Published in The Ottawa Citizen- March 24, 2007
By Charles Enman
OTTAWA - Filmmaker Adam Garnet Jones tells stories about the search for inclusion from outside the circle, but happily, in the narrative of his own life, he's finally finding a way in.
The 25-year-old was in Ottawa this week for a screening of his latest short film, Cloudbreaker, on Parliament Hill. House of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken had invited Jones and his producer, Sarah Kolasky, to show the film at a gathering in celebration of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on Wednesday.
Milliken was effusive in his praise, calling Jones "an excellent example of what can be achieved by persons of conscience and conviction."
That Jones should be fully on side with efforts to reduce racial discrimination only makes sense. On his father's side, he is of mixed First Nations and Metis ancestry. But he knows of exclusion from a second side: He is also, with frankness but no fanfare, gay. As an activist, he tries to help both native and gay youth find acceptance and a sense of belonging.
"I had a lot pain when I was growing up, never feeling that I belonged," says Jones, who spent part of his childhood in Edmonton. "Some of that is still with me. I'm just glad that, through film, I can help others with their struggles, just as many helped me."
Cloudbreaker is a 15-minute film that tells the story of a lonely native boy, 10 years old, who is struggling with a problem which the film never quite defines. To reach his inner power, he is studying native traditions. Whether he finds that power in fact or merely in fantasy is a question the film leaves unclear.
In spite of its deliberate ambiguities, the film seems highly resonant and sure of its direction.
Last September, it was one of 38 films chosen from nearly 600 submissions for presentation at the Toronto International Film Festival in the Short Cuts Canada program.
"This was important to me," Jones says. "It was a very official stamp of a kind of success, a confirmation that what you're doing is good enough to be talked about, to matter."
Though only 25, Jones has been making films and videos for a decade. In his mid-teens, he was a very lonely child, conflicted about his sexuality.
His mother had died when he was only months old. The family moved from Calgary to Edmonton, where they lived for a time with his native father's parents, before moving in with his father's girlfriend, a disastrous arrangement.
"There was so much wrong for us in that house, and I don't think my father had much clue about the full extent of it."
The family was only beginning to focus on their native lineage during Jones's early childhood. They knew they were native, and his father carried a status card in his wallet.
But Jones's grandmother, a light-skinned woman, had 'passed' as white and there was no native cultural influence in the home.
"But that changed in the early 1980s, when I was quite small," he says. "A new awareness grew of the importance of honouring one's heritage among many natives, and my father and his brothers were suddenly interested in reconnecting with a past that we had ignored. My father had an identity shift that definitely affected me."
When his father decided to go back to school, he moved the family so he could enroll at a college in Castlegar, B.C., and later to Victoria for university. During these years, his father was involved with native student groups, and at university, wrote all of his essays from a native perspective.
Jones himself had a pivotal moment when he realized he had to accept his native identity. One day in high school in Victoria, he sat mute during a class discussion of what it meant to be native.
He discovered his classmates were contemptuous of natives, believing all the stereotypes about drinking, welfare and glue-sniffing."I was sitting in the back and couldn't even speak," he recalls. "Part of me was being attacked in a really vicious way, though I don't think they even knew I was native."
He ran out of the class that day, but next day returned to give a lecture, with the teacher's co-operation, about what native life is really like. "I told them a little bit about history and tried to break some myths down and, though I couldn't answer every question, I think I did OK."
He didn't feel much sense of refuge anywhere. As a gay teenager, he felt exiled from the common herd. As a native, he felt distanced from white society. And as a very light-skinned native deeply immersed in mainstream culture, he even felt alienated from his fellow natives.
"Some native people on reserves would even ask me, 'Why are you here? By what right?' I simply didn't look like I belonged."
The only real refuge was the Gulf Islands Film School on Galiano Island, between Vancouver Island and the mainland. He had wanted to act, but a high school drama coach had crushed him with a suggestion he didn't look manly enough for the stage.
At the same time, he heard about the film school and had an immediate sense that good things were waiting for him there. "I just grabbed the idea, and it completely replaced the acting," he recalls. "So I saved up all my money and managed to go.
"I learned later the staff knew I was gay, even before I did. And they took me under their wings, wanted me to be safe. I'd never had anything remotely close to that, and if film would take me to such wonderful people, I knew I wanted my life to be about film."
He did well, soon becoming the head technician and a video instructor himself. The process was congenial, too. He loved to write and work with actors, and found the editing process fascinating.
Since then, he's completed a BFA in film production at Ryerson University in Toronto and turned out roughly 20 short films, some of which have been shown at festivals as far afield as Dallas, Santa Fe and Liverpool.
His resume is already impressive. He's curated and helped with programming at such film festivals as the gay-themed Inside Out Film and Video Festival and the ImagineNATIVE Film Festival, both presented annually in Toronto.
The future is uncertain, he says, though he has another short film or two he hopes to make with Kolasky.
"I could try to make feature films, but that's hard to do in Canada and the audiences aren't large," he says. "But I can see myself getting into directing for television."
In all his pondering, he'd better keep the afternoon of June 14 open, when the Canadian Urban Institute, a Toronto-based think tank dedicated to enhancing urban life across Canada, will give him an Urban Leadership Award for his efforts to enhance inclusion of gay and native youth.
So circles are opening for Adam Garnet Jones -- circles he'd like to see open for everyone.