The Grandfather Drum — Local Animated Short Film Debuts at Sundance

By Adrian Lysenko

It has been a good year for local filmmaker Michelle Derosier. Not only did the film Fire Song (that she executive produced) premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, but her animated short film The Grandfather Drum has been selected to screen at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah at the end of the month. “This one seems particularly strong to me,” says Derosier. “Strong in presence and strong in things that I really don’t understand and I feel that I’m being directed as opposed to me being the director.”

The film follows the story of a drum revered for its healing powers by the Anishinabek of the upper Barrens River. Upon the death of his grandson, elder Naamowin builds a healing drum given to him in a dream that can restore life. The inspiration for the film came from a conversation Derosier had with her mother. Her mother told her about her great-grandfather who was healer and was given a drum. “His drum was very much a part of the social fabric of life back then,” she says.

While working as part of a trauma team as a social worker in Pikangikum First Nation, Derosier had many conversations with James Morris, executive director of the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority, about Naamowin’s story. Morris originally suggested Derosier make a documentary about the drum. When she met Fred Suggashie, the great-grandson of Naamowin, things started to fall into place for the conception of the animated film. “I was somewhat resistant at first because I thought is was too big of a responsibility for me, until Fred came along, who is also the narrator and translator.”

The film is also a completely made-in-Northern Ontario production with no outside help or personnel from the south. The team also includes Sonya Lacroix (production designer, illustrator, producer), George Renner (animator and editor), Zoe Gordon (sound recordist), Elizabeth Hill (composer), and Dave Clement (associate producer and contributing writer). “It was kind of a perfect storm of everyone coming together,” says Derosier. “It was a very intuitive and organic process”.

The Grandfather Drum was one of 72 films selected (only nine of which were Canadian) for the Shorts Program from 8,712 submissions from around the world. The filmmaker says that she is thrilled that the film has been selected for Sundance. She feels the festival is befitting because since its creation in the late 1970s, Robert Redford and other founders have included an Indigenous component. “For whatever particular reason, they have really paid attention to the Indigenous voice, which fascinates me,” she says. “They were making room for Indigenous cinema while the rest of the world was exploiting it.”