Left: Warwick Thornton, Samson and Delilah, 2009, still from a color film, 115 minutes. Right: Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr, Ten Canoes, 2006, still from a color film, 90 minutes.

THERE WAS A VERY GOOD REASON that it took until the twenty-first century for the Inuit people of Canada’s far north to craft a cinematic epic of their own. In order to make Atanarjuat (2001)—which plays the opening weekend of First Peoples Cinema, the most ambitious program on the summer slate for Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox—director Zacharias Kunuk and his team coped with extremes of climate and terrain that would have rendered conventional film equipment useless. For Kunuk’s bracing modern telling of a one-thousand-year-old legend, using a digital video camera was less an aesthetic choice than the only option—at the subzero temperatures common to northern Nunavut, film becomes brittle and breaks apart.

Ironically, it wasn’t the cold that fouled up an earlier effort to introduce audiences to Inuit traditions: Robert Flaherty made his 1922 documentary Nanook of the North only after footage of his first voyages was destroyed in a fire caused by a carelessly disposed cigarette. Film stock’s vulnerability to the elements has been just one of many impediments in the efforts by aboriginal peoples to take control of how they have been represented on screen. For all of its sins, Hollywood is not the only film industry to caricature indigenous groups as either violent savages or mystic exotics. That’s why the emergence of an avidly self-determined brand of aboriginal cinema has been such a welcome trend in the eleven years since Atanarjuat won the Camera d’Or at Cannes.

Billed as the largest and most extensive series of its kind ever mounted in North America, First Peoples Cinema launches with a musical event that pairs Flaherty’s iconic doc with a new live score by throat singer Tanya Tagaq, a fitting gesture of cultural reclamation. Traveling far and wide to portray the astonishing diversity of films by (and sometimes about) the world’s indigenous peoples, the program risks becoming overambitious. Some patrons may struggle to perceive the links that connect, say, the fiercely polemical documentaries of Canadian/Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin and the rather cheerier Aussie musical Bran Nue Dae (2009). As for the many key works by nonaboriginals, surely this is the only film retrospective to ever find room for both the lyricism of The Anselmo Trilogy (1967–86)—Chick Strand’s 16-mm portraits of a native street musician she originally met in Mexico in 1964—and the proto-Rambo heroics of Jim Laughlin’s grind house staple Billy Jack (1971).

Yet if there’s anything that unifies the program’s boldest contents, it’s an emphasis on storytelling modes that are at once more ancient and more radical than cinema typically tolerates. That urge is especially palpable in the most freewheeling entries, movies like Ten Canoes (2006), a bawdy and knotty fable from Australia’s Northern Territory by directors Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr, and Busong (2011), a beautiful if baffling fantasia made by Auraeus Solito in collaboration with the people of the Filipino island province of Palawan.

Just as extraordinary are the films that prefer a more melancholic register. Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah (2009), another Camera d’Or winner, manages to encapsulate the history of Australia’s marginalization of its indigenous population in the harrowing but ultimately hopeful story of two teenagers from Alice Springs. The first feature film made in the Samoan language, Tusi Tamasese’s The Orator (2011) is a richly textured drama about a farmer forced by personal woes to redefine his role in a community that has long treated him and his family as pariahs.

And the team behind Atanarjuat would forgo its first triumph’s sweep and swagger in the more muted films that complete the Fast Runner Trilogy. The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (2006) and Before Tomorrow (2008) are equally haunting in their portrayal of the devastating effects of new values (and new viruses) on Inuit communities after their first encounters with outsiders. Yet both films demonstrate the enduring value and vitality of a culture in the face of subjugation and despair, thereby sounding a note of defiance that recurs throughout the series.

Jason Anderson

First Peoples Cinema runs June 21–August 19 at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.