InJustice. Testimony. Poetry / This Is Not A Ceremony

by paradoxig

This is Not a Ceremony” is an intriguing and captivating VR experience – having its World Premiere at Sundance – that wonderfully mixes documentary type of testimony with symbols, humor, poetry and metaphoric visual-imaginary elements.

Immersed in the virtual environment, your guides are two Indigenous trickster poets that accompany you – sometimes with caustic humor – on a journey to bear witness to indigenous injustice. They are accompanied by Matriarchs and Inii (buffalo) that rule this virtual realm and lead with kindness, bringing us face-to-face with some of the grim realities Indigenous Peoples have experienced.
Two traumatic experiences will unfold, one that deals with a childhood experience in the foster care system and another that deals with the death of a person that did not get medical care in time .
The team manage to tell harsh reality in a way that really makes you question injustice, authorities, without necessarily being exposed to secondary traumatisation. “Now that you know, just what are you going to do about it?” is a strong question that we have to face.
TECHVANGART talked with the director and writer AHNAHKTSIPIITAA (COLIN VAN LOON) about the symbols and Myth, challenges encountered, his choice for VR, in general about documentaries, and his motivations to make the movie.

THIS IS NOT A CEREMONY was produced by Dana Dansereau at the National Film Board of Canada’s Digital Studio

TVA: What was your inspiration for the immersive experience and what was your motivation for doing it?
AHNAHKTSIPIITAA (COLIN VAN LOON): As indigenous people here in Canada, we often see a lot of these stories. I remember the story of Brian Sinclair and it caused a strange feeling in me.
I felt really astonished that something like this could happen, especially in a country like Canada, where we pride ourselves on having a good healthcare system.
I had these two feelings at the same time, dumbfounded, astonished and also, I felt very jaded, because things like this happen.
And, I wanted to bring the kind of theory that I had with this project was that I would bring audience members closer to the stories and the storytellers by using VR, because I think VR has this incredible power of presence.
I’m a big fan of documentaries, but I often feel now that we are so inundated by things that are like in a documentary-style. It’s everywhere, because people are posting things on social media, we see things that look like what we might see outside of our window every day.
I wanted to take some time to experiment with the form so that it might be more impactful using a kind of more imaginative style.

TVA: And I think you’ve succeeded wonderfully, because the experience really mixes the documentary-parts with a lot of visuals -flows,  sometime comic and dramatic scenes succeed and reveals the opposite sense of word, world and feeling. So , it is really a combination and mix of different conflictual elements. Not to mention that you dealt with ingeniousness to present in VR such a traumatic topic – that is hard to present even in films, not to mention VR, because VR has more presence as you mentioned. 

TVA: So, I really enjoyed it, but I wanted to ask you what were the challenges in making the experience?
AHNAHKTSIPIITAA (COLIN VAN LOON): There were many…. We really started to get into post-production and the pandemic happened so then we began to work virtually, this was a bit challenging. And, just the nature of VR, we had all of these big files and we have all of these big rendered assets which we need to transfer and show to our team so that we can all work together. ()
We had to all find a way to collaborate virtually () and just taking these giant files and transferring them around was very difficult.
And I applaud the work of James Monkman and Vincent McCurley because they made this process seamless. And great thanks to YouTube, we use YouTube in VR the same way people use frame mail. So that was definitely a technical challenge.
We also had some emotional challenges.
One of the young trickster poets, passed away not the previous January. So that was very… a lot of emotional labor for us to carry on. Lillian Howard, the matriarch, passed away in November. So it was a lot, it was heavy to carry on.
We wanted to do it in such a way that we felt we’re paying tribute to them.
Taran (Kootenhayoo) was a phenomenal artist and poet. And so we wanted to have a good final performance for him () One of the first things that we did was to show it to his mother, sister and brother. And they were happy with it, which made us feel good.
And I think what a great place for Taran, whose indigenous name means standing sunrise.
So what a great place to show it, Sundance!

TVA: I am so sorry to hear that, it must have been a difficult time, but, congratulations, because despite all these challenges, you could go on… And  I really think that your work honors their memory! 

TVA: Coming back to symbols, I wanted to ask you about the fire. Because you put the user on the fire, but at an interesting way, a comfortable level, but still on the fire- so, not exactly on the fire, i am not afraid I can get burned – but, still there are moments during the experience, where I am reminded I am on the fire- as sometimes i see through soft flames.
From antropologic point of view FIRE has different myth and significance in different cultures and times: it might symbolize transformation, destruction, or people gathering near the fire and sharing stories, laughing or dancing, or it might take you back in old times of traumatic events to burning witches… Interestingly, in your VR experience, the fire vanishes and in the end people start to talk to you, so I wanted to ask you the dimension of this fire?
AHNAHKTSIPIITAA (COLIN VAN LOON): Thank you for the question! Of all symbols that people might take, the fire is probably the most literal, where we’re holding people’s feet to the fire. And, we wanted people to feel uncomfortable at some points.
This film was made for indigenous audiences so that they would see the strength of these men, the storytellers, but also made for settlers here, who might not know the impact of these stories or might not choose to see it. So we wanted people to feel something, something quite strongly.
With the poet’s we tried to bring them as close as we can, we had them come as close as they could get so that they feel that they’re in their space.

TVA: We try to ask about BUFFALLO signification because this visual leitmotif takes on various nuances throughout the film sometimes he is strong and vengeful, other times sensitive and poetic. Trying to find out what is behind this character I found out something much more important than a simple explanation

AHNAHKTSIPIITAA (COLIN VAN LOON): I choose not to reveal the symbol of buffalo, I want people to make their own conclusion. And also in the hospital scenes, from time to time, appears a sandy landscape…
Brian Sinclair was Cree, but I’m Blackfoot and I wanted to have some sort of representation of the fees waiting in the hospital. There must have been moments where he is crossing the line that separates life and death and crossing over and coming back.
So that kind of Sandy landscape is somewhat of a representation of Blackfoot people believe that when we pass away we go to a place called the Sandlands. And so, that is a representation of him, you know, crossing over this line and coming back. Because, as the report said, and we talked about in the film, he was dead, six or seven hours before people discovered he was there.
During the entire time, he was quite ill, but people just choose not to pay attention to him.

TVA: A strong moment of the film is the one in which the meaning of a single minute can acquire values ​​quantified with life or death minute
For me that was the kind of peak, one of the peak experience, with because it does tell so much about, you know, always postponing things with an infinite of one more minute, on one minute. And that need that you always have to be somehow polite.
AHNAHKTSIPIITAA (COLIN VAN LOON): Yes, actually I was happy with the work of the poets. They wanted me to write in the script with what the poets would say so that we could know beforehand.
But I was always more interested in the audience witnessing something real. And so I see that these young men are great poets, and why shouldn’t we feel their feelings and witness them in real time?
So what we did was we did many rehearsals, but everything that they said, when we recorded it was live and somewhat improv.
So in a way, we’re witnessing the storytellers and witnessing moments taught through re-enactment, but we’re also witnessing the current thoughts and feelings of these young poets.

TVA: And, as we are running out of time, then just one more minute 🙂
Let’s suppose that the end of the world is coming but you have like one supernatural power, and you can save everything that you tell me in one minute, it will be saved. What would you save, if you have just one minute?

1. My dog.
2. My family.
3. I would save my special coffee machine. Because I like the coffee very much.
4. I would I would probably try to save my computer because I have so much work on it. You know, always editing or writing something.
TVA: last 15 sec
5. And I have a number of traditional items at my house. I would save as some vendor, you have
6. Well now that the film is on my headset, I will have to save my VR headsets
and maybe my air pots because who knows if all of these things will work. In a disaster scenario
TVA: last 2 sec
7. And I would say the book. It’s a book that we pulled some quotes from the book this is my favorite book. The Sun Came Down – Book by Percy Bullchild


Ahnahktsipiitaa is Blackfoot and Dutch, originally hailing from the Piikani Nation. He is currently the operations manager for the Indigenous Matriarchs 4 AR/VR media lab. Community-centered in his approach, he aims to elevate the voices and stories of Indigenous peoples, whether by creating spaces for youth works or through his company, Blackfoot Nation Films.

Jessica has over 10 years of experience working in media arts. Her work as an editor ranges from experimental documentaries to factual television series, to narrative film, and has been shown at festivals including Hot Docs, imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival, DOXA, LA Skins Fest, and The Banff Mountain Film Festival, among others.

James Monkman is a Cree visual artist and art director .Growing up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, James, often, found himself operating in two cultures, simultaneously: Western and Indigenous. He explores concepts in traditional Indigenous thought, language, and cosmology in his pursuit of an aesthetic with an eye towards Indigenous futurism. The goal of this unique perspective illustrates how imperative the Indigenous perspective is in our rapidly evolving North American culture.

Nagamo Publishing was created as a joint project between the broadcasting network APTN and Bedtracks, a Toronto-based music house. This project was started by Bedtracks, conceived by James Boyd and Oliver Johnson, under the name “Storytellers”, and was acquired by Dadan Sivunivut (APTN) in 2020 and came out of the desire to strengthen Indigenous representation in the film and television industry.

Dana Dansereau is an interactive producer at the National Film Board of Canada’s Digital Studio, where he oversees the ideation and production of core projects. His experience in the advertising industry brings a unique perspective to the creation of the NFB’s world-leading interactive storytelling experiences. of the NFB’s world-leading interactive storytelling experiences.

Featuring: Adam North Peigan —————– Robert Sinclair
Poets: Taran Kootenhayoo – Tawahum Bige
Matriarch: Lillian Howard

THIS IS NOT A CEREMONY was produced by Dana Dansereau at the National Film Board of Canada’s Digital Studio

THIS IS NOT A CEREMONY is having its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival (January 20–30, 2022). Available worldwide at Sundance’s New Frontier program, through the online platform “The Spaceship”.

Full details on New Frontier’s 2022 edition, taking place across:

THE SPACESHIP is a virtual venue situated to orbit Earth alongside the International Space Station and is globally accessible January 20-28 via laptop or VR headset. It will host:

The Gallery, which will showcase the complete 2022 New Frontier lineup of XR work + Easter eggs.
Cinema House, a venue featuring live streaming, room-scale address and chat functionalities.
– A programmed series of Artist Spotlights designed to enable artists to represent their projects in person at The Craft in Park City and on The Spaceship in Cinema House.
Film Party, a virtual social space, that allows audiences to inhabit avatars for organic, proximity-based, person-to-person webcam chat and connection. This venue will host dedicated film premiere parties after their online premieres and live Q&As, bringing filmmakers together with their online audiences to celebrate their films in both halves of the festival.

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