Indigenous voices rising: Michelle Latimer

Following the world premiere of her short Nuuca at TIFF, the Rise filmmaker talks finding wide audiences for Indigenous content.
Michelle Latimer

Playback is delving deeper into the growing chorus for a greater diversity of voices. Over the next few magazines, we’ll explore issues (and opportunities) facing underrepresented groups, including visible minorities and women. But first, we’re profiling just a few of the many new and established Indigenous content creators finding successful strategies for getting to screen and drawing in eyeballs. Next up: Michelle Latimer

Michelle Latimer says she’s never worked harder on a project than she did on Viceland’s Rise, the eight-episode, one-hour docuseries examining resistance movements in North American Indigenous communities. When production began in September 2015, Latimer and the team had no idea the months-long Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline would erupt the following year. When it did, the release date for the series had to be pushed to accommodate filming.

“I was so lucky that came at the end of the [filming] process – my muscles were ready, I was ready. I was like an athlete who had been preparing [my] whole life for that race,” says Latimer.

The series kicked off with two episodes examining Standing Rock and its history. Written and directed by Métis/Algonquin filmmaker Latimer and produced by Vice Studio Canada and APTN, Rise premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January before making its television debut on Viceland in Canada and the U.S. later that month. In Canada, it scored an average audience of 16,000 (2+) on the young specialty channel and was in the top 10 primetime programs on the channel for women aged 18 to 49. The series also debuted on APTN on Sept. 7.

“I used to be told that [audiences] aren’t interested in Native rights or the politics of Native issues, but Rise is one of the best-rated shows on Viceland,” says Latimer.

While at Standing Rock, Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Citizenfour), who runs Field of Vision, an online short-form doc platform based in New York City, approached Latimer to make a short doc about the protests.

Given that Latimer was in the midst of producing two hours on the saga for another broadcaster, she pitched Poitras on Nuuca, a 12-minute short exploring violence against Indigenous women in the oil fields of the North Dakota region. Written, directed and produced by Latimer, the doc, commissioned by Field of Vision and exec produced by Poitras, is world premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival.

She is also in development on the documentary adaptation of Thomas King’s book The Inconvenient Indian, with production slated for spring 2018. Bell Media’s TMN is producing in partnership with Toronto’s 90th Parallel and the NFB, with 90th’s Stuart Henderson, TIFF’s director of film programs Jesse Wente, NFB’s Justine Pimlott signed on to produce and the NFB’s David Oppenheim coproducing.

She launched Toronto-based indie prodco Streel Films in 2008 and released the mid-length documentary Jackpot, about die-hard bingo players, in 2009. The film, directed by Alan Black and produced by Latimer, was nominated for the Donald Brittain award for best social/political doc program and aired on Global. Latimer followed it up with a number of docs and short features, including animated short Choke, about a young First Nations man who leaves his reserve to pursue life in the city, which received a Sundance special jury honorable mention in short filmmaking and was selected by TIFF as one of Canada’s Top-10 shorts in 2011.

Now, Latimer says she’s looking to expand her TV and feature scripted portfolio. First up, Latimer is directing two episodes of the upcoming CBC scripted drama Little Dog (Cameron Pictures and Elemental Pictures), set to debut in winter 2018. She’s also co-writing one script for season three of Discovery and Netflix’s Frontier with Sherry White (Rookie Blue).

She’s in development with Toronto’s Sienna Films on Forgotten: The Freedom Project, based on the life of Renee Acoby, one of the few women designated a dangerous offender in Canada. The long-gestating project was originally intended to be a hybrid documentary/narrative feature, but for logistical and artistic reasons, Latimer is writing it as a scripted dramatic feature. “Even though we write and I can visit her, I’m not allowed to bring cameras in the prison or record,” says Latimer, adding, “I also felt I could do more cinematically by making a fictional film.”

Latimer is also attached as a showrunner and writer on Sienna and Eagle Vision’s Red Nation Rising, a scripted futuristic drama series about the war for fresh water.

Going forward, Latimer would like to develop her showrunner skills and create premium-cable series that push social and political themes. She also wants to help advance Indigenous storytelling, adding, “Opportunities are just starting to open up for our community to be able to tell our own stories from the inside out,” she says. “I think that [the success of projects like Rise] shows there is an appetite that is wider, that it’s not niche, that a good story is a good story and to be able to tell stories from our point of view, on our terms, is really important.”