MANON BARBEAU - THE POWER OF WAPIKONI MOBILE
The organization that gives First Nations youth a way to express themselves through digital art is 12 years old and not done growing just yet. Founder Manon Barbeau tells us about this big adventure.
It was while shooting her film L’or rouge, about young girls and their rites of passage, that the filmmaker Manon Barbeau, widely known for her documentary Les enfants de Refus global, came up with the idea for Wapikoni mobile. “In Wemotaci, an atikamekw community, I began to see young people’s suffering and the astronomical rate of suicide,” she recalls. Troubled, she wrote La fin du mépris, a full-length film that features the voices of 15 young Atikamekws. The dominant figure in the group was named Wapikoni (meaning “flower”) Awashish. “She was a shining, intelligent girl, who would have certainly become a leader in the community.” But in May of 2002, while steering her car along a logging route,
several logs fell off the truck driving in front of her. She died at just 20 years old. “I was tied to her almost like family: she
had lost her mother as a teenager, an overdose. And I hadn’t really had a mother either. In a way, we adopted each other.
Her passing was unbearable for me.” Unbearable and cruelly symbolic, as logging companies have long contributed to the
devastation of the First Nations environment.
Barbeau, who was able to see the ease and joy of these young people as soon as they had a camera in hand, created a mobile film studio to help overcome the barrier of isolation. “I wanted to give these young people access to new and efficient technologies, to allow them to express what they need to express.” To do this, the team developed a methodology based on practices that allow these young individuals to make films in a short time period, while also developing transferable skills. They give month-long workshops that are both creative and educational, led by professionals from inside and outside the community.
It has been a fruitful endeavour, and the expertise developed has gone even further. The “Je veux jouer” Foundation solicited Wapikoni in order to offer workshops in Syrian refugee camps, whose residents are living in isolated conditions similar to those of the Atikamekw.
If these early films have mostly dealt with the “problems” faced by First Nations youth—addiction, suicide, violence, alcoholism, etc.—they are beginning to take on lighter subjects, with more artistic points of view, and careers are being born.
Twelve years later, the Wapi path is paved with beautiful stories. With In Your Heart, his first animated film, Raymond Caplin, a young Mi’gmaq who once spent most of his time in his basement, was able to participate in a summer school at L’École des Gobelins in Paris with total financial support. He then registered at Concordia University, an endeavour he funded with two film prizes. The rapper Samian, unknown at the time, created his first hip-hop verses for the credits. Melissa Mollen Dupuis directed several films with Wapi (O, Nanapush et la tortue) before cofounding the Quebec
branch of the Idle No More movement. Inuit poet Natasha Kanapé Fontaine also benefited from the Wapikoni expertise (Nous nous soulèverons).
If these names are well known today, it’s in part because Wapikoni has contributed to fighting against despair, breaking through isolation, and allowing us to hear the voices of these “peuple invisible” who are thankfully becoming more and more visible. In February, the film My Father’s Tools, by young Mi’gmaq Heather Condo, will be shown at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival.
Manon Barbeau has given so much to Wapikoni (in fact, she was honoured for her work by the Order of Canada). But she has also received a lot, and she doesn’t hide her gratitude. “It has given purpose to my life,” she says, without hesitation, “the feeling of contributing to the reparation of a major historical and social injustice as I’ve been able to do.”
The sense of injustice and the need for reparation, she understands. The daughter of Automatiste painter Marcel Barbeau as well as the painter and poet Suzanne Meloche, Manon was abandoned by her parents at the age of three. Because of this, she always felt an enormous emptiness. Her daughter, Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette, also a filmmaker, recently
published a novel about Suzanne Meloche, La femme qui fuit, which was a great success both critically and with popular audiences. If Manon Barbeau has overcome her suffering by creating a close-knit family of artists (Anaïs, her son Manuel, and her husband, Phillippe Lavalette have all participated in the Wapikoni adventure), it is also thanks to her “indigenous family” that she has been able to recover. “Working with all of these wounded families has helped me to heal my own wounds. Wapikoni has been like a microscope on my own hidden scars, which are also those of Quebec’s history. It’s helped me to reknit the skipped stitches in my own family line.”
Her own family line, along with that of many others.
1000! That’s the number of movies produced by Wapikoni mobile. In 12 years, the mobile digital studio has given voice to young indigenous people in Quebec and also in South America. Starting with only 5 communities, the project now reaches 31 in Quebec and 17 in South America. Thanks to a 2 million dollar sponsorship from Canadian Heritage, “Wapi” has been able to expand its activities and its influence. “Wapikoni From Coast to Coast: reconciliation through Media Arts” is the name and goal of new workshops that will spread throughout 50 First Nations communities and 100 Canadian cities. And for the first time, the organization will be working with Inuit and Métis people. These films, made in indigenous languages, are translated into French, English and Spanish. 500 pieces of original music have also been created.
Photo: Mathieu Buzzetti
Text: Pascale Millot