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Indigenous Cinema and the Horrific Reality of Colonial Violence

February 13, 2015

by Ariel Smith

I’m a filmmaker and an artist. I am also a Nehiyaw Iskwew, and a survivor of girlhood abuse and exploitation. These facts are at the root of my practice and have influenced how I see most everything in the world: colonialism, gender, relationships, economics, class, social hierarchies, feminism. My lived experiences with difference and marginalization form the basis for much of my film and video work.

I was born and raised in a rough area of East Vancouver. I knew from a very young age the real life horror of violence and what it can do. People in my family have been murdered. Two uncles, before I was born. These deaths traumatized my mother and father so immensely that they were unable to parent properly, which resulted in a far from ideal childhood. Because of this I left home and became street involved at a young age. Growing up where I did, the way that I did, it was impossible to be ignorant of the terrifying fact that women were disappearing and that nothing was being done about it. At least 60 women went missing from my neighborhood during my childhood and teen years. I remember the very first Feb 14th March in the Downtown Eastside in 1991. I was eight years old. I remember being a fifteen year old girl on the streets and hearing rumors about parties out on a farm in Port Coquitlam, and being told to not ever go to them. That was several years before the police even bothered to investigate Robert Pickton, the man who would eventually be charged with killing 26 women. I remember feeling so much rage at the police and at the disgusting apathy of the Canadian public. I also felt so much anger and guilt towards myself for surviving.

Art saved my life and allowed me to get off of the streets and change my life dramatically, but the survivor’s guilt and the rage has never left me.

Filmmaking gave me an outlet for this rage, it gave me a place to let the darkness out. In my work I’ve always been compelled to use aesthetic strategies from horror cinema, in order to explore the often terrifying reality of growing up Indigenous and female – and I am fascinated by the subject of horror cinema within the context of Indigenous filmmaking in general. By forcing the subconscious fears of audiences to the surface, horror cinema evokes reactions, psychologically and physically: this is the genre’s power. This power can serve and support uncensored Indigenous expression by allowing Indigenous filmmakers the opportunity to unleash dark, gruesome symbolism, and to not censor or sanitize our allegorical representations of the repugnant, violent abomination that is colonization.

Horror films are often categorized under the umbrella of “exploitation cinema”, famous for its use of shock value and extreme scenarios. As Indigenous filmmakers, however, our contributions to this canon, do not require exaggeration. We do not need to think up imagined incidents of vicious, macabre torture. The horror, the terror: it’s all around us. Terror and violence are in the very foundation that colonial states are built upon and colonial violence continues to manifest today against Indigenous bodies. We don’t need to look any further for an example of this than the abhorrent systemic violence of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW).

When Native filmmakers address themes of violence against our women it resonates deeply with Indigenous audiences by tapping into our collective pain and anger, providing us with visual allegory for our rage. We are enraged because we know that women are sacred but must navigate a reality that treats Indigenous women as little more than statistics, hashtags or bodies found in rivers, ditches, alleys and dumpsters. Indigenous people understand genocide and trauma; we understand horror because we live it.

We live with the horror of knowing our sisters, mothers, aunties and daughters are being murdered and raped. As Indigenous women, we are forced to live with the knowledge that we are not safe in this country. We are reminded of this fact constantly, with every missing person poster, every candlelight vigil, every billboard warning us not to hitchhike, every petition demanding an inquiry.

Non-Indigenous people do not have to live with this same fear of colonial violence. Native filmmakers working in the horror genre have the unique ability to elicit visceral fear from an audience, forcing them to watch terrifying representations of colonial brutality that is a daily reality for others. In these moments of fear and disruption, we educate and unsettle audiences.

By visualizing and calling attention to the full depth of the monstrosity of colonial transgression, I believe Native horror movies also have the potential to be powerful tools of resistance and resurgence.

Film is a unique art form with the special power to make people sit silently in the dark, watching and listening for hours. Growing up, I was taught and shown over and over again that my voice and my life didn’t matter. Statistically I was not even supposed to survive my circumstances. I did survive, though, and through fillmmaking I am given the invaluable gift of a captive audience. Now my voice gets heard all over the world.

As a Nehiyaw Iskwew, when I am alive, when I make art, and when I show it to an audience – this is an act of radical resistance against gendered colonial violence.

Native cinema is bigger than the individual movies we make. As Indigenous peoples living in colonial times, our presence – our very existence – is in itself a political statement, and our uncensored artistic expression is itself a beautiful declaration of sovereignty, and self determination.


Ariel Smith (Nêhiyaw/Jewish) is an award winning filmmaker, video artist, writer and cultural worker currently based in Algonquin territory, (Ottawa,Ontario). She has shown at festivals and galleries internationally including: Images (Toronto),Mix Experimental Film Festival (NYC), Urban Shaman (Winnipeg), MAI (Montreal), Gallery Sans Nom (Moncton), and Cold Creation Gallery(Barcelona, Spain.) Ariel also works in Indigenous media arts advocacy and administration and is currently the director of National Indigenous Media Arts Coalition (NIMAC). You can learn more about her work at www.arielsmith.com.

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