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Spotlight: Lisa Jackson on Versatility in Visual Storytelling - this is worldtown

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Spotlight: Lisa Jackson on Versatility in Visual Storytelling

Still from “Savage”

This is Worldtown’s new series features Indigenous media-makers exploring themes of identity, reconciliation, and resistance through visual storytelling mediums.

Lisa Jackson‘s award-winning work has screened at festivals internationally including the Berlinale, Hotdocs, SXSW, Margaret Mead and London BFI, and aired on many networks in Canada. Her films span documentary and fiction and include virtual reality, current affairs, animation and a short musical, Savage, for which she won a Genie award. She is Anishinaabe, the director mentor for the NSI’s Indigidocs program and is on the advisory committee for the NFB’s Indigenous Action Plan.

How did you get started in the industry?

I had been working for the federal government doing writing and researching contracts.  I ended up working for Knowledge Network in BC where I worked on specifically educational, TV shows and series and stuff for educational purposes. That was my introduction to making documentaries.

I was researching and production coordinating but I wanted to become a director. That’s when I decided to go to film school. And I told myself that I’d put between 5 and 10 years into trying to make it as a filmmaker. And if at the end of that time I found out that I was no good at it, at least I would know I’d tried, and I’d move on to something else.

But in my final year of film school, I got some funding and decided to make Suckerfish, my first film, and it did pretty well. I kept working my day job for another year or so after that, and then I became a full time filmmaker in summer of 2005.

Still from “Suckerfish”

What drew you to visual storytelling?

I actually started off as a writer, and I still really like writing. For me, the initial move into visual storytelling was actually inspired by people. I was writing a lot of profiles of people and many of them were so magnetic and fascinating. And you could never get that down on the page.  And so my initial move towards it was actually very human-centred. Wanting to, in profiling people or putting them on the screen, get that unnameable quality that you can get on screen. Now, having said that, I was in dance when I was young; I did pottery and ceramics and sculpting and things like that. I always had this visual sensibility. But I also had this activist, documentarian sensibility. And so I think as time has gone on, I’ve melded those two things closely together, and I’ve figured out my own way to sculpt with film.

How has working in different genres such as fiction, documentary, animation, performance arts and musicals affected the way you tell stories?

It’s been really validating to see how profound an impact you can have on people by presenting a unique take on something. So for example, my film Snare is only 3 minutes long but it brings a lot of people to tears. It’s about MMIW [Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women] and it’s just very visually striking and it says a lot metaphorically in those 3 minutes. The role of creativity and framing – specifically reframing things that we think we know about in a unique way – it’s very visceral.

Still from “Snare”

How has working in different mediums such as short film, music video, virtual reality and feature films affected the way you tell stories?

I’ve always thought a lot about the world that I’m putting viewers into and had such a specific idea of what the tone and environment would be. And that goes across all of them, from an installation to a VR to a film. But I think that characteristic just manifests itself differently in all those mediums.

In some ways, I look at VR for its potential to, rather than make us voyeurs, actually implicate us in the worlds that we enter into. With Highway of Tears, the viewer is placed in the main character Matilda’s living room, listening to her tell a story. And she’s looking at you, so she’s in control of that storytelling space. It moved a lot of people, but it also made them uncomfortable. Because you’re not just watching her unseen; she’s aware that the camera is you, and she’s going to tell you this story. I think that’s good and I think that implicates the viewer. And I hope that we see more pieces that, as users, push us to make choices or evaluate what we think.

Still from “Highway of Tears VR”

Can you speak to the idea of community and connectedness in the work that you do?

I don’t know any Indigenous artists that don’t feel connected to their community in a way that has responsibility. And not in a bad way, because we’re supported by and fed by the communities, but we are a part of a larger whole. There’s amazing Indigenous art being created right now. I think if you look at pretty much all of it, you’re going to see that there’s a sense of connection to community and the way that the subject matter we take on, our perspectives, have similarities. Regardless of whether it’s a sci-fi, or a period piece.

Can you speak to the idea of reconciliation in the arts and media, and what that looks like for Indigenous communities?

Reconciliation has become a challenging word in some ways because there’s a depth to what’s required to reconcile.The majority of the Canadian population now knows more about residential schools, but what about treaty rights, or other aspects of our history? There’s a lot to know about, even for us. I’m learning about the details of Canadian Indigenous settler history right now, and it’s a huge amount of information. But we have collective amnesia in Canada about that. And in this modern, social media, fast-paced age, it’s really easy to think that historical stuff is so irrelevant, since we’re in this moment now. But I think if we don’t understand the history, we can’t actually reconcile it.

What’s next for you?

Several things. I’m about to release a VR piece with the NFB called Biidaaban: First Light, and I’m developing a few fiction and doc projects for film and TV.  But a big focus right now is Transmissions, which is a three-part multimedia immersive installation that looks at how we see the world differently through Indigenous language. It’s not like a typical installation in a gallery, because it’s got a single channel film, projections, and similarities to theatre. It’s an Indigenous futurist take and it poetically puts you in a space where you feel like what might happen if our current structures of society were no longer in place. The idea is that Indigenous languages grew here as much as plants grew here. They are native to these lands as much as plants are native to these lands. They describe Canada better than any other languages do. Indigenous languages are also, in a way, very practical and grounded. The idea that we live in relationship to everything around us is central. An installation requires people to be active participants with agency within these spaces and that reflects the belief system of these languages more closely than a film.

I’m moving more and more into iconic imagery and metaphor. And I think that’s really powerful, because it allows you to talk about political things without it being alienating to an audience. People can grasp on to it.