Asia Youngman sat nervously in a theatre at Toronto’s 2017 imagineNative Film + Media Arts Festival, the world’s largest showcase of Indigenous film. Her first film was about to premiere: a short documentary titled Lelum’ (the Hul’q’umi’num’ word for “home”). Surrounded by a sea of strangers, Youngman felt vulnerable wondering how they would react. To her surprise, Lelum’ won the award for Best Documentary Short. “It was such a proud and rewarding experience,” she says. “I knew I had to continue making films to represent my people and tell [our] stories.”
As a person of Cree, Haudenosaunee, and Métis heritage, Youngman hopes to inspire women and Indigenous youth with her work. But she wants to tell more than just stories defined by her cultural identity, and she has many to tell.
Forging a Path
Five years ago Youngman could not have predicted her current success. Her first real job in the film industry was as a production assistant to the acclaimed documentary filmmaker Nettie Wild. When the film premiered, Youngman watched excitedly as the credits rolled. Eventually, her name appeared on the screen; it was misspelled. She laughed it off but the experience motivated her to forge her own path. “I was so grateful for the experience,” she says. “But I decided, if I wanted to direct something, I needed to get out there and do it myself.”
An observant and reflective person, Youngman says she was always intrigued by photography and film. She realized that visual expression could help her find her voice and even empower others. “I’ve always been an extremely visual person,” she explains, “so I feel like expressing myself through film allows me to share my thoughts and opinions to the best of my ability.”
After completing her bachelor of arts at the University of Victoria in 2013, Youngman began working for the Provincial Health Services Authority (PHSA), where she used film to develop online Indigenous youth wellness programs. She filmed, edited, and assisted in the production of online videos that, according to the PHSA website, are meant to “empower youth, encourage culture, and promote wellness.” Youngman travelled to communities across BC to lead youth workshops on how to film and edit videos. Her time at PHSA inspired her to take a leap and return to school full-time at Vancouver Film School (VFS) in 2016.
During her studies at VFS, she began to create Lelum’. The documentary, which is narrated by Indigenous youth, features aerial shots of the BC landscape that Youngman grew up in. The film is described by imagineNative as a film that “portrays the strength and beauty of the land … that speak[s] to our inherent responsibility to protect and show respect for our home.”
“I am constantly inspired by the landscape here,” Youngman says, “and feel so fortunate to live, work, and grow as a filmmaker here on the traditional and unceded land of the Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations.”
Changing the Industry
Lelum’ made a name for Youngman locally and internationally. In 2018 she was selected by the Māoriland Film Festival to take part in a 72-hour filmmaking challenge in New Zealand. There she co-directed the short drama and comedy Te Kaitiaki (Māori for “guardian”). That same year Youngman co-directed In The Valley Of Wild Horses, a short documentary which premiered at the 37th Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) and continues to screen at festivals around the world. The documentary follows Chief Jimmy Lulua and the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation as they travel 200 kilometres by horse and wagon from Nemiah Valley to the famous Williams Lake Stampede “to honour a 94-year tradition of inclusion, trade, and relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples,” according to VIFF’s summary.
In an interview with Shelley Joyce of CBC Kamloops, Youngman said a “huge part of the film was representation” and that she hopes people will learn about different Indigenous communities in BC from the story.
Individual Indigenous Nations are not often able to represent themselves in Canadian mainstream media. In his book Elements of Indigenous Style, Dr. Gregory Younging explains that Indigenous Peoples in Canada are diverse, distinct cultures. There is no one universal Indigenous perspective, so multiple perspectives are needed in the film industry to represent Indigenous Peoples in Canada in an authentic way.
Youngman dreams of a day where Indigenous perspectives are woven into every part of the film industry, and hopes to see Indigenous Peoples “directing, producing, shooting, and acting in major blockbuster films.” She wishes there had been an Indigenous superhero for her to look up to when she was younger.
“We not only need representation but accurate representation,” she says. “It’s vital for Indigenous youth to see their own people in films as strong role models … to feel proud of who they are and where they came from.”
“For so many years we’ve been told that it’s not okay to be Indigenous, but the reality is that we come from such a beautiful culture that deserves to be acknowledged and celebrated,” she says.
Although Youngman’s films portray and empower Indigenous Peoples, her ideas for future films are not limited to cultural expression. “I don’t want to do what people expect in terms of the films that I create,” she explains. Youngman plans to write and direct dynamic films, including a science-fiction thriller centred on technology with an Indigenous lead. “I would [also] love to write and direct a love story or a family drama where the characters happen to be Indigenous, but not make the central focus of the story about them being Indigenous,” she says.
Youngman’s chances of bringing these ideas to the screen look promising. She was recently one of eight women selected by the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television for a six-month apprenticeship for emerging female directors. “It’s an incredible initiative to give women more opportunities and experience through mentorship,” she explains. Youngman believes having women in the director’s chair is essential to promote a “safe and respectful environment for women to create and feel equal,” and to ensure they are portrayed accurately on screen.
Youngman is set to bring new stories to the screen in 2019, and she continues to pursue her goal of inspiring women and Indigenous youth. She is currently in post-production for This Ink Runs Deep, a short CBC documentary she directed on revitalizing traditional Indigenous tattoo practices, and the development of her first feature-length documentary is underway. Youngman wants to transform the film industry and is willing to break barriers and defy expectations to do it. In many ways, she is like the strong Indigenous superhero she dreamed of seeing as a child. It is hard to imagine that Asia Youngman’s name will be misspelled on anything she helps create again.