Kevin Lee Burton grew up in God’s Lake Narrows in northern Manitoba. Currently, he resides in Vancouver where he works on film projects. In the award-winning short film “Nikamowin,” he takes the viewer on a journey from God’s Lake Narrows to the city.
At the beginning of the film, subtitles appear which tell us, “Cree Narration, altered and in raw form, is the only source of sound in this film.”
We only see the landscape. We never see the characters. In the opening scene, the bow of a boat drifts aimlessly in a lake. There is brief dialogue between an English speaker and the Cree language.
“Who taught you to open your eyes and blink… you had the ability and you did it anyways didn’t ya? Your tongue is the same.”
The Cree language chastises the English-speaking Cree character for not knowing the language. But the English speaker doesn’t know anyone who speaks Cree.
And this is the crux of the short film: The interplay between Cree sound effects, the Cree narrator and the subtitles produces a trance-like atmosphere that asks the audience to question how and why languages are learned and lost.
Sophie McCall is a professor and author who studies Indigenous oral storytelling. She says something about the film Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner, that I think applies here. She says, “the subtitled film, as a form of textualized oral narrative, enables the filmmakers to create two parallel texts that interact and speak to each other in imperfect ways. The gap between what is spoken and what appears on the bottom of the screen can be manipulated strategically, for a variety of effects, enabling the filmmakers to address different audiences” (2011, 15).
Likewise, in Nikamowin, subtitles call out the non-Cree speakers in the audience, even while Cree itself is distorted in the film. The distortions provide one layer of disorientation, the blurring of images, another. There is a gap between the spoken words and the subtitles; there are differences in the experience of the film based on whether the viewer understands Cree. We are challenged to ask for whom these subtitles are intended. The film is about the meaning of language and identity, even as it turns language into a kind of instrument to transmit that question.
As we travel from God’s Lake Narrows to Vancouver, the Cree language makes statements and poses questions, which also appear in subtitles – we drive down rural roads (“I give you… love”), through the trees (“do you love yourself?”), past concrete towns and finally into the city (“Do not put down your language”). The messaging gets more urgent the further from Burton’s/the narrator’s home we get.
As a settler viewer, this was one of the more powerful examples of how film can use language to assert Indigenous autonomy and work as a means of resisting the colonial gaze. Language turned the places in this film into Indigenized places. The city at the end of the film loomed dark, and the Cree language commands the viewer not to forget one’s language. The language itself speaks into the alienating city rush.
“Nikamowin” provided a visceral experience of what it means to be asked basic questions about identity and place, questions settlers seldom need to ask. In this case, the answer to these questions is evident: one loses one’s language and identity when colonization and assimilation prevents it from being taught in the first place.
McCall, Sophie. First Person Plural. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011. Print.