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.

Spotlight: Nyla Innuksuk on Perspective in Virtual Reality

Still from Bang Bang Baby

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

Nyla Innuksuk is an Inuk Virtual Reality (VR) content creator, filmmaker and producer, based out of Toronto. She founded her company NKSK, a small tech start-up, in order to create immersive, interactive and cinematic content in new platforms such as 360, VR, and the ever growing Augmented Reality (AR) space. She previously co-founded Pinnguaq Productions, which focuses on video game and 360 production, as well as STEM education in Nunavut. When she is not working within other realities, she loves to watch films and continues to direct 2D films (flatties) and sits on the board of directors for the Glenn Gould Foundation.

How did you get started in the industry?

I was raised in a very creative household. I studied film and I started making documentaries and scripted content since I picked up a camera when I was a teenager.

I became really interested in VR / 360 stuff, and early on, someone asked me to produce a piece for them and I agreed, even though I hadn’t done it before.

After this first job, I tried to meet everyone I could in VR; understanding the community, getting a camera, shooting stuff, learning how to stitch. These were the early days, when everyone was on the same playing field and nobody really knew anything more than anyone else. So it didn’t matter that I came from film and not from video games. And nobody had seen this stuff, so I would put a headset on anyone that I came across. It was impossible to describe, so I had to stress meeting in person to show them. Because they had never seen anything like it, their minds were blown.

And maybe they didn’t become a client then, but a year later I would get a call. Timing was a big part of it; it was everything. There’s a saying: it doesn’t matter necessarily if you’re the best, but if you’re first. The thing about VR, 360 and AR is that the technology is changing so quickly that there’s always potential to be the first.

How would you define “virtual reality”?

I think VR is another creative platform to tell stories. For documentary, it’s really unique because you can really feel as if you are existing in a space and with people and it brings you closer to the subject matter.

I did a documentary called IMPOSSIBLE TO CONTAIN where we went very quickly after this diesel spill off the coast of BC in a community called Bella Bella, and my friend Zoe Hopkins was the director of that piece. We were able to focus just on her family’s experience. Of course we could have done it in 2D, but to be standing in the water and seeing oil at your feet is going to be much more impactful than just seeing it in 2D. To actually feel like you’ve got a seat at the table while they’re serving all this seafood that we don’t even know will exist in 10 years because of this diesel spill is that much more impactful in 360.

Still from Impossible to Contain (2017)

What’s your opinion on perspective in virtual reality storytelling?

For me, there’s sensitivity around every kind of content creation. I think minority voices interpret the world differently. Everybody interprets the world differently; women will interpret it differently than men and children experience it differently than adults.

I think when it comes to gaze, more so than traditional film, we need to be thinking about who is making this stuff. If there was a team of women following a refugee crisis and making an experience about that, even if they weren’t refugees themselves, they would have a different takeaway than a male team making that experience. So even that level of diversity is important. If you were able to work within a community and train people to use these tools, you’re going to get a totally unique perspective and you’re going to find different stories within the story.

I think a lot of projects within the Indigenous community are very reflective of things that have happened in the past. Our histories involved colonization and residential school systems and you see that a lot in our media that we create. So there’s a lot of documentaries, a lot of heavy dramas that exist within the Indigenous community and i think that’s partially because we feel we have this responsibility to tell these stories.

In VR, what I find is if you’re actually giving the marginalized voices the chance to make their own content, you’re probably not going to get a lot of heavy empathy content pieces coming out of them. Because if you’re from the community, you’re going to be seeing the people that are making a change in the community, you’re going to be seeing the resistance and that power within the community, not the things to be looking down upon. You’ll find, time and time again, stories of survival and perseverance and love and happiness and levity.

What is your vision of the future with the work that you’re creating?

I think there’s still a lot of room in finding out how to tell narrative stories within this new medium. There’s obviously limitations from the tech side of things, but also just coming up with new ways of telling the story. We’re stuck in using the same tools we use in traditional film, but I think these kinds of molds need to be broken, and that requires testing out, breaking things, putting them back together. It requires time and experience. That’s just innovation, that’s how it works. And I hope that’s something I never stop doing.

What’s next for you?

I’m in development of my first feature, it’s called Slashback. It’s about a group of girls in Nunavut that ride on their dirt bikes and chase down aliens and battle them. It’s going to be this fun adventure movie and I can’t wait.