By Barb Nahwegahbow
A film about a First Nations spelling bee opens this year’s Hot Docs film festival in Toronto.
Bee Nation tells the story of six Saskatchewan students competing in the first-ever First Nations Provincial Spelling Bee in Canada.
Hot Docs, now in its 24th year, is North America’s largest documentary festival, conference and market. It opens on April 27 and runs to May 7.
Filmmaker Lana Slezic said she was researching on the internet last year for resources to help her eight-year-old son improve his spelling. She contacted the director of the Spelling Bee of Canada and learned that Saskatchewan would have its first-ever First Nations spelling bee.
“As soon as she told me that, I thought, ‘Wow! What a wonderful story. What a wonderful opportunity’!” Ten days later, Slezic was on a plane to Saskatchewan to film the competition and its participants.
Slezic found that, “In each home, there was such love and warmth and support for the kids and their education. I was so impressed with that, and how quickly and easily I was welcomed into their homes. And how they wanted to share with me the culture and the traditions. I learned so much just from being around them. It was such a privilege for me to be there.”
The three winners from the provincial spelling bee went on to the National Spelling Bee in Toronto and the film follows them there. She’s hoping some of the winners and their families will make a return trip to Toronto for opening night.
“I’m so thrilled for the families and for the kids,” Slezic said, “they really deserve this, to get the spotlight in a positive way for a change. I really hope it inspires them and everybody. I hope it connects us.”
A strong Indigenous presence extends beyond opening night as several films celebrate Indigenous music, families and political activism. Among the 17 National Film Board documentaries featured in Hot Docs are two Indigenous films.
Birth of a Family directed by Tasha Hubbard and written by Hubbard and Betty Ann Adam premieres on May 2. The film follows three sisters and a brother, adopted into separate families across North America, as they meet together for the first time.
The four siblings, survivors of the Sixties Scoop, are now all in middle age with no shared memories. Together they piece their history and take the first steps in building their family.
The Road Forward, written and directed by Marie Clements, is a musical documentary that premieres April 30.
“I’m really honored and proud it’s going to be at Hot Docs, an international film festival with some of the leading documentary filmmakers in the world,” Clements said.
The film, “pays tribute to the social, political and legal civil rights movement of First Nation activists in Canada,” said Clements. The movement started around an organization called the Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood in BC. They formed a newspaper called The Native Voice in the 1930s with news stringers all over North America sharing a Native reality that had never been shared before.
Our story is based on that history, giving voice to our present reality with the musicians and vocalists and activists of our day. It’s a hybrid documentary using music to forward the ideas in the stories,” she said.
The ensemble in The Road Forward includes Michelle St. John, Murray Porter and Cherie Maracle among others.
Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World by Montreal filmmakers Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana, is also featured at Hot Docs. The film acknowledges and celebrates the contributions made by Indigenous musicians to rock, jazz, pop, folk and heavy metal.
Rumble won the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Masterful Storytelling at the Sundance Film Festival in January of this year.
Hot Docs will partner with imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival to focus on Indigenous stories and storytellers at this year’s Doc Summit. An annual symposium style gathering of Canadian industry and policy makers, the Doc Summit explores documentary industry issues through a series of presentations and discussions. The Doc Summit takes place on May 1 during the Hot Docs Festival.
For information about films and film screenings, see: www.hotdocs.ca.