Noam Gonick: Manitoba Arson

In Winnipeg, Manitoba, a filmmaker named Noam Gonick is pushing the borders of film. Stryker is one of his most well-known works. Stryker was an official selection at the Venice Film Festival in 2007, and was reviewed in everything from the local Winnipeg papers to the New York Times. Unfortunately, people in the states aren’t aware of the strange tone and rhythm of the Native language in Manitoba and so they attributed this slow speech in the film as bad acting. The truth is quite the opposite actually: the acting is good, maybe too good. And yet the film is difficult, odd, flamboyant: it crosses into physical, emotional, ideological and sexual places that most films, even indie or avant-garde films, rarely dare to go. It’s a bizarre mythological feast of discomfort, offset by the soothing, stunning cinematography of Ed Lachman.

Stryker is the story of Native gangs in Winnipeg, specifically the Indian Posse and the Asian Bomb Squad. At the center of the film is a quiet 14-year-old boy called Stryker. Stryker comes to Winnipeg from Brokenhead First Nation, a nearby Aboriginal reserve. In the opening sequence he sets fire to a church, and then flees, riding on the top of a train from Brokenhead to Winnipeg’s North End. When he arrives in Winnipeg, Stryker immediately finds himself in the midst of two warring gangs, unsettling them both, setting fire (literally and metaphorically) to whatever he sees. The film takes place in a part of Winnipeg that was once full of Jewish immigrants but is today mostly comprised of Natives and Asians. Many consider it to be the poorest and most violent part of town. Gonick found inspiration for the story of his film in many places, especially in the history of Winnipeg itself.

Pulse: In the 1990s, there was a problem with arsons in Winnipeg. Could you give me a really quick overview of what happened and how it was perceived?

NOAM GONICK: It was a time when Winnipeg was really whipped up into a panic about Native kids burning the whole city to the ground. There were a lot of abandoned houses that were torched, also garbage fires. A few really high profile arsons were pinned on Native youth and later ended up being the work of middle aged schizophrenics, or in the case of the Alexander Steam Baths and Barber Shop, disaffected gay flight attendants. But at that time, every out of control BBQ was deemed to be the work of the Indian Posse.

What is this story about the “7th Generation”?

It’s a Mohawk prophecy that states that after seven generations of contact with white people, the new generation of Native youth would save Mother Earth, righting wrongs & settle the score with their oppressors. There’s also birds falling from the skies and stone creatures that emerge from underground. With “Stryker” I romantically equated these Winnipeg firebugs (who were predominantly Cree & Ojibwe tribally, not Mohawk) with this seventh generation idea, and posited that the burning of the city was a moment of reckoning for the generations of genocide they’d been born into.

In the film, how does everyone immediately know that Stryker is from Brokenhead? Is it something about the way he looks? And how do they all know to call him Stryker already? It’s like they’ve been expecting him….

Daisy recognizes him because she’s also from there. When Mama Ceece sees him she mistakenly calls him a “swampy Cree boy”, which is wrong – Brokenhead is from the Ojibwe Nation. Kids like that, in their early teens, arrive off of reservations all the time to try life in the big city of Winnipeg. Some of them meet a very brutal end quite quickly, so I was interested in documenting that voyage. I wanted to imbue Stryker with a mythic aspect, like a lone gunslinger from a Western who comes into town to raise hell. Just by being in the shadows, he causes strange things to happen to those around him. The name Stryker is a generic title given to any kid who wants to join a gang, it’s the entry-level position. Our character plays both sides, seemingly working for both gangs in the North End turf war, but in the end he’s flying solo, like avenging angels tend to do.

Do you know this quote by Spinoza: “All things excellent are difficult as they are rare”? I think that is what your film is: excellent, rare, and thus, difficult.

I don’t know the quote, but I’ll take it as a compliment – at times I have also felt like an excommunicated Jew. It was a difficult film to make, and difficult for many to contend with as viewers. It wasn’t the most politically astute move on my part – Canadians are very sensitive about the way Native reality is depicted on screen, owing to the fact that this county’s existence depends on our brutal history of conquest, the results of which are so omnipotent in Winnipeg, which it’s large First Nations population. Many commentators didn’t appreciate a non-Native filmmaker foraying into this terrain but I liken the situation to living in apartheid or the occupied West Bank – if you are a witness to state repression, even if it’s not directed at you personally, how can you be blind to it?

Is the mythology of Manitoba a native mythology? Does Canada have a connection to mythology? Because I think there is something of the myth or fairy tale about your film…not the happy ending Hollywood version, but more like Greek or Brothers Grimm, where what is strange and boundary-stretching and jarring and uncomfortable turns out to be what is most transformative for you in the end.

Manitoba means the place of spirit in Cree. I own an artwork by Jake Kosciuk that inverts the map of our province which, with a little bit of doctoring, looks a lot like a twisted windigo mask. Manitoba was born out of an uprising of the mixed blood (Aboriginal and French) Métis people, led by Louis Riel, a bit of a madman anarchist who predicted that a new Vatican would rise out of the Saint Vital neighborhood on the south side of Winnipeg. Another one of his prophecies was that his people would rise again in a hundred years, led by artists. The graphic novelist Chester Brown posits that the Canadian government used this rebellion to fund the national railroad system, first as a means of troop transport, and then for settling the prairies. There is still war booty in southern Ontario, in the form of church bells, brought home by returning soldiers. As to the boundary stretching transformative, its inevitable when someone like me takes on a the street gang genre – it’s gonna come out a funky hybrid. My concern wasn’t to make traditional urban entertainment, even if I sometimes like to frame the movie that way. It’s like a red herring to lure the audience into a tale of that not only encompasses the usual tropes: drug wars, juvie hall, et al – but also walks down the trannie stroll, asks tough questions about Native reality, openly fetishes thugs and finds humour in areas where we’re conditioned to tsk and shake our heads at the sad reality. In the final scene when Stryker returns to face the city again after being dumped by the police in a snow bank on the outskirts of town, I really wanted him to rise to that god-like level in Greek myth, where you don’t know if he’s alive or dead, if he’s going to destroy the city.

Have you watched many Baz Luhrman films? There’s something about the pace and timing that reminds me of some of them….

I’ve seen Australia, Moulin Rouge! and my favourite: Romeo + Juliet. I really loved that scene when Des’ree sings “I’m Kissing You” through the fish tank (and come to think of it, we’ve both used fish tank cinematography). We work on different scales, but I did manage to elevate Aboriginal issues to a Wagnerian level. With Australia he broached the aboriginal adoption issue in his home country, and David Gulpilil who played King George was great to see on screen again, I’ve missed him since Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971).

I’m interested in the native idea that disrobing can be a way of “shucking off the body” or “uncovering the soul”. There are also native tribes who believe that disrobing in a dream is a sign of approaching death, not necessarily a physical death, maybe the death of some old way of seeing, old way of life… In many aboriginal societies (not necessarily Canadian), there is also a lot of talk of “intercourse” – of all things having the most physical interaction, of the sun itself having intercourse with the earth (as Australian aboriginals believed). Did you find anything about this in the research you were doing before the film?

I didn’t come across “shucking off of the body” in my research, but your description of the sun and earth in intercourse reminds me of some ancient Egyptian beliefs I’ve studied. There has been the allegation of Queer tricksterism going on with our inclusion of transgendered sex trade workers. But Native trannie, or “two spirited” people as they call themselves, are a genuine phenomena in the Winnipeg underworld that needed to be depicted. In the pre-contact era, cross-dressing men and women were revered by their tribes as medicine people, given positions of respect and power. All that was repressed by the church, where same-sex encounters resurfaced in abusive power relationships between priests and children. The hustler stroll in Winnipeg is comprised of mostly Native teens, many with gang affiliations. When you mix in the federal penitentiary where Native people are also overrepresented, where a senior Indian Posse overlord was nearly bludgeoned to death by a mob of his underlings for forcing younger inmates to fellate him, you see that these worlds really do interconnect, this isn’t just the fevered imaginings of a queer filmmaker with an obsession for hoodlums. Mama Ceece’s butch lesbian depiction has also been corroborated by auditioning actresses from the hood who informed us that in reality there were several Mama Ceeces who controlled different aspects of the underworld, car theft rings, etc. Scripting a dyke who’s in charge of the Indian Posse with a gaggle of Native trannies was challenging for audiences who wanted a movie with standard gender role representations found in mainstream gang genre films. I wouldn’t deliver that type of fare to the viewer because the truth is that street life has always meant the meeting of these worlds: sexual outlaws and criminal outlaws find commonality. Someone once said about the film, that it feels like everyone wants to fuck everyone else, which made me remember the words of Divine in her disco hit “Native Love (Step by Step)”: ‘This Native Love is Restless/And I’m Just Not Satisfied.”

Also, in much of traditional native culture, a vision quest is the decision to meet one’s self. Stryker is on a kind of vision quest turned inside out isn’t he? Because by looking at him, other people seem to meet themselves for the first time. Are you wanting the audience to have to wake up? Wordsworth said that “Habits rule the unreflecting herd.” Are you trying to wake people out of their habits?

The character of Stryker was written as a catalyst for the people he met in the hood, causing each of them to transform or curve further along their individual path. Ideally we wanted audiences to feel what its like to walk in to torn sneakers of a teenaged arsonist. The film is a stiff slap in the face for a certain audiences, there’s a certain brutality that isn’t coated in morality, but young Native people have seen the humour, the local references, characters they recognize but don’t find on screen.

Have you found this film doesn’t fit into the usual modes of discourse about native subjects? Has it been hard for you to take responsibility for this film? Has it been hard for others to see their own “human-ness” reflected by to them? 

The film is an audience splitter. It takes a special viewer to go the whole distance with us. But I have seen people really moved by the work, crying at the end, or really worked up and angry in the aftermath – both reactions that I was going for. When a film causes debate: some people not able to handle the LGBT curve balls I’ve tossed, some people taking a firm anti-gang stance against the film, I think that’s positive – these irritants should generate discussion. As I alluded above, Aboriginal representation is severely vetted in our national cinema. As a state-funded apparatus, its rare to find a film about the underbelly of First Nations experience that doesn’t advocate disaffected youth buying into the society at-large, casting aside juvenile anti-social associations and affiliations. I came out publicly in defense of the Indian Posse vis-à-vis my seventh generation reading of the situation. That was something a lot of people didn’t want to see, a backwards way of looking at things. The notion that a work of art can glamorize gang life and serve to pump up membership was something that came up from a vocal minority in that class, and it’s something we’ve heard before in the area of ‘taking responsibility’ for the film. If representing something forbidden equates to glamorizing it, than I suppose I’m guilty as charged. I am not at all averse to the allegation of glamour. We could all use a little more of that in our lives, not just the beaded gown, gold tipped cigarette variety. But the film isn’t perfect (I don’t strive for perfection), so I have stopped chalking up critical resistance to a refusal to face one’s human-ness reflected back at them. The film very much wants to push the viewer and if the viewer opts to push back, who am I to squawk?

Are you less interested in “giving people hope” than you are in being an instigator? In forcing people to get so uncomfortable that they must move, act?

There’s a polemical Argentine film from the 60’s called the ‘Hour of the Furnaces’ that was extremely critical of the social structure at the time and the last title card is an entreaty to the audience to turn around and discuss the issues amongst themselves. I like that idea and would aspire towards it. If the images and narratives stoke fires in some viewers I think that’s a form of hope, if it inspires their own creativity and empowers through representation.

In literature, the Outsider is often the one who is interested in extreme states, the one who either consciously or subconsciously searches for true balance by unleashing his own hunger in full force. There are extremes in your work in terms of drugs, sex, violence, even extremes when it comes to sanity. Do you think that it’s usually at the physical, mental and emotional extremes that people are able to experience some kind of alchemical change? Or is it the opposite: are people using these things to numb themselves from reality, because reality itself is too much for them?

I am attracted to extreme personalities, if I look at some of the lovers I’ve had or the muses I’ve taken on, and underdog or outsider has, in a political sense, has also been a character I’ve advocated for in the work. In terms of drugs, they’re useful in allowing one to voyage outside the normally prescribed behavior patterns. There are also a few very sexy schizophrenics whom I’ve known for a long time, predating their condition, and as difficult as they can be for friends, I’m at times susceptible to their altered reality and conspiracy theories. The alchemy is that reality is fairly elastic and in my reckoning drugs, sex, psychic states and violence are all useful tools in shaping or destroying (for the purposes of rebuilding) one’s own environment.

Your film is about fire, and fire is an extreme, something that can change the physical form of something, rearrange its parts completely….

And of course pyromaniacs get a sexual thrill from their craft. I recently heard that watching fire intently is very good for the eyes. In my previous feature, “Hey, Happy!” (2001) sexuality and libidinousness are the primary traits of the star, Sabu. And he uses his quest the for bedding of two thousand men as a means to not only search inward, but also to affect the world around him. It was a pro-libertine film at a time when young fags were being herded in the opposite direction: marriage, anti-sex panic monogamy, or abstinence.

With your work, you make people uncomfortable, push them beyond their comfort zone. In making this film, did you also have to push yourself in this way?

Working with a cast that were for the most part the real thing, i.e. young aboriginal hip-hoppers or Asian thugs, meant finding a language and meeting ground where we could collaborate in making a film together. Coming from a different place wasn’t much of a challenge for me – I’m a fairly sociable person and as a director you have to be able to relate to the people you’re depicting, even if they’re outside your milieu – that’s also part of the fun. In the aftermath of the film I have great contacts in the criminal underworld of Winnipeg who are very proud of the legendary status participating in the project generated. The set was rife with crew discontent, the hours were long and the indie film spirit was running thin in the wake of a few big budget Hollywood films preceding mine and setting the bar high in terms of comfort and payment. It was a difficult film physically, shooting in winter and taking on the weight of the topic. Becoming a conduit for the story took its toll on me, but no one else was going to tell the story and once I signed on I didn’t really stop until the red carpet at Venice.

Have your most basic, natural desires ever been a source or reason that you’ve felt like an outsider in Winnipeg? If so, do you think this gives you a way of understanding someone like Stryker? Are the experiences of someone of differing race or class or sexual desires really so different when it comes to the way it feels and the way one must find his or her own confidence and social poise?

I don’t really feel like an outsider in Winnipeg, as much as I’ve been called out on Stryker, I think the majority of people here support ruminations on difficult subjects. Perhaps queerness informs my empathy for the outsider, but I would also ascribe it to my father’s politics as one of Canada’s foremost Marxists, the kind of indoctrination I cottoned on to at an early age, coupled with my mother’s stories as a community mental health worker focusing on the underclass, really sensitized me to social injustice. Ed Lachman, the cinematographer on the film, used to say that all cinema is about relationships, be they gay or straight, about the connection between people. But getting back to homosexuality… the kind of homosexual practice I’ve maintained has allowed me a passport into so many worlds. Beyond the enjoyment of multiple partners, it’s the stories and rooms that you’re given access to which is great fodder for filmmaking.

For instance, in the moving scene where Stryker and Daisy first meet and seem to really connect, isn’t it this outsider understanding that is at the heart of that unlikely connection/friendship?

For me that moment is about finding commonality across difference. About a basic human instinct for warmth and caring, for doing the right thing, helping a roughed up trannie with a ripped fur coat out of the snow bank and taking away her matches so she doesn’t burn herself, lighting her smoke. When we were doing the sound mix on that sequence, we discovered a very beautiful ambient tone, like a distant whirring drone, in that moment when Stryker hands her keys back to her. I always felt like that was angels crying at the beauty of that moment.

It’s amazing to me that the native way of talking about transvestites is to call them “Two Spirited People”. I think this reflects some kind of understanding of the fact that by being “different” one has to wake up more fully than those around him or her, and thus, once he or she is comfortable with that “strangeness”, he or she has even more to give.

It is like being doubly blessed with twice the amount of spirit that everyone else gets.

At the end of the film, Omar asks Kyle’s character “Who the fuck are you?” But he’s really asking himself “Who am I?” This is also the ultimate question of the Outsider because the Outsider by definition is one who has come to question his own place in the larger picture, seeing that things don’t quite fit, questioning the whole system, bringing that question into all his interactions as Stryker so silently does. Do you think people are afraid of asking this kind of questioning? Is that part of the problem?

Well there aren’t too many reassuring images of whites in the movie where white audience members can gain entry and say: “that’s me up there”. That might be part of the problem, if there is a problem. The film requires a bit of work soul searching, and “who am I?” (or, “who are we?”) is perhaps not the best question for selling popcorn. But if I’ve done my job, the film is watchable enough that those tough questions seem in unconsciously and the outsider’s lament infects the viewer over the longterm. If the film suffers from distribution gatekeepers or homophobic word of mouth, I think both these things add to its mystique, and judging by the thousands of downloads and youtube hits, the burnt copies I’ve heard about across the Canadian arctic on Native reservations, I’m satisfied that it’s finding an audience and doing it’s work.

Why do you think people have such a hard time with the sexual and homoerotic parts of the film? Is there any relation to this inability for people to be comfortable with the most basic parts and drives of themselves and their inability to see the aboriginal people in a true way?

It’s not the most obvious choice of hybrid hyphenate in the gang war genre “street thug –slash – trannie flick. But my remit compels me to push the medium forward and put things together in new and unlikely ways. How else can we develop as a culture, as people? But as I’ve alluded above, the tainted reputation that the queer content gives the movie one of the most entertaining aspects. As much as people want to resist the homosocial in the work, we know its just a performance of rejection, and in their deepest darkest nights, either in the cell block or on the internet, they’re not as close minded as they’d lead us to believe.

Do you really believe the native people should “take back what is theirs”?

Yes, I support Native self-government and at a recent election for National Grand Chief one of the nominees, the chief of Kyle Henry (who played Stryker)’s Roseau reservation, Terry Nelson, proposed that the Northern territories negotiate joining the United States to put them in a better bargaining position with Ottawa.

Did you grow up feeling / do you feel now / any guilt in relation to the native communities in Canada?

No, only fascination.

In what ways do you feel thankful to the native community in Manitoba?

I am thankful for their connection to Mother Earth, to the natural environment, to magic. I am thankful because they are sometimes amazing lovers, generally well endowed. There are moments of deep yet instant connection. And that the two-spirited traditional has survived residential schools and the church, providing a key to unlocking the mysteries of human sexuality.

How did your own views/feelings about First Nation people change in the course of researching and making and then talking about this film?

One observation is that there is no ‘one’ Native voice or opinion. I’ve met Native artists who’ve hired me to produce their work in the wake of Stryker, and aboriginal critics who’ve championed the film, and there are just as many who won’t look me in the eye.

Do you think monetary retribution to First Nation people really helps?

Until the fall of Capitalism, money helps. Send some.