Alumni Spotlight: Ajuawak Kapashesit

Posted: Jun 6, 2022

Ajuawak Kapashesit | Photo by Mark Binks Photography

Ajuawak Kapashesit is a multifaceted Ojibwe and Cree creator with a resume that spans acting, writing, directing and producing across film, television and theatre. He joined the CBC Actors Conservatory at the CFC in 2019 with an impressive list of acting credits, including the short films Shinaab (Sundance 2017, TIFF 2017) and Shinaab, Part II (TIFF 2018, Sundance 2019), and feature films like Indian Horse (TIFF 2017), Once Upon a River (Bentonville Film Festival 2019), and Indian Road Trip (Whistler Film Festival 2020), to name a few.

Since completing the program, Ajuawak has expanded into screenwriting, directing and producing. Recently, he went behind the camera to write, direct and produce two shorts: Carry the Fire and Seeds.

In addition to his work as a creator, Ajuawak is also a linguist who focuses on language and documentation, which we can expect to see transition into his filmmaking with his upcoming project Language Keepers. The documentary short will follow first language Ojibwe speakers in Minnesota who seek to develop new technologies to teach and preserve the Ojibwe language.

We recently caught up with Ajuawak to discuss his latest endeavours, his insights into Indigenous filmmaking, and what the next generation of Indigenous creatives can learn from those paving the way for a diverse and inclusive screen industry in Canada and beyond.

This year we saw you extend your talents into directing and producing with your work on the shorts Carrying the Fire and Seeds, the latter which you also co-wrote. Can you tell us a little bit about these two projects and how they came to be?

Carrying the Fire explores Water Protectors on the ground in northern Minnesota who are veterans in pipeline opposition over several campaigns. I think the thing that drew me in the most to this story is it’s really about the interpersonal relationships of Water Protectors and how they support each other over the months, and often years, of hardship on or near the frontlines. That interested me because it’s not something often explored in pipeline-focused documentary work, a lot of it is frontlines and can be really intense. That’s an important part of the story but it’s not the whole story. This was an exploration of underreported parts of the movement that are really vital to this work.

Seeds was something I was working on with my co-director/co-writer, Morningstar Angeline, for a while. We have similar tastes and some strong similarities in our backgrounds of being kids with video cameras interested in filmmaking but having very little ideas of what to do. That was one of the initial sparks of the project. That and a VHS camera I had just sitting around when we were brainstorming one day. To get into the emotional core of it, we both had to open up to vulnerabilities in our lives that influenced us in the same way we were seeing our characters be influenced [in the film]. It was cathartic in a way to explore that transition in one’s life. It’s something we really responded to on set and in the edit more than we thought in the initial writing. We were funded by Visionmaker Media out of the States very early in the pandemic, which added more difficulties to production in dealing with COVID costs and risk assessment. But it taught us a lot; it was very valuable to me as my first directing project. Completely rewriting scenes and characters to fit our new reality with guidance from SAG and the state were challenging but rewarding. It’s so different from what either of us would usually make, I don’t think Seeds would be what it is if either of us worked on it individually.

Ajuawak Kapashesit on the set of Seeds

What inspired you to explore producing, directing and writing, and can we expect to see more of this in the future?

It’s something I’ve always had an interest in. When I was a kid I really wanted to be a director and a writer but didn’t have a clue how to go about it. It wasn’t until I became an actor that I realized that all of these other avenues were also something I could consider and explore. I’m so glad I did because I really love them a lot. Being a part of the creative process as an actor, you usually come in so much later in the development, so much is [already] set in stone. It’s really exciting to build from the ground up and create a whole sandbox for others to play in.

One of the big things that catalyzed the resurgence of my interest in writing and directing were some of the projects I would read or be up for. It’s sometimes quite disappointing to read a script or pitch package for a project and not really connect to the representation that was being put forth. Some of the characters would really fall into tropes or lack depth and nuance. It wasn’t motivating for me as an actor, but was certainly motivating for me as a writer. I’m continuing to write and don’t plan on stopping anytime soon.

Did your time at the CFC help shape you as a creator? If so, how? Can you share some highlights of your experience at the CFC as a resident of the Actors Conservatory?

The Close-Up exercise was really beneficial in a lot of ways. It was a great opportunity to be in those creative meetings and make decisions that guide the rest of production. That helped give me the confidence to step into some of these other roles that I’ve taken on since then. Plus, it was the first time getting to workshop my writing with actors via our rehearsal, auditions, the shoot itself, and post.

Working with Lindy Davies was really special, she really invigorated my spirit at an exceptionally difficult time creatively. All the actors from CFC I’ve met can share things they got out of her workshops that have upped our game or changed the way we’ve thought about the process. Beyond that, what really was a highlight was spending so much time with other creators: the lunch stops at the grocery store, wandering the grounds, or catching up on the bus. Being able to spend quality time with the other actors (as well as the other cohorts) are some of my fondest memories of the CFC.

What’s been the biggest highlight(s) of your personal and professional growth in your career to date?

Seeing some of my work on screen in a few different places really stands out. An obvious one is going to screenings of Indian Horse and the Shinaab short films I acted in, as well as [seeing] my Close-Up [onscreen] at TIFF Bell Lightbox. I’ve gone to TIFF since I was a kid, so that always felt special to me. Beyond that, bringing some of my work back to community screenings has been incredible. I was able to travel with Indian Horse across rural Ontario and Quebec for a series of Indigenous community screenings. A lot of the communities don’t really have access to a theater, so being able to bring a semblance of a theater experience to them – especially about content that’s often very relevant to life – was really cool. Then stepping into some of these dream jobs: directing my first short, working in a writers room, and seeing a finished product on TV – it’s all a dream.

Ajuawak Kapashesit on the set of Seeds

As the world and the screen industry continue to evolve in an effort to foster diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility, what kind of responsibility, if any, do you feel as an Indigenous creator to continue paying the way for Indigenous content creation?

I think access continues to be an issue for many Indigenous creators. I didn’t pursue a career in the field until my mid-twenties, mostly because I didn’t think it was something I COULD pursue. I try to open up space for people, especially young people, to get involved in whatever way makes sense. That includes acting as well as filmmaking workshops or trying to get more Indigenous people involved in my projects where I can. That’s really one of the best things I think one can do – share access where you can. It provides that opportunity for growth and can change someone’s life. Apart from that, I think just expanding the canon as much as I can, trying new things for me and bring authenticity to roles and stories is important to me. I grew up watching a lot of Indigenous films and know how that can shape a perspective, I want to honour that as much as possible. There’s always a new generation watching and learning and shaping their practice based on what they’re seeing; if something I make helps inspire them on their artistic journey, that’s fantastic.

What are some changes you’d like to see in the screen industry to better support and increase access for marginalized and systemically underrepresented creators?

Investing in community as early as possible can really be a game changer, an expansion of that investment for youth and adults alike are going to bring exciting development when communities can foster that artistic spirit internally. Some new initiatives, fellowships and the like, have come into existence that are providing more access but there’s also the rural vs. urban access gap that I hear less about. Marginalized and systemically underrepresented groups include rural communities who are often isolated from programs that may be commonly available in larger population centers like Toronto. We need more of both.

What do you think is next in the evolution of acting and/or filmmaking? Can you share any emerging trends, techniques or approaches that are shaping the future of these art forms?

Oh man, that’s a tough set of questions. I feel like with advancements in technology, audiences are getting more savvy with the medium if even just subconsciously. People with smartphones practicing editing techniques and parsing comedy scenes into a few seconds of a soundbite, stuff like that. We’re all going to have to adjust to keep up with people perpetually consuming and creating new media. I feel it in edits to movies and shows now, it feels a lot faster with more cuts than I think on average there used to be. I don’t think I’ve seen any studies or anything to back that up, that’s just a feeling I have.

What piece of advice has helped you on your creative journey that you would like to share with emerging creators reading this?

It’s not about you. I think that phrase can be helpful in pretty much everything I’ve done. Don’t feel the need to center yourself in the process, the process is bigger than you. You can give a hell of a performance but it sits in the context of a larger story, you may be writing something personal but it’s getting a reaction from a viewer/reader because of their life experience, it might be your creative vision but a whole team is building this thing together. Plus, as an actor you’re going to hear a lot of “no’s,” and have auditions for a lot of projects you won’t get. When I started making my own stuff and casting, it was really eye opening to make casting decisions and all the things one has to take into account for those decisions. Brilliant actors are hearing “no” constantly and it has nothing do with their abilities. And if you’re really successful, you may receive some awards or recognition, which is fantastic; but what’s more important is the inspiration you can bring to others long after you’re gone, helping to shape someone else’s stories through your practice. It’s not about you.

What’s next for you?

I’m in post-production on a short documentary right now called Language Keepers that explores the use of technology in the language revitalization field for the Ojibwe language in Minnesota. So that’s been taking up a lot of my time recently. After that, I think I’m going to take a vacation and really contemplate why all these movie titles sound so Native: Seeds, Carrying the Fire, and now Language Keepers… I didn’t plan that but here we are.

What message(s) would you like to share in celebration of Indigenous History Month?

Hmmm… I guess you should consume more media by Indigenous creators and learn more about Indigenous histories and cultures, especially in a contemporary context so you don’t subconsciously think about Indigenous folks only in a historical context. That, and it’s probably best to do so not JUST during Indigenous History month. Basically any/every month.

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