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Netflix’s support of Indigenous screen organizations is great news — or is it?

Netflix’s support of Indigenous screen organizations is great news — or is it?

Written by
Charnel Anderson
on
July 16th, 2019

Netflix’s new partnerships with Indigenous screen organizations are to be applauded, but actually producing and showing Indigenous films to its Canadian subscribers would be more beneficial than supporting more training and skills development.

Netflix’s support of Indigenous screen organizations is great news — or is it?

Writer Charnel Anderson and fellow journalist Logan Perley were awarded the 2019 CBC-CFJ Indigenous Journalism Fellowship at the Canadian Journalism Foundation Gala.

Storytelling is at the heart of Indigenous culture. And despite the federal government’s historic attempts at suppressing that culture—such as the 1884 potlatch ban, which outlawed some First Nation traditions and resulted in the loss of cultural practices—storytelling remains one of the primary ways Indigenous culture is sustained today.

“The truth about stories is that’s all we are,” said Cherokee author and educator Thomas King in his 2003 CBC Massey Lecture. From creation stories to traditional teachings, Indigenous narratives not only entertain, but transmit knowledge and language between generations, and help preserve First Nations, Inuit and Metis cultures and identities. Indigenous storytelling in Canada is an act of decolonization in a nation that was built on colonial practices.

That’s why filmmakers rejoiced last month when Netflix announced three new partnerships with Indigenous screen organizations in Canada to foster and develop screen-based talent. The agreements are with imagineNATIVE, the world’s largest presenter of Indigenous screen content, the non-profit Indigenous Screen Office (ISO) and Montreal-based Wapikoni Mobile, an inventive travelling, training and creative studio for Indigenous youth.

This funding will allow imagineNATIVE, ISO and Wapikoni Mobile to expand their training initiatives and offer a slew of professional development opportunities, like mentorship and apprenticeship programs, screenwriting intensives, “second phase support” and more, to Indigenous creators in Canada.

This is welcome news for artists who seek to be part of the growing Indigenous presence in the screen-based media industry in Canada while dealing with the impacts of colonialism that have resulted in a dearth of films made by and about their peoples in our national media landscape. However, access to training and professional development opportunities are only one of the barriers that Indigenous artists face—as an increasingly successful, multi-billion-dollar media services provider, Netflix could do more to cure what ails many Indigenous creators.

Indigenous filmmakers are on an uneven playing field when compared to other creators. A 2016 report points out that “although the Indigenous screen-based media industry has grown significantly in the past decade, Indigenous people remain underrepresented and undercompensated relative to their mainstream Canadian counterparts.”

The report notes that “Indigenous artists, including [those] in the screen-based media industry, are paid approximately 30 per cent less than mainstream artists, on average,” and concludes that “some of this discrepancy is the result of overt discrimination, while lack of awareness and misunderstanding also play big roles.” The report calls for more support from funders, and the industry at large, to help even the playing field for Indigenous filmmakers and storytellers.

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Indigenous artists are paid approximately 30 per cent less than mainstream artists, on average. Some of this is the result of overt discrimination, while lack of awareness and misunderstanding also play big roles.

The new partnerships with imagineNATIVE, ISO and Wapikoni Mobile are part of Netflix’s $25-million, five-year commitment aimed at supporting and developing Canadian creators, and brings the total number of Netflix-funded partnerships to 14. According to the Canadian Press, the notoriously tight-lipped streaming service provider won’t reveal the financial details of these specific partnerships. But Jason Ryle, executive director of imagineNATIVE, says that the organization’s partnership with Netflix “marks one of the largest sponsorships in imagineNATIVE’s history.”

Wapikoni On Wheels - trailer

Typically, funding and distribution channels for Indigenous creators in Canada come from public organizations like Telefilm and the Canadian Media Fund (CMF), and broadcasters such as the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) and the CBC. Despite this support, many Indigenous creators say more needs to be done, which is why Netflix’s influx of support should be applauded—but with a healthy dose of criticism.

Some of the biggest hurdles facing Indigenous creators in Canada are the lack of access to sufficient funding for film production—many producers face unique challenges related to geography, language and access to infrastructure like high-speed internet—and the scant opportunities to distribute and screen their work.

Some of the biggest hurdles facing Indigenous creators in Canada are the lack of access to sufficient funding for film production and the scant opportunities to distribute and screen their work.

It appears that the bulk of support from Netflix will result in professional development opportunities, but it would be more beneficial if the funds were directed at resolving the barriers around the production and distribution of Indigenous films. As the report on the state of the Indigenous screen-based industry in Canada explains, “There have been many training initiatives over the past several decades, [but] Indigenous storytellers remain without opportunities to produce and show their projects as intended. Although many training, development and pilot programs were valued by filmmakers, many filmmakers still found it very challenging to access funds for production, and wanted to see more training programs that resulted in the outcome of a produced work.”

As the Canadian Press reports, Netflix hasn’t committed to distributing any of the content that is produced as a result of these partnerships. The company’s public policy director for Canada, Stéphane Cardin, said that “while Netflix would want to hear about any projects that might come out of the partnerships, the company doesn’t have anything built into the contracts concerning so-called ‘first-look’ or ‘right of first refusal’ deals that would give the company an exclusive on productions.”

Influential filmmakers react to state of Indigenous film in Canada

With nearly 150 million subscribers globally, and approximately six million in Canada alone, it’s a shame that Netflix hasn’t committed to distributing Indigenous films. The Canadian media landscape and its consumers would benefit from an increased availability of Indigenous films.

To be fair to Netflix, as a business, they’re not necessarily responsible for reparations related to colonialism—certainly not in the same way that the federal government and public broadcasters are. Netflix’s support for Indigenous filmmakers, while limited, is commendable—but as an increasingly popular digital media distributor, it could, and should, commit to distributing more Indigenous films, because support for Indigenous creators equals support for Indigenous cultural expression and revitalization.

Netflix isn't required to pay one cent to support Canadian culture.