by Jennifer Smith
Over the period of a couple of months in 2019 I kept hearing about Chanelle Lajoie and the short film they made, Métis Femme Bodies. Somehow I kept missing screenings of the film. Then came what I consider a fateful day. I was asked to be a mentor for the MAWA Foundation Mentorship program in 2020 and Chanelle applied to be a mentee. Through this process I watched Métis Femme Bodies for the first time and knew Chanelle and I needed to meet and work together. Up to that point I had crossed paths with Chanelle only once in early 2020, and looking back it seems strange that since we are both Metis people working in media art. Either way we now had the opportunity to get to know each other. Although I am excited about the relationship Chanelle and I have built over the last two years as mentor / mentee, friends, colleagues, collaborators and kin, I am here to focus on their work.
Chanelle began their impressive career working with film and video by simply coming up with an idea and starting. There was no worry about perfecting camera skills, or having studied film for years. Chanelle had an idea, knew how they wanted that story to come alive on screen and began. In watching Chanelle’s short films, you get to see the ways they have grown as a filmmaker, artist, and the ways their connection to their Metis culture and queer indentity changes and deepens. Chanelle’s story telling method is not explicitly about a personalized story, but often looks at the ways others are navigating the same questions and thoughts they have for themself. Chanelle is making this work for Métis people and even more broadly the entire Indigenous community. The stories come from the heart with a queer lens.
Chanelle has made three films; Métis Femme Bodies, Grandmother’s Tongue and Land (Ab)Use.
Métis Femme Bodies was their first film as mentioned above it was released in 2019. The film introduces the viewer to Métis people inspecting their bodies only wearing underwear, the camera only allows us to see their torsos, and sometimes legs depending on how they are moving. The bodies are all ‘femme’ bodies of varying size, shapes and colours. There are voices over the images of the bodies talking about moving through the world in Métis bodies. The discussions meander through topics of shame, beauty, privilege, identity, skin colour and many other personal thoughts. This is an intimate portrait, the people on screen are seen moving their hands over their bodies in an everyday way, inspecting scars, tattoos, stretch marks, hairs. It is striking and a little uncomfortable, because these are unusual documentations of feminine bodies and how they are portrayed on screen. This intimacy is mirrored in the stories being told, discussions that are often held in, or only talked about with other Métis people navigating identity. Ultimately working to understand what their responsibility is to not only their own Métis bodies, but to those around them, to those that came before, and those who will come after.
Grandmother’s Tongue is a sensual short film. Based on the title there is an assumption that the film will focus on language and trying to navigate learning their grandmother’s language, Michif. The film is filled with references to Métis culture, from the only person we see in the film wearing beaded earrings, eating strawberries, and the entire film being narrated in Michif we can see the ways Métis/Michif life continues to exist in a contemporary way. There is a fuzzy moment part way through the film describing the nervousness and quivering tongue as they tried something new. The new experience changes the description to the excitement of a first queer sexual experience but could just as easily be referencing the nervousness of the responsibilities of learning your ancestor’s language. In the beginning of the film it is easy to get caught up in the excitement of learning and understanding the language of your people and to not immediately see this shift in the film, the title leads you to assume this film will focus solely on language, but leads to another story of identity. The stories are there in tandem. The feelings on the tongues, the excitement of trying something new and knowing it is what you need in your life, the release of allowing yourself to explore every part of yourself deeply. In similar ways to Métis Femme Bodies, Chanelle honours all the parts of what it mean to them to live in the here and now as a Métis queer person.
Between Grandmother’s Tongue and Land (Ab)use, Chanelle’s art practice had some new influences. They began applying to residencies, mentorships, and learning opportunities. Chanelle was accepted into the MAWA Foundation Mentorship Program, the Toronto Queer Film Festival’s DIY Lab, the Doc Salon Fellowship through imagineNATIVE and the European Film Market and was part of the Harbour Collective’s Meech Lake residency. The Harbour Collective residency led to the making of Land (Ab)use, and consequently Chanelle was invited to be part of the exhibit NO I.D. Required at PAVED Arts in Saskatoon.
Through these initiatives Chanelle began researching and shifted focus to ideas of Indigenous Futurisms. They hosted discussions that asked people to imagine thriving futures, projected hope for the future. These exercises allowed participants to build a collective vision of what could be manifested spiraling through time together.
The questions Chanelle asks themself about the future come forward in Land (Ab)use, very poignantly the words ‘Where do we go from here’ appears on screen. This seemingly is one of the first times in Chanelle’s films that there is a focus on themself, one frame that implies they have questions that need answering. But the community is still present, the question does include ‘we’, even though this question is coming from Chanelle’s voice. The questions keep coming; ‘Who can hear us?’; ‘Who will listen to us?’; ‘Who is included in us? You and I, and who else?’; ‘How did we come together?’. The imagery on screen changes periodically, there is always industrial infrastructure present, along with nature, the nature is either present as part of the infrastructure, or placed onto it in a collage of video. The questions continue evoking many emotions; ‘How will we stay together?’ ‘For how long?’ ‘Why?’ As the questions and imagery change there is the sound of a trickle of water, at times quieter and others louder, a calming constant as the questions ask more of the viewer. Who is Chanelle asking these questions of? They include the self, but as I am watching, reading, feeling, hearing my way through the film, I wonder if the questions are being asked of me? I imagine myself with Chanelle and begin answering the questions of who else I want to bring along, and I now have questions for Chanelle of who they would like to bring. I also wonder if I am incorrectly placing myself as part of the questions being asked, are they for a loved one of theirs, or for the person Chanelle most wants in the future alongside them? Or could this film exist to make me feel like the loved one, perhaps if you are open to answering these questions and being part of this future you will be enveloped in the love the Chanelle’s questions are filled with.
One of the most striking lines in Land (Ab)use is ‘I’ll share my medicines if you don’t have enough room for yours’. Chanelle’s work is an example of sharing their medicines, they are sharing stories, feelings, love and open up space for community, all while on a journey of growth as an artist. Chanelle is an emerging artist who has an extremely bright future, and will share that future with those willing to join the journey.
Chanelle Lajoie is a Queer Red River Métis Futurist and guest on Tiohti:áke Territory studying at McGill Law. Moving-image invites balance in their life by honoring and engaging with the communities to which they belong. Their ties to community are best witnessed in recent projects Métis Femme Bodies (2019) and Lavender Menace (2020). Chanelle completed MAWA’s Foundation Mentorship Program (2020-21) preparing them for moving- image projects Grand Mother Tongue, with Toronto Queer Film Festival’s DIY Lab Mentorship Program (2020-21) and Bison Hunt, with ImagineNATIVE’s Doc Salon Fellowship as part of the European Film Market (2021). They attended Harbour Collective’s Meech Lake Residency (August 2021), completing moving- image project Land (Ab)Use. They are looking forward to finalizing Snap Chat Thirza Cuthand as part of Image + Nation Story Lab Mentorship and presenting If Not HereThen Where with Toronto Queer Film Festival’s Queer Futurism Symposium this spring.
Jennifer Smith, is a Métis curator, writer and arts administrator from Treaty 1 Territory/Winnipeg. She works as the Executive Director for National Indigenous Media Arts Coalition (NIMAC), alongside her practice as an independent curator and arts writer. Jennifer’s research focuses on exploring the ways we make things that range from traditional methods of making to exploring new digital technologies that tell our stories. In 2018 she was the Indigenous Curator in Residence at aceartinc. in Winnipeg, and most recently co-curated the exhibition Sovereign Intimacies with Nasrin Himada for Plug In ICA and Gallery 1C03.