Indigenous Filmmaker Asia Youngman Talks Authentic Representation in ‘The Wild Ones’ and Canadian Media
By: Chloe Tse
Award-winning documentary filmmaker Asia Youngman is working to amplify the voices of Indigenous youth and promote authentic storytelling by countering tokenism, doing the research and having the right conversations. At the helm of creating documentary shorts along with the The Wild Ones exciting premiere, the filmmaker from Vancouver helped capture the Xeni-Gwent’in First Nations tribe and their home, Nemiah Valley. She shows us their connection to land, water, horses and each other.
We chatted with Youngman to discuss accurate representation, being an Indigenous filmmaker in Canadian media and why doing your research matters in storytelling on-screen.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
History: You’ve had a busy year — taking home awards for This Ink Runs Deep, getting ready for The Wild Ones release — what are you proudest of as a female Indigenous director working in the film industry?
Asia Youngman: I’m mostly just proud of being able to represent my people and hopefully be a source of inspiration for other young Indigenous filmmakers who are looking to get started in the industry. I made my first film in 2017 and then it was last summer that I ended up quitting my full-time job to pursue filmmaking — I was working as a visual effects artist.
History: When it comes to telling the story of the Xeni-Gwet’in First Nations tribes story — and their ties to the land, how did you come up with your narrative?
Asia Youngman: What was really helpful to me was that I had already spent some time in Xeni-Gwet’in when I did In The Valley Of Wild Horses with my co-director Trevor Mack. So, it was nice that I had established these relationships before I was approached to do these short documentaries for The Wild Ones. In The Valley of Wild Horses was a short documentary and it was about this annual wagon trip every year and the community — they travel from Xeni-Gwet’in to the Williams Lake Stampede. And the focus of that journey is to really to connect you to the lands and get them [youth] to reconnect to their culture, to their traditions and just spend time with elders — and get them off their cell phones. So, for me, like a lot of the work I do is to uplift Indigenous youth and their voices. From the get-go, that was always like a segment that I really wanted — I wanted to have that youth representation and include youth in the storytelling process for this project.
History: So you were able to lean on some of the knowledge and experience from before — you knew exactly how to uplift the voices of the youth within.
Asia Youngman: Also, just having a connection to Chief Jimmy Lulua. He’s such a prominent figure in the community — and [it was] chatting with him in terms of the narrative that he was hoping for, as well as how his community would be represented in these shorts. I think his piece was probably the most impactful and powerful for me because he really talks about so many topics in terms of the community — but really focusing on the importance of bringing up youth and also the pride that’s really rooted in the community there.
History: Do you have any favourite scenes from the series? Or any favourite moments that you got to shoot?
Asia Youngman: That episode with Keith — when we were kind of on that mountain top and he was shouting on that mountain top — and his dog started howling. I wasn’t sure what would happen in that moment — then the dog started howling and it was such a cool moment with the moon over the horizon. And then also, there’s this moment in the Jimmy episode when he’s talking about his daughter Caitlin — and how he’s a proud dad — he looks so proud and happy as he watches his daughter riding.
History: Feature length allows more room for a storyteller to ensure accurate representation — how do you take on this challenge of representing cultures and people in your shorts? Are there certain elements you know you need to include? What are they?
Asia Youngman: That’s the thing about documentaries — you know: authentic storytelling, the raw kind — you’re having raw conversations with your subjects. And I’m also trying to focus on parts of their stories that they want to talk about as well. And so it doesn’t cause so many different nations across Canada and like for myself — like I’m Cree, Métis and Haudenosaunee — so I’m not necessarily from like the nation where I was filming. It’s always constantly being mindful, like even as an indigenous person, you’re going into another community and another nation that isn’t necessarily your own. So, it’s being respectful of protocol — how their culture and traditions are different from my own indigenous culture and traditions. And just making sure that they’re being represented in a way where they also feel proud of the final product. That’s what I’m constantly kind of mindful of when I’m working with my subjects — it’is that when they watch the film or these shorts, the statements they feel is authentic representation of who are and their community.
History: When Indigenous folks are included in mainstream film and television, do you feel like the representation is authentically and fully there? What’s usually missing?
Asia Youngman: I feel a lot of the time Indigenous people in Canada are grouped together — but in reality, there’s hundreds of different nations and so everyone’s going to have different ways of doing things or different beliefs. When looking at the key creative, we’re just looking and wanting our stories being told. It’s essential that we be in control of our own stories — and so I think when there’s something, just have a director, Indigenous writer, and Indigenous producer involved — that’s sort of the ideal situation to get authentic representation.
History: How can the film and television industry do better with messaging and representation for Indigenous folks and people of colour?
Asia Youngman: I think right now it’s exciting because we’re starting to have those conversations — and we’re starting to have statistics about the amount of, and not just women in the industry, but breaking it down to Indigenous women, women of colour, black women — so often women are grouped together — but it doesn’t actually break apart the statistics which are quite low for Indigenous women. But I think it also comes down to risk-taking from a lot of broadcasters. Like it seems that they want to have more Indigenous people in these roles — such as a director. But it really is up to them to actually make that decision, to hire them and bring them on board and give them the opportunity to tell that story. Give more mentorship opportunities [to Indigenous and people of colour folks] — if someone isn’t qualified for a role, hire them to shadow, hire them on to just be in the room and see the process so the next time around they’re qualified to actually do that job.
History: What are you hoping audiences take away from The Wild Ones and the story of this unique community?
Asia Youngman: I hope the pride of the community really reflects — it’s such a different way of living out there in the community. It’s so far away from the city — they have a different way of life out there. It’s such a simple, beautiful way of life. I think a lot of the community members are newer, so happy living out there. British Columbia — we don’t typically think of Indigenous cowboys — but there they are. Yeah, they’re there. And I think it’s so cool to see the impact that these horses have on their overall well-being — and getting them connected to the land.