The imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival is an event that is much loved and anticipated by Indigenous creatives and festival-goers from across Canada and around the world. The festival is the world’s largest gathering that features screen-based works created by Indigenous artists. Typically, it consists of a week-long celebration with the great majority of activities taking place in Toronto. When the pandemic struck in March 2020, we found ourselves in the position of other not-for-profit presenting arts organizations – what direction were we going to take, without having the full picture of what would be allowed?

With our festival only eight months out, we made the call in April 2020 to go completely digital. Suddenly, we faced the monumental and unprecedented task of creating something new – an online venue that could host our festival screenings, events and other activities. This threw us into a period of research and reflection as we navigated intersecting issues of digital connectivity, technological adaptation and funding in the online environment.

One of the first steps we took, in the early spring of 2020, was to send a survey to members of our wider community. We were mostly curious about internet speeds, available technology and what the level of interest there was for engaging online – whether passively watching streamed content or participating in virtual reality and interactive media.

Early engagement with our communities helped us to inform program delivery, and to choose where we concentrated our efforts. This also helped outline for us what capacities we needed to improve. A serious shortcoming we identified was the lack of reliable, high-speed internet available to First Nation communities across Canada. Knowing this, we explored alternatives to how we program – including using radio as a method of reaching certain audiences and artists. The challenge, however, was that these types of initiatives required more funds, time and administration. These weren’t insurmountable challenges, but they required more reflection and they continue to preoccupy us.

Another major drawback identified last year was the historical lack of funding available to not-for-profits for the purchase of computers, software and equipment, as well as the lack of funding available for training staff in acquiring technological skills. Fortunately for us working in the film and media arts industry, we have a core group of staff with a high level of technological competency. To its credit, in the summer of 2020, the Department of Canadian Heritage did retool its existing Canada Cultural Spaces Fund to include the purchase of necessary equipment for those needing to record and broadcast content. With these funds, we were able to purchase the necessary equipment to pre-record and broadcast our programming. My hope is that in a post-pandemic world, similar funds will be dedicated to help non-profits pursue technological improvements and training.

Enough cannot be said about the numerous sponsors and supporters to imagineNATIVE who were flexible and understood the work we had to take on as we moved towards our “digital pivot.” Fortunately, we had many streaming services to reference for what constituted “good” presentation of media works. Unlike some of our non-for-profit/arts organization contemporaries (theatre, dance, visual arts exhibitions), we had a good idea of what needed to be done to facilitate the presentation of our submissions online.

Throughout the official selection of films, there were many individual conversations with filmmakers and distributors. Some of these conversations covered new territory for us – obtaining permissions for streaming content and geo-blocking to specific areas. Some filmmakers, for example, wanted to have their work presented only in Ontario, while others were more open to having their work streamed without borders. Our team researched numerous online platforms to learn how best to control and protect the content broadcast.

For the first time, we also had to consider the fee structure for presenting works online, including fees paid to the filmmakers and artists (usually screening fees, speakers fee or exhibition fees). As good practice, imagineNATIVE follows the guidelines set by the Canadian Artists’ Representation/Le Front des artistes canadiens (CARFAC-RAAV) for artist talks and fees. As a member of the Independent Media Arts Alliance (IMAA/AAMI), we are also guided by its minimum screening fee recommendations. These fee structures are currently being re-examined by IMAA, with participation from senior members of our team, as there is a heightened need to define best practices for compensating artists whose works are being presented via streaming. It is a point of pride for our organization that we increased fees far above the standard, knowing we had the monies not being spent on usual expenses (flights and accommodations).

By all accounts, the 2020 festival was an enormous success and an effort to be celebrated. The imagineNATIVE staff, board and volunteers all rose admirably to the challenge of producing an online festival. Thematically, we centred ourselves on connecting with community in the spirit of reciprocity, hosting a first ever “Give-Away.” Through the efforts of our fundraising team and the generous support of our private sponsors, we were able to gift more than $50,000 in items and goods. With food security being top of mind, we were able to secure $25,000 in gift cards from Sobeys. Additionally, we concentrated efforts on getting cash in the hands of artists by more than doubling our prizes for award-winning works featured at the festival.

In 2021, the landscape is looking similar to 2020, but we are prepared and better-positioned to move forward with a digital offering. We’re grateful that we met the challenge of having built the framework to present online last year. If anything positive came out of 2020, it was that so many of us in the sector were forced to explore ways of taking our programming online. As time progresses, it will not be a question of if we continue to present online, only to what degree. The overriding sentiment is that digital is here to stay – it is our job to make sure we are serving the artists, audiences and are doing it well.

imagineNATIVE is the world’s largest presenter of Indigenous-made screen content. It presents the annual imagineNATIVE Film + Media Festival in Toronto and the imagineNATIVE Film Tour nationally in Canada. imagineNATIVE is an international leader in the presentation and promotion of Indigenous screen-based content and celebrates its 22nd anniversary Festival from October 19 – 24, 2021

This article is part of the Digital Connectivity in the COVID Era and Beyond special feature. 

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Naomi Johnson
Naomi Johnson, Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) Bear clan from Six Nations, has worked in the arts for nearly 15 years. As executive director for imagineNATIVE, she is thrilled and inspired to lead a team supporting Indigenous talent within film and media arts.

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