In L’Inhumain, Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg member Jason Brennan crafts a film about the Anishinaabe’s perspective of the Wendigo and his personal connection to the creature. Brennan fuses oral histories into a film that explores the difficult choices, temptations, identity issues, and financial pressures that arise when someone decides to leave their reservation land and live in a big city. The horror film focuses on a neurosurgeon named Mathieu, portrayed by First Nation hip-hop artist Samian, struggling with substance abuse, and a failing marriage. After his father dies, he returns to his ancestral land but soon crosses paths with the ravenous Wendigo.
I spoke with Brennan about what it was like to tell this story, his experience as an Indigenous filmmaker, and his company Nish Media – a production studio prioritizing finding and supporting Indigenous talent.
L’Inhumain revolves around the Anishinaabe’s oral history of the Wendigo. Do you remember the first time you heard the Wendigo story? How did that influence how you wanted to show it on screen?
My dad's First Nation and my mom’s Québécois, so I consider myself First Nation as well. Basically, my life I spent between being close to Ottawa, which is a super urban area, and then going back to my community during the summers. During my teen years, I’d spend a year here and a year there.
The first time I heard the Wendigo story, it was kind of as a joke – one of those boogeyman stories around a fire where somebody would say, “Oh, what was that noise? Must be the Wendigo!” People would laugh about it. Then you’d go, “What's the Wendigo?” The younger generation laughs about it like they're not too sure. And then as I got older, I started hearing more serious stories from elders about what they thought the Wendigo was. They’re all different. There's not one long Wendigo story. Basically, I’d hear a story about a creature that was around the community and that would manifest itself. People said, “ I saw this thing – a tall, skinny being lurking around. My dad was sure it was the Wendigo. Or there was a story of a man that had killed his own baby early in the 1900s and people in my community thought that he was inhabited by the Wendigo.
So it was all these different stories and that's how I got interested in the subject. I saw Wendigo stories dealt with by mainstream media by non-Indigenous people. I'd watched that and go, “Well, that's not it at all.” It's like somebody appropriating that story. Honestly, the Wendigo in my community – and I stick that in the film as well, that this is my interpretation of the Wendigo based on only the accounts I know from my community – was used to relay a message, to get people to understand, and to be good of heart. First and foremost, if you were good of heart, you didn't have to be worried about being hunted by the Wendigo. But the Wendigo was always around. Those are the stories of the Wendigo that I heard. I started my career in filmmaking as a producer and when I was finally ready to do my first feature, that was something that I wanted to do.
The reality is that we're in a renaissance when it comes to Indigenous stories. There are a bunch of great filmmakers and storytellers that are out there. But this renaissance means that these stories have been around for the last 10 years. So you're seeing non-Indigenous people tell these stories in their own way and tweak them, which takes away from what their actual intentions were.
I’m glad you brought that up because I’m curious to hear your perspective on settler-made television and films that use Indigenous oral histories in their work. The Wendigo creature shows up in a variety of Native cultures but they all have unique stories and cultural connections. Are you more on the side of, “Please, don’t,” or “If you do, bring in Indigenous talent and get them a writer/director credit”? (It seems like Native people receive producer credit when they’re doing a lot more work on set.)
That's the thing that's going on right now. I'm not against – let's say a settler point-of-view with an Indigenous context or Indigenous characters… But what makes a person the best person to tell that story, for me, is important. If you take somebody who's from a community, and they have something to share that is from their own community and has been there for hundreds of years, there's only so much screen space that can be used before people get tired of hearing these stories. That's my fear where basically the market becomes oversaturated and it becomes a little bit hard for viewers to tell what is what. So a series like Reservation Dogs gives you a real account of what the Indigenous experiences in a small reserve in the states are like. But then if you get somebody telling that story that isn't from the community and interpreting it in their words, there isn't unfortunately yet enough space for both those stories right now. There are only certain windows that exist.
Honestly, when you become an Indigenous storyteller, you have a cultural responsibility to your community. For me, I talked to some elders from my community, language keepers. Just the Wendigo story in itself across Canada, and in other communities in the states, it's still something that's taboo. Some people believe you shouldn't talk about it, because it can give it power. That is one of the reasons why in my film, we never come out and say that it's the Wendigo. We get the dad that says, “It reminds me of an old story…” For me, it was more important to explore the stories behind the Wendigo. Those are cultural sensitivities that you only get if you have a tie to the community. People from out west who don’t know me might say, “Why is he telling that story?” But I set the movie up by saying: this is my community's story when it comes to the Wendigo.
I presented the movie to my community before anybody else. We had a 500-seat theater and everybody from the community was invited to come and watch it. For me, it was great to have everybody there because that was the kind of approval I wanted – to see people were very happy about how it was dealt with because many of the actors in the film are from my community. So it’s a community story. If it comes from a settler’s perspective, you don't have that responsibility or accountability in place.
What was really interesting to me was how the creature appears at certain key points in Mathieu’s journey. It felt like when he's being inauthentic to himself, the Wendigo appears. Was that the meaning that you intended for the story?
Yeah, for sure. And again, this is the Wendigo that I've known. When I talked to people from my community, there was one person who told me, “My dad used to tell me that the Wendigo had no lips because it had grown so hungry that it had eaten its own lips.” So when we did the character design, that was one part of it. [In pop culture], you see different interpretations of the Wendigo – like this creature with a deer head, horns, and antlers. That isn't the Indigenous perspective. So when I did my character design, I talked to people. There was an account from my grandmother: she went to get water in early 1950s with two of my aunts. She was out there and then the mood and the atmosphere got tense. She looked around and she swore she saw – what she called then, “the tall black man.” She told my aunties, “Let's get back home because I see the tall black man.”
I designed the character around what people had told me. To me, that was really important to make sure that it was something that people from my community would understand and see. So it has all these different characteristics. It's easy for me to say because it's something so close to me. In different horror films, when we talk about these mythical creatures that we hear about through different cultures, somebody that isn't from that culture has a tendency to try and shape-shift it into something different. But you're taking away from so much of the authenticity, and the reality of that creature within the context of that culture. I think that becomes important because you're taking away everything that is behind that creature – the reason why it exists.
I love what you said about infusing the Wendigo in your film with your memories and your elders’ memories because now L’Inhumain is its own kind of oral history too. I loved the smoke effect!
I always wanted the smoke to be there to give it a sense that the creature is able to appear and disappear without anybody noticing.
There are three languages spoken in this film – English, French, and Anishinaabemowin. How did you approach balancing when to use these languages and why?
Again, this [laughs], without coming out and saying I’ve seen a Windigo, you know? I wrote the story based on my own personal experience. I'm an Indigenous person who looks entirely white. If people cross me on the street, they don't think I'm Indigenous, but I still grew up part of my life in a small community. My mom was French, so we spoke French some days at home. My dad's, we spoke English. He moved away to go to the states as an ironworker. Yet, when I go back to my community, my grandmother still speaks Anishinaabemowin. And my aunt still speaks the language and a lot of my relatives still speak the language. Unfortunately, because my dad moved away to work, he spoke it, he grew up with it, but once he made that move to leave, he lost a lot of it. He can still speak it today, but he never took the time to teach his children because, for him, we were better suited by learning English. So right off the top of the film, the little story there is taken from a written account from my great-aunt in one of the history books back in my community about how she had seen a Wendigo. I got my aunt to read that bit. To me, that story felt so authentic, getting a little old lady from the early 1900s, in terms of she had crossed one, she had seen one, and she knew about one. So to me, I wanted that to stay there. After that, you've got our main character who basically left home and had to learn French. That was my upbringing. I alternated between going to school for one year in English and one year in French. In the area where I live, everybody is bilingual and you're mixing everything together. That's basically how I wanted to keep it. It was important for me also to keep that authenticity. Without spoiling the film, when the creature appears in its human form, as his biggest vice, the creature speaking Anishinaabemowin is the kick in the teeth that I felt the character needed.
The film does a great job of weaving in Mathieu’s feelings of guilt, displacement, and loss. Is there anything in particular about this journey that you hope came across on screen?
I wanted to relay that slow, personal downward spiral that builds where you've got a character here who find themselves lost. Although he doesn't think he's about to hit the bottom of the barrel, he finds himself there rather quickly to realize how alone he is. That's when he falls prey to the Wendigo. Like, “I'm kind of looking for something that I've lost because I've left my community, and I've lost my culture, and I've adapted.”
That’s the reality of the story behind the story – that in order for a lot of people that grow up in the community, you need to make that choice at some point, and then you're dealing with the battle of having to figure out how you can reconnect to your culture. In Mathieu’s case, he's got this great job and a great family. But what price has he had to pay to get there? What did he have to leave behind? How has he tried to fill that void with all of his vices? Basically, it all comes down to a, Where do we all belong story? How do we fit in? When you don't fit in, how do you try and fit in? Some people find the right way to do it. Other people find other ways to do it. We go through that with our main character here. That initial Wendigo meeting, back when he was a child, puts him in a position where the Wendigo is always around him for the rest of his life – until he has to face that demon.
I’d love to hear more about Nish Media, especially because how I’ve heard Indigenous filmmakers speaking on the difficulties of finding financial funding for creative projects.
Yeah, Nish Media is my company. As I mentioned, a lot of people know me more as a producer. I’ve produced three other films, and we did a drama series in France that is getting into some major festivals and getting some buzz. I created Nish Media, maybe 17 years ago. Although I wanted to start as a director/writer when I ended my studies, there were no Indigenous producers out there. There were maybe five in Canada, but none in Quebec. So that's why I became a producer. I got to cut my teeth, and I got to be on sets. That helped me a lot when I was making my film. The reality is, if I'm not a producer on this film, the lead producer, this film doesn't get made. I basically put in all of my writer fees, director fees, producer fees into the movie, because I wanted to tell the story.
It’s an honest reality that here in Canada, a lot of the time, producers are putting some of their own money into films, and a lot of films aren't getting made because of that. I think it's important to say that I don't want to complain and look at it as if the glass is half empty because of the advancements that have been made by TeleFilm Canada in terms of funding really great Indigenous films in the last year have been amazing.
Maybe what's different when it comes to a non-Indigenous creator… Let's say a settler filmmaker wants to come up with a script to pitch to get his film financed. He's still being analyzed, but there's a lot more of a mold that TeleFilm is looking to guide them in terms of deciding what's getting funded, as opposed to Indigenous creators, where we're getting a lot more leeway in terms of the stories we want to make.
That’s a really good point to make.
Yeah, it’s great because we’re not expected to tell a specific type of story. You're seeing genre films, dramas, and a lot of coming-of-age stories. The range is out there. We’ve got a lot of latitude to the stories we want to tell.
Editor's Note: L’Inhumain, the first-ever French-speaking Indigenous genre film, is now available on multiple Canadian VOD platforms and on iTunes in multiple countries.