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First Peoples exhibit showcases aboriginal artists and filmmakers

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TORONTO - A summer art and film series is offering a second look at First Nations artists.

The retrospective "First Peoples Cinema: 1,500 Nations, One Tradition" kicks off Thursday at TIFF Bell Lightbox with a screening of the 1922 silent film "Nanook of the North" — a ramped-up revisit that will actually be far from silent thanks to an accompanying live soundtrack provided by throat singer Tanya Tagaq and her band.

"It's going to be an absolutely wild night and it's really about reclaiming and rethinking some of these really famous images but from a somewhat different perspective," says film programmer and exhibit co-curator Jesse Wente.

"And that's really what I think this show is all about."

A parallel free exhibit called "Home on Native Land" will showcase cinema-based pieces by contemporary aboriginal artists from Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

Wente says it's all knit together by a common point of view, despite the broad backgrounds among them.

"We see a lot of looks at identity, and the loss of language and home and land, and those repeat through both the gallery exhibition and the film series," he says, pointing to a shared history of colonialism that spans the globe.

"You begin to see how First Peoples artists are really doing and talking about a lot of the same issues, even though geographically they may be worlds apart from each other."

Films include 27 features and more than 30 shorts from Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand, as well as groundbreaking selections from the Philippines and Samoa.

Picks include Canada's "Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner," Australia's Camera d'Or-winning "Samson and Delilah" and the U.S. Sundance smash "Smoke Signals."

Special guests include film star Graham Greene who stops by Monday to discuss career highlights stretching from his early days in the Toronto theatre scene through his Oscar-nominated performance in 1990's "Dances With Wolves."

Wente traces a common evolution among the disparate film communities showcased, starting with socially engaged documentaries that began emerging in the late '70s and early '80s.

"As it progresses into the late '80s, we actually start to see feature films made. They all begin to drift away to present these ideas of returning home or how ... a modern indigenous person understands and reconciles their existence now.... By the time you get in the last decade, you begin to see a real expansion in the cinema all over the world," he says, pointing to "Atanarjuat" and "Samson and Deliliah" as examples.

"These are movies that begin to take mythology (and) traditional indigenous storytelling techniques and begin to mould cinema into a new form to try to express those ideas. So, you really see a divergence from traditional western narrative structure really more looking towards how you tell indigenous stories using cinema as opposed to using cinema to tell indigenous stories. There's a difference."

The gallery exhibit includes a large scale diorama by Kent Monkman titled "The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name," in which the relationship between the Lone Ranger and Tonto is reimagined as a doomed love affair.

Meanwhile, a video installation from Rebecca Belmore called "The Blanket" shows a woman struggling against a Hudson's Bay blanket against a snowy Manitoba landscape.

"I always think of it as sort of a horror movie where the woman is attacked by the blanket she loves or needs," says Wente.

The film program runs until Aug. 11 while the art exhibition runs until Aug. 19.

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