Resistance and Refrain: Documents in Dispute in Willie Dunn’s The Ballad of Crowfoot (1968)

When and Where

Thursday, March 03, 2022 3:00 pm to 5:00 pm


Scott Birdwise


In 1968, Indigenous folk singer Willie Dunn directed The Ballad of Crowfoot, a short documentary that brings together Dunn’s original song about the eponymous chief of the Blackfoot people with a photomontage of documents from the Canadian settler colonial archive. The first film to be released under the auspices of the so-called “Indian Film Crew,” itself part of the National Film Board of Canada’s Challenge for Change program which ran from 1967 to 1980, Ballad develops a twofold procedure of past-looking memorialization and present- and future-oriented mobilization and struggle. On the one hand, the ten-minute song’s use of the refrain is conjugated with the “documentary value” of photographs and other archival sources to demonstrate the ongoing betrayals and tragedies suffered by chief Crowfoot’s people. On the other hand, Ballad’s formal operations—its aesthetic and political work with techniques of kinestasis previously developed at the NFB, for instance—revolve less around memory or documentation but constitute themselves around the activation and interrogation of sense perception, ultimately affirming an ongoing dispute regarding the meaning of its historical documents in and for the present. In this talk I explore how the relationship between these two movements in the film serves to question what can be understood as the NFB’s national project of reconciliation between contesting social and political actors. Through a reconsideration of Dunn’s musical and formal work upon the image in light of the political notion of “the people” and what Jolene Rickard terms “Indigenous visual sovereignty,” I contend that Ballad puts into effect an aesthetic and political dispute that extends beyond the well-established notion of “speaking truth to power.” Ballad’s political and formal dispute, I hope to show, is activated by way of a struggle over the very “value” of the documents appropriated from the setter colonial archive—documents that, especially in the film’s conclusion, are not entirely settled in their meanings and significations.

Scott Birdwise defended his dissertation in September 2020 at York University's Cinema and Media Studies program. He has published essays and book chapters on documentary media, Canadian experimental film, animation and philosophy, and the artist and photographer Donigan Cumming. He is currently preparing a research project on dreams and everyday life in Britain in the 1930s and ‘40s. He is also a member of the Spiral Collective.

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