It was while working on a film that Kevin Lee Burton finally began to see Kevin Lee Burton. “I was able to adapt, as a youth, to any situation,” said the Cree multimedia artist and filmmaker. He left his childhood home at God’s Lake Narrows in northern Manitoba at 15. To become an effective social “chameleon”, Burton cultivated various personae, figuring out what to talk about and what to not talk about. What he later discovered was that he’d blended far too easily – to the point that he’d lost sight of himself. He survived, but also self-harmed. He once told online-based Isuma TV that he got into film “almost by accident.” Burton’s creative output has fortunately proven a powerful means of personal catharsis. While compelled to leave the reserve as much from a desire to escape as for further mandatory schooling, “I realize that God’s Lake is the place that has given me distinction in this world,” he said in his online, interactive documentary God’s Lake Narrows. The documentary is made of photographs and words the viewer can click through.
Burton’s self-discovery is a catharsis that’s captivated an international audience, with God’s Lake Narrows winning a 2012 Webby Award, the award honouring Internet excellence as presented by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. That win snagged write-ups in Wired magazine and The New York Times. Even before that, Burton had distinguished himself as a filmmaker to watch, having won two awards at the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival in Toronto for his experimental short Nikamowin (Song) in 2007. That film went on to have its U.S. debut at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival and was selected as one of Canada’s Top 10 Shorts for 2008 by the Toronto International Film Festival.
Coming to terms with his queer identity
Burton’s starting point is that we are all our history and surroundings. “It’s the artist’s emotions and realities that engage people,” he said. The search for identity and belonging, a consistent theme in Burton’s work, as in his 2005 short Meskanahk (My Path), is nothing if not universally human.
Not that he’s done getting to know himself. Only recently has Burton, a gay man, started to become more conscious of his own queer perspective, both personally and politically, having previously never made a big deal of it. At the same time, he grew up with no queer role models-and now recognizes the lasting effect.
“From my young adulthood as a queer man, I didn’t know how to interact with very many gay men, as they were relatively foreign to me,” Burton said. His social network remains predominantly hetero, with a few close queer friends. Where family is concerned, he still keeps a “low profile,” even while professing to thankfully feel acceptance.
Filmmaker Kevin Lee Burton has mesmerized audiences with his process of self-discovery.
Discovering the Cree nation
More prevalent than homophobia in Burton’s personal experience has been racism – and doubly so. On the reserve he had always been called Mahkos, “bear cub” or “half-white child.” It was made perfectly clear that he was seen as different, making leaving a relief.
Not that his problems ended there. Half white, Burton was able to pass as Caucasian, making him privy to racism spoken in ignorance of his Cree heritage. His pride in that heritage came only after a lot of therapy.
“It’s a slap in the face to say, ‘I don’t want to be considered an Aboriginal filmmaker,’” said Burton, who embraces the designation while noting that it doesn’t always require stories specifically pertaining to Aboriginal people. Of course, Aboriginal identity at large is also “ever-evolving,” and he wants to thus fashion a different image of what it means to be Aboriginal today.
Urban surroundings, he continues, are an example of how that identity is being re-shaped. Also at the heart of cultural distinction is language, a subject Burton has engaged explicitly in Nikamowin, which features spoken Cree on the soundtrack. “It’s a beautiful language,” said Burton, who loves hearing Cree just for the sound of it. “It’s still alive,” he proclaims, which enables him to deny the notion that Aboriginal people are dying. Yet he grants that the language being endangered makes it fascinating unto itself.
God’s Lake Narrows is also about being alive, according to Burton, who wanted to emphasize the sheer resilience of people and how they “make the best of shitty situations.” Using images and specific details of sound, such as a game of bingo being called, the documentary gives us a very vivid sense of place – often characterized by the desolate physical exterior of reservation life.
But Burton and his photographer Scott Benesiinaabandan also contrast the ramshackle homes with the very human inhabitants, who warm them from within. To that end, Burton’s own family members are included in the pictures (Burton’s own brother is pictured in the film with his caps and tattoos) as well as one of his best friends. Life may be hard in this place, but there is unquestionable fellowship.
The God’s Lake Narrows documentary became an online project because Burton felt he needed to take it up north – that is, make it accessible to the very people featured in it, so they could see themselves. Perhaps it would even enable his subjects’ own self-discovery, just as art had previously done for the artist. As for other viewers, what’s important, Burton said, is to hear perspectives, for that’s what enables humanization.
It’s a slap in the face to say, ‘I don’t want to be considered an Aboriginal filmmaker.’
Looking towards the future
More recently, Burton’s collaboration with fellow ITWE artist collective members Sebastien Aubin and Caroline Monnet has produced De Nort, another interactive documentary and companion piece of sorts to God’s Lake Narrows. It’s also the first project produced under the National Film Board and imagineNATIVE Digital Media Partnership.
Burton is also completing another experimental short, Mihtatam (He Longs), which draws from Burton’s personal experience of losing a best friend. Also in the works is a multimedia installation project, Mikisiw Ininiwak (Eagle People).
And then there’s that personal project of Burton’s that is himself. Though he hasn’t yet reached a point where he wants to explore his queer identity, he said he may make films about that.
In the meantime, he’s still in the process of penetrating his own self- created layers, figuring out which of his “characters” are real, and coming out of an addiction. “Which character brought that into my life?” he wonders, illustrating how we can so often just be personalities in transit.
Check out Burton’s God’s Lake Narrows at http://godslake.nfb.ca/#/godslake and tweet your opinion of it @OutWords.
– Kenton Smith is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer.