Indigenous voices on the rise: Roxann Whitebean

Keep your eye on the Thunder Blanket writer/director/producer, who is boldly tackling the personal, political and otherworldly to build her body of work.

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: Roxann Whitebean.

roxann whitebean

Roxann Whitebean’s career began with a meeting request. In 2012, Whitebean, based in the Quebec Mohawk Territory of Kahanawake, reached out to Mohawk Girls co-creator Tracey Deer to discuss a short film she had written. Deer encouraged Whitebean to film the project herself and offered Whitebean an opportunity to gain on-set experience.

At the same time, Whitebean got to work on Legend of the Storm. The short feature is set during the 1990 Oka Crisis in Quebec, which Whitebean lived through as a child. The calling card piece, which was produced with the financial assistance of the Canada Council of the Arts, premiered at the Montreal First Peoples Festival in 2015. It had its international premiere at the Māoriland Film Festival in New Zealand in March 2016 and is now being distributed on VOD by the Winnipeg Film Group.

Whitebean has been steadily building her own body of work ever since, tackling everything from the personal to the political to the otherworldly. In 2015, while pitching her short dramatic horror concept The Paradigm at imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival, Whitebean caught the eye of Lesley Birchard, executive in charge of production at CBC Docs. Birchard was impressed with the pitch and asked if she had any documentary ideas.

Whitebean presented Thunder Blanket, a docuseries that followed her battle with cancer while she navigated traditional Indigenous medicine and Western healthcare. The five-part series, which she wrote, directed and produced, debuted on CBC short docs in 2016 and was one of the first projects commissioned for the then newly launched platform.

“She was so open and honest in front of the camera, so I knew audiences would connect with her,” says Birchard. “But off camera, as a producer, she’s so talented and organized and really collaborative.”

The experience of working together so impressed Birchard that she asked to team up again. Whitebean’s Karihwanoron: Precious Things, about her community’s efforts to save its Mohawk language school, debuted this year on the platform and Little Hard Knox, about a 10-year-old up-and-coming boxer in her local community, is lined up for its 2017/2018 schedule.

Whitebean recently wrapped post-production on The Paradigm (winner of APTN’s drama pitch prize in 2015) and is now in pre-production on The Warden, a medium-length scripted feature about the Sixties Scoop, which saw the mass removal of Indigenous youth from their homes, that received Telefilm micro-budget production financing. Written and directed by Whitebean and produced by Trudy Stewart (From Up North), Whitebean aims to eventually develop the project as a feature-length film.

“We’re not educating each other enough about our cultures or our current struggles,” Whitebean says. “It’s very important to tell stories of our people who are underrepresented [on screen].”