Narrative Positioning: Going above and beyond with Bones of Crows Associate Producer, Leena Minifie

Bones of Crows, written and directed by Marie Clements and produced by Marie Clements, Trish Dolman, Christine Haebler, and Sam Grana (with Ayasew Ooskana Pictures, Marie Clements Media, Screen Siren Pictures, and Grana Productions), has been applauded for the way it painstakingly and seamlessly integrates emotionally compelling and honest details to assemble a storyline that left audiences breathless and deeply impacted. Crafting a mosaic of this level of intensity and aligning the pieces of Place, People, and Process in an ethical and responsible production that took care of the story and the people involved was a labour of love, which has been well received on and off-screen. The film has already left a legacy from a filmmaking perspective, but the work that was done was intended to create ripples of representation and shifts in ways of creating that will support the decolonizing of this industry.

In this article, Vancouver-based Leena Minifie (Gitxaala Nation/British), Associate Producer and Indigenous Cultural Liaison for Bones of Crows, takes us through the process she used for her work on the project, outlining steps to create the series and feature film that center responsible practices, community accountability, and thoughtful decision making throughout.

Find out below about three key pieces of her work: Place, People and Process.

About Leena Minifie:

I joined the Bones of Crows series and feature film (BOC) as an Associate Producer and Indigenous cultural liaison after working as a series producer for British Columbia: An Untold History (BCAUH) with some of the producers. When I was presented with the opportunity to work with Marie Clements, a trailblazing auteur, I jumped at the chance. Like every Indigenous person who worked on Bones of Crows, I also had family who went to Residential School; not one single Indigenous person on set did not have a connection to this story. The importance of this work was clear from the start for all of us.

As the series producer for British Columbia: An Untold History, I enacted protocol, strategy and tactics throughout the project, a four-year series that wove together Indigenous, Chinese, Japanese, Punjabi, Black, and European stories that form the complicated history of British Columbia. During that process, I worked to change contracts and our long-form with the broadcaster to reflect the intent of protocols and to ensure respect and consideration were given to First Nations re: sovereign rights over permissions and storytelling. For Bones of Crows, I adapted recommendations from On Screen Protocols and Pathways to include our strict West Coast Indigenous protocols and reimagined our approach to customizing tactics and actions tailored to the specific needs of our project.

Joining BOC and being part of the changes that went into making this a beautiful production on and off camera was life-changing and the story we told was life-changing too. Bringing Marie Clements’ vision to life was a privilege, as was the detailed work behind an ethical and transformative production. On Screen Protocols and Pathways provided a lay of the land for us but we built a map of working together with the people, protocols and processes of the land that guided us step by step on the journey of crafting this film.

BonesOfCrows
Bones of Crows

PLACE

Territories

We went through many types of permissions to be on territory, including but not limited to band and council resolution or approval via voting, Elders council, grassroots families’ approval, Band management agreement for local Indigenous procurement, blessings, and email acknowledgements. Not one process was identical. 

Permissions:

In Indigenous filmmaking, getting permission from and building relationships with the people of the land is critical. Working with local communities, respecting their sovereignty, and making sure production happens in a culturally appropriate and respectful way is of the utmost importance.

"In working across eight different geographies in lower mainland B.C., we prioritized community knowledge and protocol, leaning on the generosity, wisdom and ceremonial practices of local Knowledge Keepers and Elders to inform our process, thus ensuring a greater understanding of territories and geographies. We consulted with and participated in ceremonies from each place, and with the Elders or our professional consultants, making sure we were using appropriate language and cultural practices as we created this series and film.

In practice, this looked like spending time with the scriptwriter, director, language and culture consultants, locations manager, community leaders and elders, listening to their concerns and priorities and building trust through open communication and transparency. I also needed to make sure that agreements for the use of the land and cultural heritage were fair, equitable and written in plain language. These location permissions were accompanied by welcoming practices and occasionally closing circles. 

Protocols:

Once we had permission to work in the territory we needed to understand, follow and respect traditional protocols around land use and access.  These are vital components of Indigenous culture and heritage that we had to research and learn about.

Offering medicines or tobacco, introduction meetings, and getting permission before entering certain areas of the territories were some of the concrete ways we put protocols into our everyday filmmaking practice. We also ensured pragmatic, practical and spiritually significant gifts were sourced and given as appropriate. Most importantly, our team needed to be informed and trained on these protocols to make sure they were followed consistently.

Community involvement in the filmmaking process was crucial. Their voices and perspectives were included and represented in the process based on our consultations and engagements. When a road was damaged during production we reached out to and hired local Nation members for the work, taking responsibility for our impact on the land while also fairly compensating the work needed to restore local infrastructure.

PEOPLE

Elders and Knowledge Keepers:

The importance of people and children on this show was an integral piece of our Indigenous Filmmaking Framework. From including Indigenous Elders and Knowledge Keepers, fostering teamwork, engaging local Indigenous communities, having counsellors and coaches available, including specialists to work with children we put people first.

We knew diverse voices and perspectives were important and sought out experts in a variety of fields to make sure our film resonated with audiences and communities. As in many other aspects of the process, we hired Elders in each geographic region, who specialized in holistic and traditional healing to maintain the wellbeing of our people. They had important roles in the creation of the series and film.

Support Positions on Set:

We wanted to make the experience on set safe and inclusive for all cast and crew, especially IBPOC, as cultural safety is an essential aspect of the Indigenous filmmaking process. Providing Indigenous mental health support for Indigenous actors and crew was an important part of that.  We made sure the production team was equipped to deal with any challenges that may arise, providing a supportive and empowering environment for all members of the team.

We worked with Intimacy Coordinators to integrate flagging and implement trauma-informed practices for scene supervision. Additionally we had Indigenous psychologists and certified counsellors  available for our more intense scenes as part of a robust set of best practices in working with challenging content. Furthermore, care was taken when selecting body doubles to not engage local community members who might be impacted by PTSD in the filming of sensitive scenes. Instead, we worked with other adult professionals whose appearances were similar.

Training and Talent:

Indigenous representation in the film industry needs to increase while acknowledging that Indigenous people looking to enter the film industry face unique challenges. Navigating the complex process of getting into unions can be difficult for someone new to the industry, which is why expanding opportunities for career advancement through the Line Producer and Production Manager is a crucial part of the Indigenous filmmaking process. We maximized our number of trainees through the unions, exposing them to every stage of production while offering support along the way. Dozens of trainees joined our team: Camera Assistant Trainees, Sound Recordist Trainee, Set Stills Trainees, Catering Assistants, Costumes and Wardrobe Trainee, Prop Trainee, Set Dec Trainee, Storyboards Trainee, AD Department Trainees, Background Casting Trainees and Office PA Trainees, & PA Trainees. We also had many Indigenous Heads of Department, to ensure representation from entry-level to established roles. Successful permittee and trainee applications were placed for the entire three blocks in 4 unions (ICG 699, ACFC, Local 699, IATSE Local 891), with hundreds of hours towards Membership.

Our heads of Make-up, Hair, Costume and Wardrobe, Locations Manager, Production Coordinator team, Music Composing team, BTS and EPK team, and on-set Prop lead were all Indigenous. Many other Key roles were held by Black or racialized folks as well. Overall, we had 180 casted actors and a crew of 240 people. Of those, 21% of our crew were Indigenous with 37% identifying as IBPOC.

Through opportunities, support and training for Indigenous trainees, the production team actively worked towards decolonizing the industry and promoting Indigenous representation both in front of and behind the camera. We didn’t just look to produce a film, we wanted to help launch careers, creating opportunities for Indigenous, Black and racialized people in every frame.

BOC
Bones of Crows

PROCESS

When it comes to Indigenous filmmaking, there is a unique set of processes with respect to the cultural and legal practices of Indigenous peoples. This section explores the complexities of these mechanisms that support the architecture of genuine and respectful representation of Indigenous cultures.

Cultural Practices:

All aspects of life and art are informed by the traditions and practices Indigenous cultures are steeped in. In the same way, those Indigenous cultural practices permeated the filmmaking process. Traditional song, language, and regalia are woven into the filmmaking process, bringing authenticity and depth to the stories being told.

Both pragmatic, practical and spiritually significant gifts were sourced and given as appropriate.

Having traditional medicines sourced and put into a kit for preparation of the work was critical. I ordered special medicine ties with cedar and tobacco to be made via the Indigenous set/props for the proper moments of gifting. Supporting the Indigenous economy by purchasing gifts from Indigenous-owned businesses, vendors, artisans and communities was so important, especially those handmade from natural materials. As First Nations businesses were suffering, the gifts were more meaningful and acted as one other way we could positively impact our people and communities.

At times as Indigenous Cultural Liaison, I had to take responsibility when needed in handling Indigenous art or cultural items on set and in homes, as the set decoration prep team was not trained in handling sensitive/material cultural and traditional pieces of work. This was to preserve real pieces, not prop pieces, to show respect for their significance, and care for their fragile state. Proper handling of traditional, sensitive borrowed regalia pieces, and spiritual and medicinal items requires special training. One of the concepts we worked to relay, which could have been more broadly taught, was to identify the difference between things that are culturally and personally significant relative to what is a prop or a costume. Referring to regalia as costumes and spiritual items as props is disrespectful and moving away from that kind of language on a film set was vital. 

Indigenous Legal Practices:

Over centuries, Indigenous peoples have developed their own unique legal systems and governance structures and to ensure we respected and followed them, we worked with an Indigenous lawyer to guide the process with the production team. Instead of solely relying on English common law, we wanted to adhere to all relevant Indigenous legal practices and requirements. We achieved this by implementing custom releases for materials and music releases with adherence to culturally specific responsibilities. Using “plain language contracts” (as recommended in On Screen Protocols and Pathways) we went steps further with legally binding obligations for the use of Indigenous cultural, intellectual, and artistic property. In this way, we acknowledged the strict IP legal practices of the West Coast Nations, where UNDRIP has been implemented since 2019.

Experience on Set:

We knew that a collaborative and respectful environment was needed for all members of the production team because all team members, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, contribute to the success of the projects. The space in which we created this series and film had to be one where everyone felt comfortable sharing their ideas, and where all perspectives were valued. The psychological safety of the working environment that came from this approach formed a strong sense of teamwork and a mentality of collaboration through all phases of production. The strength that came from that unity shines through in the final product.

Taking a one-size fits all approach wasn’t going to be feasible given the intricacies of each specialty, so we worked with the heads of departments to tailor protocols or internal specific rules for their individual departments accordingly. I came up with an approach to engage and tailor feedback for each department. Experts in a variety of fields, from language and cultural traditions, music, regalia making, to filmmaking techniques and storytelling shared valuable input to help us create a film that was both authentic and engaging. Many expressed how unique it was to be on a set like ours; one described as integrated, holistic and Indigenous-centered.

Closing thoughts:

The Land, People, and Story elements of the Indigenous filmmaking framework are important, as was Bone of Crows in the way it helped all people understand and be moved by Indigenous experiences. Because of the care taken, we were able to share with the audience sacred, medicinal, spiritual, or inside knowledge, and do it in a way that integrated it into the off-screen experience of our entire team. In the same way that all the magic of the storytelling had to come together to bring the story to life on screen, we combined the requirements of West Coast Indigenous protocols, braided the legal traditions of Indigenous and colonial law, and reshaped hiring and mentorship practices to amplify the impact of this production. We were crafting a mosaic. Though taking care of the story and the people creating it was no easy feat, it was more than worth the effort. As a result, we can share our work knowing it was done responsibly to uplift those involved, honour the experiences of the people and communities depicted, and lead by example in our industry.


Leena Minifie
Leena Minifie (Gitxaala Nation/British) is a Vancouver-based film, television producer and film marketing strategist whose work besides Bones of Crows includes Lily Gladstone: Far Out There (PBS); British Columbia – An Untold History (Knowledge); The Reckoning: Secrets Unearthed by Tk'emlups Te Secwepemc (CBC) and producing the interactive piece Sense Of Home (Best New Media ImagineNative 2012), and ?E?anx ‘The Cave’ (Sundance Festival 2011, TIFF Top Ten Shorts). Her company Stories First strategically marketed Indian Horse, The Grizzlies, Monkey Beach, The New Corporation, Night Raiders and Run Woman Run.
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