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Adam Beach hopes movie venture will launch 'native Disney'

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Arctic Air star Adam Beach is working behind the scenes to get first-run movies to First Nations.


Arctic Air star Adam Beach is working behind the scenes to get first-run movies to First Nations. Photo Store

It's the day after police went public about their nine-month Project Falling Star investigation of the Manitoba Warriors, which seems an ideal time to offer the latest news on a true aboriginal star who is the antithesis of what street gangs represent.

Not that as a kid from the North End, Adam Beach didn't experience the lure of that life.

It was his business associate, local film producer Jeremy Torrie, who contacted me to say Beach was in town and they had something exciting to announce. The first time I met the lead actor on the CBC series Arctic Air was in December 2002. He was in the lunchroom of a film-production facility on Pacific Avenue, where he was starring as J.J. Harper in the made-for-TV movie Cowboys and Indians.

No, not Cowboys & Aliens.

That would happen much later for Beach. Cowboys and Indians was based on my book with a similar title about the 1988 police shooting of native leader Harper. The movie was co-produced by Torrie, which is how I came to meet Beach that first time. "Hi, dude," he said.

And that was the end of that.

Until Tuesday night, when we reconvened in the lobby of Waterfront Drive's boutique Mere Hotel where Beach was staying. He and Torrie had just been at a Portage and Main dinner meeting at Hy's Steakhouse where, along with their other business partner, former CBC reporter Jim Compton, they had been at a table for 12 that included First Nations leaders from Saskatchewan. Beach, Torrie and Compton -- the three Aboriginal Amigos -- hoped to impress the assembled with their latest business brainwave called Bandwidth Digital Releasing, a new company whose profits are supposed to support the non-profit, Winnipeg-based Adam Beach Film Institute.

If you've never heard of the ABFI, I'm not surprised. Despite having his name attached, it's had almost no profile since it was incorporated in the spring of 2012 and officially launched just last summer with a $200,000 gift from the San Gold Corp. Fundamentally, the institute is aimed at attracting aboriginal film-industry students but is more about on-the-set training than classroom study. Not that the ABFI has any classrooms yet. All they have is an office on McMillan Avenue and lots of hope for developing a campus, maybe centred in the old Ellice Avenue movie theatre building where Adam could also have a condo.

"Getting this far, we've proven it can be done," Beach says. "We're taking it on a scale that nobody thought could ever happen for aboriginal people."

The broader vision is to turn it into what he calls a "new native Disney," with studios that produce movies and TV shows and work for his students and graduates.

But to make any of that come true, they need money, which brings us back to Bandwidth and a right-out-of-the-movie-box-office idea. They want to truck first-run Hollywood movies where they've never been before: to First Nations reserves in Manitoba. They hope to start this March in Norway House. Eventually, if the model works, they want to expand their road show to reserves and tribal homes all over North America.

"Bandwidth," Torrie explains, "ties into the Adam Beech Film Institute because all the profits that we make... every popcorn that we sell, every drink, every DVD, every ticket we sell goes toward the philosophy of what we're doing in the film institute. Which is, we are going to create the next generation of aboriginal filmmakers.

"The next Adam Beach."

Which prompted me to wonder who inspired Beach as a 14-year-old, when he was involved with gangs, people were telling him he should be a carpenter, and he was thinking of killing himself. That's when he turned to acting at Gordon Bell High School. Was there someone who helped him then the way he's trying to inspire other aboriginal kids to help themselves?

"It was just something I fell into," he says of acting. "I loved the idea of recreating myself through these characters. I could be a ninja. I could be a sailor. And that imaginative circumstance led me to say, 'I want to get far away from the lifestyle I'm living now.' And I just had the passion to want to pursue the ability to transform."

Beach recalls doing a six-month course in a volunteer theatre group at the Freight House, and the Manitoba Theatre for Young People helped him out, and of course, his high school.

"I never imagined me to be where I am now. I wasn't capable of having that foresight."

Now he says he wants his film institute to open doors for other aboriginal kids.

"So people can get ahead quickly and have the same growth, but without the frustration."

But back to my question.

Surely, given how it's turned out, someone recognized he was special and encouraged him as a kid.

"No," he says, "just myself."

So Adam Beach made Adam Beach.

Not that any of us should really be surprised by that.

But there's gotta be an inspiring lesson there for kids today who face the lure of street gangs as he did.

The lesson being:

You can be a bad actor.

Or a good one who comes back to show what being a real Manitoba warrior looks like.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 25, 2014 B1


Updated on Saturday, January 25, 2014 at 10:06 AM CST: adds missing word

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