On The Road Forward: An Interview with Marie Clements
By Adam Cook
One of the most gifted artists working in BC today, Métis playwright and filmmaker Marie Clements has reached a new level of achievement with her documentary-musical, The Road Forward. Produced by The NFB, the film is a look at the history of activism among First Nations in BC, and the storied history of the newspaper The Native Voice, that also channels specific stories through staged musical sequences that bring together some of the best native musicians from coast coast, bringing together the past and present, and looking ahead to a better future for First Nations in Canada.
Adam Cook: Could you talk about the original project and the process of adapting it to the screen?
Marie Clements: It was a commission from the Cultural Olympiad in 2010 part of the closing show at the Pavillion. They wanted something that reflected BC history so I began researching and came across the newspaper The Native Voice. I found it on the internet and went to the offices of the Native Fishing Organization which umbrellas The Native Voice and The Native Brotherhood and they had over 70 years of old archives of the paper. I went into this room and started reading and looked at headlines and stories that spoke to me which I started translating into song lyrics, starting with a song called The Road Forward which I asked Jennifer Kreisberg to compose for me.
Cook: Is there anything you prefer about cinema as a medium?
Clements: I love how immediate it is and how present you have to be to make the work but also its outreach to audiences, it has a longer shelf life. People can enjoy it like theatre or they can download it later, it has so many limbs to it.
Cook: How have the audience experiences been so far?
Clements: We premiered at Hot Docs and then we opened DOXA and now The Road Forward is part of NFB’s Wide Awake tour, so I’m just starting to see where the outreach is and I think it’s been exciting. You’re holding your breath before its release and now it’s breathing.
Cook: The film brings together oral history with musical performance and evocative cinematography. Can you talk about this hybridity?
Clements: It was committed by using music early on and it felt organic to involve the activists in the filming and it activated their voice, and I brought together musicians from across Canada who seek to create change. So there was a common goal amongst these people with different backgrounds and we wanted to conjure the past and the present.
Cook: In the interview scenes with the Brotherhood and the Sisterhood, it’s very different from the typical talking heads format in documentary. Here there’s a sense of discourse and sharing amongst the people in the frame that’s very special and quite moving.
Clements: There’s something about looking at those old photos and archives and understanding that it was once something so present and when you talk to those who were there and helped change history, that fact is still very present and has its own life, so when we staged those I thought about how we can see and reflect back to those times but also see them in the present, so having an ensemble, and having them dressed as reporters seemed right, there’s a cross-section where you’re listening but you’re also seeing.
Cook: It makes the history feel closers.
Clements: Yeah, there was something dynamic about it and something about how we had the younger activists listening.
Cook: What do you hope people take away from the film?
Clements: I was inspired by the Brotherhood and Sisterhood and how they brought together families and non-native people to the table to make change. I’m also inspired by the ensemble and the energy of what’s happening now, and what artists are doing. I hope the audiences are as inspired as I am by witnessing both and by how change can continue and how we can move forward.
Cook: Are you cautiously optimistic about First Nations rights?
Clements: There’s new announcements weekly, it seems. I’ve never seen this much change, where it’s actually affecting institutions finally and create a substantial effect. You don’t want to be skipping down the road, but you want to recognize things are happening and a lot of that is due to what people worked toward in the past.
Cook: Do you know if anyone high up in the government has seen it? Do you hope it reaches Trudeau?
Clements: It’s maybe too early, I haven’t heard of anything yet. I think it would be a great film to be seen by our government because I think sometimes our rights are not always seen in the moment and the long history of civil rights and where we come from isn’t always looked at.
Cook: How can the next generation of Canadians be allies?
Clements: It’s all about if we’re aware of things. If we’re celebrating somebody’s birthday this year [laughs], I think it’s being aware of all the history. You have to now the past to know the future, knowing our history and reclaiming it, and that’s whether we’re native or non-native. History as it is written excludes percentages of people and I think when people know or learn something, they think about it and take it to heart and that’s the most we can do as artists is have people feel and understand something they didn’t have access to.
The Road Forward is screening at Vancity Theatre July 14th – 20th.