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The Dawn of Indigenous VR

“There is a reason that the elders always say that our culture is in our language” shared Anishnaabe Canadian filmmaker Lisa Jackson as she spoke at the Creator’s Talk at Melbourne Museum’s Bunjilaka Cultural Centre.

In March 2019, Jackson’s virtual reality work Biidaaban: First Light was on display as part of a collaboration between Museums Victoria and the Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC).

Biidaaban: First Light is a room-scale immersive virtual reality work rooted in Indigenous futurism which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2018. This highly realistic film shows a radically different view of of Toronto and “illuminates how the original languages of the land can provide a framework for understanding our place in a reconciled version of Canada’s largest urban environment”.

While Jackson does not want to give too much away, Biidaaban: First Light is a reimagination of her home city  and “it is in a way, a reoccupation of the city, not just by our languages, but also ‘what if these languages grew in this space in the same way that the plants do?’”.

This has great potential for Indigenous filmmakers according to Jackson as virtual reality not only opens opportunities to pursue new understandings of space, but because “it is so felt or can be so felt in the body”.

For Jackson, this visceral connection stems from how many Indigenous languages focus more on verbs compared to English which focusses on nouns. Jackson said that this focus on action “implies a relationship because anything acting upon something is automatically connected.”

Biidaaban: First Light features the three Indigenous languages native in the region originally called Tkaronto: Wendat, Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) and Anishinaabe (Ojibway). For Jackson, incorporating indigenous languages into this project was important to show how language relates to a place and ask the broader question, “what if in a way, these languages, because in every human culture, the language reflects the place that it exists on and that it was born in”.

Biidaaban: First Light forms part of a larger immersive multimedia project called “Transmissions” which examines the power of language in an indigenous futurist setting. Jackson’s interest in sharing indigenous language stems back to vast amount of research she undertook in the early 2000s while preparing to make a documentary feature film looking at how Indigenous languages perceive the world. Even though this project was shelved for many years, it was reinvigorated with the advent of growing availability of virtual reality and immersive technology and its ability to create and incorporate space into a film.

“I always think about creating this space where we can put ourselves into it and with Biidaaban in particular, there is a certain amount of ambiguity around ‘is this good?’, ‘is this bad?’, and I want people to marinate in that.”

While Jackson is one of Canada’s most celebrated contemporary artists working in film and VR according to the National Film Board, she excited for the potential that virtual reality holds in indigenous filmmaking more broadly.

“One of the things that I thought as exciting about VR is the sense that we could experience it viscerally and that was something I had been reaching for in my film work. It makes me pretty excited about the possibilities of what indigenous artists can do with it”.

As Biidaaban: First Light asks users to think about their place in history and their role in a possible future, Jackson said, “I like to remember that this is just me trying to cast come light on the work of those in Indigenous communities promoting their native language and opening the door a little bit on why we should care”.

Lisa Jackson’s attendance at the Australian International Documentary Conference was supported by the Consulate General of Canada, Sydney.


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Canada Down Under is an on-line portfolio of Canadian-Australian stories produced by the Consulate General of Canada in Sydney and other contributors.

Canada Down Under est un portefeuille en ligne d'histoires canado-australiennes produites par le Consulat général du Canada à Sydney et d'autres contributeurs.

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