Photography: Ratul Debnath
Anishinaabe artist and activist Sarain Fox made her directorial debut this past fall with her film Inendi.
The documentary, which is available to stream on CBC Gem, chronicles the life of her great-aunt Mary Bell, a knowledge-keeper and the oldest remaining matriarch in her family. Mary survived nearly a decade in a residential school and worked on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, recording the stories of other survivors. We spoke with Sarain about making her documentary, motherhood and the importance of elders.
Photography: Ratul Debnath
Canadian Living (CL): In making your documentary, what motivated you to say, I’m going to do this now? What made your directorial debut possible in that moment?
Sarain Fox (SF): Telling my auntie’s story was something I’ve wanted to do for a really long time. I’ve had the privilege of being able to document so many incredible and important stories, but I’d never had the time to tell my auntie’s. I think urgency, like now or never, was the real motivator. Although the pandemic has been really hard, it also created the time I didn’t realize I needed. The moment I had time was also the moment that I thought, I’m not going to let this pass me by.
CL: What inspired you to choose Inendi as the title?
SF: It’s an Anishinaabemowin word that I was playing around with—I wanted to find a title that really resonated and felt as powerful as my auntie’s story. The word means “she is absent” or “she is gone,” and when I applied to CBC’s Creative Relief Fund, it felt appropriate. I was really struggling with the question, What will happen if she’s gone? She’s still here, so what it means right now is that she is currently absent from our lives because of COVID-19. But the real truth of it is, in the big picture she’s absent from the residential school. Being present is such a big part of the mainstream framework for school—every morning you have to raise your hand and say you’re present. For her to be present in that school meant she was absent from her life.
CL: You show incredible strength through vulnerability in the documentary when you realize you need your mom to be there for support. I think many of us have experienced situations like that in our lives. What made you decide that your mom should be there?
SF: I was newly pregnant, but not telling anyone yet, and I knew the story my auntie was telling is one of incredible hardship—it was a very emotional time. I’d gotten to know my auntie through my mom. I knew all of the struggle that my auntie went through. I first started hearing stories of residential schools when I was a little girl, and it was my mom who helped me understand it. I was raised by women. Growing up there weren’t many men around; there were community members, but in my household, it was me, my sisters and my mom. So when I’m facing adversity or when I need reinforcement, it’s always my circle of women who I call in. I called in my mom for my auntie, but secretly I needed her there, too.
CL: How did becoming a mother influence the film? What do you hope to pass on to your daughter?
SF: One reason I wanted to make a documentary about my auntie and my elders was because I’ve always had this idea, probably because I’m the youngest, that I wouldn’t have a baby in time to meet the most important people in my life. I felt like, I’m documenting this so my child will have it when they’re older, but luckily my daughter is going to meet them. I was happy knowing that my baby would recognize my auntie’s voice, even from the womb. It was almost this revolutionary reminder that you can’t think about the end too soon. If you think about documenting for when someone is gone, you miss out on all the magic of them still being here. I want to pass on the little things, like the stories my auntie told about me when I was growing up. That’s legacy: four generations of women, carrying our stories. We come from oral traditions, so the song my great-grandmother sang is the same lullaby that I sing to my daughter. I’m really grateful because we didn’t always have the opportunity to pass those things on. I get to live in this moment where that lineage is unbroken, and that is reclamation.
CL: Integral to Inendi is this idea of the matriarchy—you are making a documentary about your great-aunt, filming alongside your mother, all while pregnant with your daughter. Can you speak to the importance of women, particularly matriarchs and elders, in Indigenous cultures?
SF: When I think of all the hardship that Indigenous communities have been through, it’s clear that our women were attacked because of the important role that we play in the community. Forced sterilization, losing status by marrying outside the community, having children taken away to residential schools then returned after years of abuse are just some examples. By attacking women, it meant that our family structures, our Indigenous knowledge and the way our legacies are passed down was broken. As we look around right now, I think it’s not by accident that young, Indigenous women are at the forefront of some really incredible reclamation—young leaders like Autumn Peltier and so many others. For me, the matriarchy is about the reclamation of healing and of Indigenous motherhood, as well as the reclamation of community. I know that every single time we lift up Indigenous women and motherhood, we are reclaiming something very important that was stolen from us.
CL: You acknowledge that this work is like a “living goodbye,” and so you aim not only to document your auntie’s stories but also to remember them. What will you remember most from your experience making this film?
SF: I will remember how brave my auntie is. How she was able to bare it all, to talk about things that are very difficult, yet she just let us in. I will particularly remember how she managed to tell a story that starts and ends with trauma but somehow there’s humour in the middle, which means she told the real story. When Indigenous people tell their stories, they have laughter; even in the most horrendous moments, there’s a joke. In the documentary, my auntie gives me a living goodbye, and she follows it up with, “but Indians don’t die.” How does she go from looking me in the eye, acknowledging how afraid I am to lose her, and then make a joke out of it?
It’s her resilience.
CL: What did Auntie Mary think of the documentary?
SF: She watched it and said, “It’s very good, my girl, but I want to talk about the music.” She wanted more suspenseful music, but everything else she enjoyed. She also wanted to know if all her outfits were as good as she thought they were. To me, one of the best things is the way she dresses in the film: I had no say in that. At one point, you can see she’s got all her favourite things on, and they’re all on together. She’s adorning herself with all these sparkly pieces. She loves sparkles.
CL: In Inendi, you ask, How do we tell the stories of our elders in a way that is slow enough? And how do we push to hear all the years of knowledge that our elders hold? These are really important questions, particularly for Indigenous communities, but I think for all our elders, too. After finishing the project and having some time to reflect, are you any closer to finding the answers?
SF: I’ve learned that pressure doesn’t help you move to action. I had to let go of my fear of loss, so that I can move to action! The best way to remember, to carry on and make sure you’re doing the work, is to do it. I’ve been think- ing a lot about how my ancestors would have done this work: They would have sat and listened, and spent time just to spend time with each other. And through doing that, you actually remember the beauty of being together. You remember the stories because you remember how good it felt to listen and to be together.
CL: What can Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians do to help preserve Indigenous knowledge and stories? What can you share about being an ally to Indigenous peoples?
SF: I think allyship is about truth and honouring your own truth. Find out whose land you’re standing on and how your family’s history interacts with Indigenous history, even if it’s difficult. It’s important to do your own work. Uplifting truth is the most important way to be an ally, and listening. Listening just to listen, not to repeat. What we need right now is for Indigenous people to tell their own stories and reclaim narratives in order to re-inform this country on who we are, and we need everyone else to just listen. It’s really about listening and upholding truth, that’s true allyship.
CL: What do you hope audiences will take away from your documentary?
SF: I hope people are inspired to take the time to do what I’ve done with my auntie in their own families. Call up their grandma, aunt or mom, and just ask questions, be curious about their family’s legacy and be curious about the truth. In this moment right now, during the pandemic, a light is being shed on how important it is for everyone in every community to take care of and respect the lives of elders. We’ve got to do better for these humans who made it possible for us to be here. Indigenous communities have held their elders in a special place for a long time. I hope every- one will feel inspired to take care of their elders, to listen and to be there for one another.