentors, our teachers and the people that inspired us the most.  If you are part of Indigenous youth, you might be thinking about Cree filmmaker, Loretta Todd.  She wants to provide opportunities and more reasons for Indigenous youth to aspire for a better future. Her answer to the solution is quite unique and extremely honourable.  With her film and media background, exceptional tenacity and a deep love for her Indigenous community, she is trying to aspire youth to make a bigger footprint in their own lives.

I was very fortunate to speak with Loretta about the multiple projects and productions she has created to aspire, to influence and to act as a vehicle to achieve a better education for youth and pursue bigger dreams. She spoke to me from her home in Gibsons, BC.

 

“You currently have 4 projects on the go. Where do you get your tenacity from?”

“I’ve always stayed busy with multiple projects. Partly out of necessity to make a livelihood and partly because I see something missing in the Indigenous community and feel a responsibility to contribute to that.”

 

“You created a series called Coyote Science. It’s in it’s second season and can soon be seen on the APTN network. What was the inspiration behind the series?”

“There is currently a low graduation rate amongst the youth. The main cause is mostly due to not completing math and science. Research has found that if the curriculum reflects the culture of the people who are studying it, then they’re more likely to excel. If they’re doing well in all other subjects except math and science, then they’re not seeing themselves in those subjects. I thought it was really important to make sure they were able to see themselves and that the knowledge we have is just as important as Western science. We wouldn’t be able to survive as a culture for thousands of years without science. Indigenous people were studying stars, healing themselves with plants, growing vegetables and herbs as they constructed villages and organized them for sustainability.”

 

Loretta continues to inform me that US Indigenous science has been more widely adopted within some of the educational systems. There are many native scientists working there but Canada’s numbers of Native scientists are quite lower. Loretta is hoping the series will spark more students to become scientists.

 

“I’m making TV and media but I’m also figuring out how to help advance our own discussion about Indigenous science. Hopefully it can encourage and inspire our own youth to see that they have their own sciences and it’s ok to study it along with math.  I also wanted to celebrate the talent and intelligence of our youth to see themselves. I try to do it in a way that’s fun. It’s driven by music and art, which is also the basis for Indigenous science.”

 

One of her biggest influencers is Dr. Leroy Littlebear and his partner Amethyst Firstrider. Dr. Littlebear has been involved in the discussion of Indigenous science for the better part of his career and is now semi retired living in Lethbridge, Alberta. He started the native studies program at the University of Lethbridge and cofounded the native studies program at Harvard. He was reading Quantum Physics years earlier when he noticed the similarities between the Blackfoot perspective of space and time and other things explored in Quantum physics.  He had reached out to Quantum physicists and began a dialogue between himself, the elders and the physicists. He’s always been her inspiration and she’s known him and his wife for many years. He’s one of the advisors and people that help set the tone of the series. His help was instrumental when she was creating Coyote Science.

 

Coyote Science is an exciting adventures-in-science series that encourages youth to explore the fascinating world of science, from an Indigenous perspective. 

 

“Indigenous science is really one of the ways we teach through story. The core of the series is story. It’s unlike any science show anyone has seen. The rich vibrancy of how that story is shared, I try to embody into the style of the series. There’s a lot of animation, graphics and hip-hop music. Many of the comments we get from people, is ‘they wish they had a series like that when they were growing up.’  It’s been embraced and we’re now getting it out to distribution. We have a good relationship with Science World in Vancouver and they’re screening some of the episodes regularly in the theatre.”

 

On the previous Aboriginal Day they had an informal launch of the series. Some of the kids that participated in Coyote Science were at the screening. There was food and refreshments, as well as native tea. It was a great turnout and was good to see that there is a lot of interest.

 

“Where do you shoot the series?”

“Shooting in Vancouver can be difficult and costly so I brought the two actresses Isabella White and Kai Todd-Darrell and their families over by ferry to shoot it. We filmed it at Rolling Earth Farm.  It’s owned by a couple that teach horticulture and organic farming. They have a house on the property for guests to stay and they also provide meals, so it was a great fit. The crew stayed at a Bed and Breakfast. It was so much easier and convenient, even though we had to bring everyone over.  We also get an extra 15 percent in tax credits when you film outside Vancouver but we still had to come to Vancouver to film visits with the scientists.”

 

Loretta always needs permits and clearances in order to comply with broadcasting laws. She’s quite familiar with acquiring locations and says the Burnaby Film Office was very generous with her location manager when shooting in Deer Lake. At UBC they wanted 2400.00 per day to interview their top scientists.  They found an Indigenous garden on a UBC farm that allowed them to film for free but they were still very limited to who they could reach out to. She says there was much lost potential.

Loretta says she wants to be aspirational for native youth. Within the native community and literature there are a lot of Indigenous futurisms, which is looking at the future through science, through science fiction, through literature and through art. However, often that world is very dystopic. She wants to empower them to have agency in their life to make change. That is the real basis for her work.

Her interest in science is purely personal. She has a particular fondness for physics and astronomy and what can be learnt from the earth. She is a self-professed amateur science nerd. Coyote Crazy Smart Science Show is starting season 2 and they’re ready to go into production.

 

“Given that you have multiple productions requiring a crew, do you utilize the same people on each film crew?”

“I will use a lot of the same crew members from other productions but it sometimes comes down to who’s available, but they do cross over. We did a recent weekend shoot in which the crew were all Indigenous with the exception of the cinematographer, Mike McKinlay, whom we all enjoy working with. In the first season of Coyote Science we had a crew that was 75 percent Indigenous. There is a growing number of Indigenous people capable of taking on more roles, either in the crew, in craft services or acting. We always try to fill our crew with Indigenous people mainly because they are my allies and I feel comfortable working with them. There is common respect amongst the native community. Back in the 90’s when I got out of film school, there were very few Indigenous cinematographers. There were no sound people to be found and only a few emerging editors and directors out there. Capilano University has an Indigenous film program and they’ve been graduating students for the past year. It’s really helped to grow the numbers in the industry.”

 

Loretta began working within native organizations to contribute and help her community to grow stronger. She went onto film school at Simon Fraser when the film course was fairly experimental. She was exposed to old foreign films that still carry influence in the world.  She made many documentary films with the NFB in the ‘90’s before moving onto producing her own work; creating programming for indigenous youth.

Another series Loretta has created is Fierce Girls. It is a trans media project/web-series with social media interactive elements. She is in co-production with Aotearoa/New Zealand. They are joined by an awesome team of Indigenous production crew, writers, animators, actors, crew and creative. Nikolasa Biasiny-Tule is the New Zealand producer, Potaua Biasiny-Tule, and David Oxenbridge are the co-producers at TangataWhenua.com,They are set to launch the series on June 21st, Aboriginal Day. The web series is about two young Indigenous women who are aspiring comic book writers that create their own super heroes. Each webisode includes live action, animation, social media storytelling and community building through curated online content. It is all designed to spark change and empower young Indigenous women in Canada and New Zealand.

 

“You’re screenplay Monkey Beach is in development. What was the inspiration behind the story?”

Monkey Beach, is an adaptation of a novel written by Eden Robinson. It’s a beautiful but complex story with many layers of time and place that require you to find the thread that ties it all together. The book has been referred to as Canadian Gothic. Eden was inspired by her own contemporary native culture, history, traditions and stories. I had initially written the script but later had writers Johnny Darrel and Andrew Duncan work on it with me. I had finished the final draft and we’re all pleased with it. We’re presently seeking out financing to begin production this year. This story doesn’t really fit into a specific genre and has been described as supernatural/spiritual mystery. I feel a great responsibility to the author, the story, the book and the community where the story comes from. It’s been my driving factor. I’d also like to shoot it in Kitimat, BC.”

 

“You have some big names supporting this production. How did you bring them on board?”

“I’ve known Fred Fuchs almost since film school. I met him after I submitted a film into the LA Festival.  Peter Sellers was organizing it and had invited me to attend a class he was teaching at UCLA on world cinema. He liked my film and wanted me to present it to his class and talk about it. Fred Fuchs was producing an episode for a TV drama series on Native chiefs and happened to be looking for a liaison in Vancouver. They were coming up to scout for locations and actors for an episode they were making on Chief Tecumseh. Peter introduced us and we’ve kept up a professional relationship ever since. When I wanted to bring Monkey Beach into production, I reached out to Fred for support and encouragement. He’s been very enthusiastic for the film. Incidentally, Fred ended up making Tecumseh in N. Carolina because of better tax credits and a location closer to where the story takes place.”

 

Fred Fuchs is a producer and president at Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope and is an executive producer on Monkey Beach. Matthew O’Connor of Reunion Pictures and Canadian filmmaker Anne Wheeler (Chesapeake Shores, Da Vinci’s Inquest) have also joined the production as executive producers.

Having Reunion Pacific Entertainment on board has ensured Loretta that the production has amazing backing.  

 

“When it came time to reach out to the best people, they were there.”

 

Loretta’s past experience and great rapport working with youth will be a tremendous asset in bringing the best performance out of the actors.

 

“What types of challenges do you face in this adaptation?”

“We realize there will be some scenes in the story that we won’t be able to recreate for budget reasons, such as the sinking of a fishing boat but the key to this story is the characters and their interactions. The intense drama and effects for key scenes will dominate the story. We’ll also need to find multiple actors to play the main character at different stages of her life. Rene Haynes is the casting director and recently cast for Indian Horse. She specializes in working with Indigenous actors. The author Eden Robinson has read the script and provided very positive feedback.”  

 

Rene Haynes is also known for films, Dances With Wolves and The Revenant. The author Eden Robinson has provided positive feedback on the script. They will know by May, whether all the financing is in place. It is their hope to start production at the end of August. Financers are CBC, Harold Greenburg Fund, Telefilm and Creative BC.

“In addition to your two successful series and a script in development, you have also added another project to your plate. You’ve created a three year VR program at Emily Carr University. How did this amazing idea come to life?”

“When I approached Emily Carr I had discovered they have different research labs that look at trying to innovate using technology, different fields of art, medical and industrial with creative applications.  I approached one of the labs to ask if they’d be willing to collaborate with the IM4 Lab. There happened to be a funding source available for economic development in Indigenous communities. We applied for it and were recently notified the other day that we have the funding to proceed. We should be operational within the next month or so.  The plan is to provide an opportunity for people to produce approx. four VR projects per year plus have a series of augmented reality/AR workshops so that people can start creating their own AR projects. It takes a little different approach. This is the first time in the history of western media where the Indigenous have an opportunity to be at the beginning of an industry. The VR industry is still evolving and before the next acceleration arrives due to better software and applications, it would be good to be at the beginning of the industry.  This is a great opportunity to be able to benefit from it as well as influence it so they don’t have to play catch up later.”

 

“What type of demographic will you be hoping to attract?”

“There are really two prongs to the VR program. It’s open to individual artists that range from youth to elder that are inspired to explore the technology.  The second part of this prong is to go into the communities and ask how this technology could be of use to them. If it can, then we’d explain that we have the resources and the people to collaborate with.  In response, they may have someone in their community that they’d want us to work with. It may be an elder or anyone else that they’ve entrusted to bring their story into the VR/AR program. “

 

Loretta will be acting as creative director to help implement the program. In addition, there will be a group of women that she refers to as matriarchs with media experience and a familiarity with art. The group of women have a history of contributing back to their community. They will benefit from the technology, using it to tell their own stories, as well as bringing other artists in from other communities.

 

“The goal is to grow the circle to the largest number of people possible within the span of three years. I also want to see how it can be used to preserve the language as well as become a tool for other artists. All the areas it’s being developed and used in could be a great benefit to Indigenous communities.  There are so many applications to be used for, especially tourism. It could be incorporated to produce VR villages and historical recreations as well as using it to illustrate stories. By using it for economical development, people can acquire the skills so they can develop it themselves. It’s also an opportunity for artists to explore new ways to express their culture and their own art.”

The budget for the program is 1.5 million over 3 years. Western Diversification has generously pitched in 900,000 of the budget. Telus has gotten involved in the funding as well as Creative BC, Emily Carr and other local VR industries.

It was an amazing opportunity to meet someone that loves their youth and community this much. In addition to impressing the hell out of me, Loretta Todd also gave me the entire 411 on Gibsons.  If you’re not familiar with the town, it’s a 40 min ferry ride up the coast. It is connected to the mainland but it lacks a connecting road. Situated on the Sunshine Coast, it has less rain than Vancouver and just made my bucket list.  The cost of living is far cheaper and it boasts a population of 5000. The Sunshine Coast has a population of approx. 25,000. They have an oyster-shucking contest every summer at the Gumboot in Roberts Creek. I’m in. Truck loads of artist’s can also be spotted there.  It makes the list as an undervalued tourist site.

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