April 17, 2023

By Alex De Pape, APTN Communications Coordinator

Little Bird, the first joint production between Crave and APTN, was in production from April to June 2022. This six-part limited drama series follows an Indigenous woman on a journey to find her birth family and uncover the hidden truth of her past.  

The majority of the cast and crew is helmed by talented Indigenous filmmakers and actors from across Manitoba, the majority of whom are women, making this production stand out even more. But what really sets it apart is the unique training program that was created specifically for this production.  

The training program includes opportunities for emerging and mid-career level Indigenous creators and crew and entry-level talent to gain practical on-set experience, leading to further employment in the film industry. Spearheaded by Little Bird producer Tanya Brunel, the program hosted 10 participants in a variety of departments and with a variety of experience in film. For Brunel, a Métis woman from the Red River region, this kind of program is particularly important to her and other Indigenous Peoples.  

“For me, building capacity within the Indigenous screen sector is really important,” she says. “We’re at a place where I think Manitoba is working really hard to increase this capacity, so it all aligned really well.”  

This isn’t the first time Brunel has been behind a training program for Indigenous Peoples in film. While on set for previous productions, she’s always made a point to create a similar training program. The formality and breadth of the program can differ from production to production, but wherever possible, Brunel tries to create space for Indigenous Peoples in the film industry.  

All of this began when the production team reached out to the Directors Guild of Canada and the Indigenous Screen Office about creating a Director Fellowship. It was a pilot program they’d run once before on a different production with some success. The directors involved in the Fellowship had previous experience in feature films and short-form content, but Brunel saw Little Bird as the perfect opportunity for them to gain some experience working on a drama and create a longer-form training program.  

Some Fellows (the official title of the directors participating in the training program) applied directly to the program. Others, according to Brunel, were hand selected to help ensure the candidates would get along with the rest of the crew.  

“For our Director Fellow positions, we wanted to create opportunities specifically for Indigenous women directors, while also recognizing that the candidate would be someone who’d be working closely with the two directors we have,” she says. “We knew this would need to be a relationship that would work well. We didn’t want to bring someone on where it wouldn’t be a good relationship, especially since a lot of creative exchange happens within that mentorship.”  

Jenna “JJ” Neepin, 37, from Fox Lake Cree Nation, was hand-selected to be a Director Fellow. She studied at the University of Winnipeg with the original goal of becoming an actor, a dream that was quickly deflated by a professor who told her that she could only play secondary roles. This prompted her to transfer to the film program, where she discovered Film Training Manitoba, and applied for their apprenticeship program after graduating. From there, she landed her first “big gig” in the locations department of Season 2 of Cashing In. But it was the camera training course through the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) ICG 669 that gave her the skills she needed to move forward. 

JJ Neepin

She continued to work in the industry, but was waiting for the chance to take on a director gig. Shortly after a directing offer fell through in early 2022, she decided to join the Little Bird training program. With over 13 years of industry experience, Neepin felt comforted while working on Little Bird, mainly due to the number of Indigenous women that make up the cast and crew—which is a rather new experience for her.  

It used to be quite lonely to be the only brown face on a film set, and you’d always search for another brown face, no matter what kind of brown they were—you’d look for another BIPOC person,” she says. “On this show, it was just so nice to see other [Indigenous people], especially [Indigenous] women. You feel stronger just by seeing them there; you know they’re going to support you.” 

While this program was hugely beneficial and elating for the trainees involved, Neepin says there’s still work to be done with not only attracting Indigenous people to the industry, but with ensuring they stay. To work in film, or even to get started, requires a certain level of privilege. You need something as simple as a driver’s licence, a vehicle to get you to work, the ability to work long hours and have someone take care of things at home. Support systems are vital; understanding family and friends that can support you through those challenges are a huge part of getting into—and staying afloat—in the industry.  

“Now, add all of those elements to an Indigenous person and the common challenges we face,” says Neepin. “I feel like it’s an extra layer, maybe not necessarily harder, but it’s an extra layer of something you have to deal with. It’s one thing to hire youth and create training programs, but there needs to be a support system in place or else Indigenous people aren’t going to stay.”  

As luck would have it, Neepin was offered her very first directing gig earlier this spring and is gearing up to start pre-production on a new TV series once Little Bird has wrapped.  

For Mario Ballantyne, a 37-year-old Cree man from Grand Rapids, Man., working on the set of Little Bird as an onset production assistant kicked off his career in the film industry. It all started when a producer friend of his recommended he start emailing local folks in the industry to try and get a foot in the door. After a bit of research, he heard about the training program on the set of Little Bird and began emailing one of the producers in earnest. It was this persistence and enthusiasm that convinced the producer they needed to hire Mario; before he knew it, he’d gotten his first gig.  

Mario Ballantyne

After receiving his bachelor of arts in film studies from the University of Manitoba last year, Ballantyne initially wanted to get into acting. But his interests quickly shifted from being in front of the camera to working behind it. When he first started on the set of Little Bird, he didn’t realize they had a unique training program in place. Once he learned more about the program, he recognized the positive impact it can have on Indigenous Peoples in the film industry. For Ballantyne, being able to work on an Indigenous-focused set that’s telling an Indigenous story, is a point of pride. 

“It’s very great to see that now, as Indigenous Peoples, we finally get to have a platform,” he says. “We always had a platform, but now it’s been elevated, and we can finally tell our stories. We can say ‘Hey, we’re storytellers too, we can tell stories that are worthy of Emmys and Oscars.’ So, I believe this is just the beginning.” 

Aiyana Hart, 21, a Nakoda-Cree woman from Nelson House Cree Nation, is a trainee in the makeup department on Little Bird. After graduating high school, she heard about a casting call for the role of Princess Tiger Lily in the upcoming live action film Peter Pan & Wendy. “I saw the casting call and I thought ‘Oh my god, they want an Indigenous person in that role,’ and that was before Indigenous Peoples were considered ‘trendy,’ and now our voices are being heard. I was so amazed that they wanted an Indigenous person to play an Indigenous role.” 

Aiyana Hart

But, like the rest of the world, production for the series came to an abrupt halt when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, which altered Hart’s post-grad plans. Her mentor was producing/directing a film and encouraged Hart to take a three-day makeup artist training course with Film Training Manitoba and then join her on set as a makeup artist trainee. The rest is history. Now, she has five productions under her belt and wants to attend Vancouver Film School for makeup design.  

Always creative from the get-go, Hart got into makeup at a young age. It was only recently that she learned you could make a career out of it. Now, she wants to move forward, learn more and see where that’ll take her.   

Her advice for Indigenous filmmakers? “If there are opportunities out there, don’t say no. If I’d said no to the makeup artist opportunity, I wouldn’t be where I am—I’d probably be back at Cabela’s working retail right now. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I wouldn’t be doing what I really want to do.”

Little Bird finished production in June 2022 and was filmed in and around Winnipeg, on Treaty 1 territory and the traditional territory of the Anishinaabeg, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota, Dene and Métis Peoples. The series will premiere on APTN lumi and Crave on May 26, 2023.