Winnipeg filmmaker's doc chronicling life of music icon Buffy Sainte-Marie gets TIFF premiere

Madison Thomas, a 30-year-old Winnipeg filmmaker, will see her documentary Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On premiere Thursday evening at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Working with Madison Thomas 'was one of the sweetest things I've ever done in my life,' says Sainte-Marie

A woman wearing a leather jacket, a beaded necklace and feathers in her hair sings into a microphone.
Buffy Sainte-Marie performs at the 2019 CBC Music Festival. Madison Thomas's documentary about the music icon, Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On, will premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday, Sept. 8. (Vanessa Heins/CBC)

Buffy Sainte-Marie casts a spell.

Ask Madison Thomas, the 30-year-old Winnipeg filmmaker at the helm of the documentary Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On, a freewheeling and utterly charming look at Sainte-Marie's astonishing history, premiering Thursday evening at the Toronto International Film Festival in advance of a broadcast berth on PBS later this year.

In viewing her life, the film encompasses the artistic (Sainte-Marie remains the only Indigenous person to win an Oscar, for her work on the song Up Where We Belong from the 1982 film An Officer and a Gentleman), political (she was the subject of an FBI blacklist undersigned by J. Edgar Hoover) and the deeply personal.

Thomas says Sainte-Marie's music was always in the backdrop of her life, beginning with her childhood in Winnipeg's North End, where she was raised in a household reflecting her Ojibway/Saulteaux and Russian/Ukrainian settler roots.

A woman wearing a wide-brimmed hat with a feather in the hatband poses.
'My first thought when I heard about TIFF is that Buffy is going to be so happy about this,' says filmmaker Madison Thomas. (Rae Jennae)

"As I grew up and spoke with others, it was obvious that many non-Indigenous Canadians either didn't know Buffy, or had only heard her name in passing," Thomas wrote in her director's statement. "When I was younger, I didn't understand how someone [whose] name was a staple in my household could be so overlooked by others."

After reading Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography by Vancouver-based music journalist Andrea Warner (who is also the credited writer on the film), Thomas was up for the challenge of making the doc, although her previous features were dramas, including Ruthless Souls (2019), and episodic TV, including the CBC series Burden of Truth and SkyMed

Her latest feature, now in post-production, is the post-apocalyptic drama Finality of Dusk, co-written with deaf filmmaker Katarina Ziervogel, with Eagle Vision Inc. producing.

"In terms of my shift to a documentary director, I have to give a lot of credit to Lisa Meeches, who is the executive producer on this film," Thomas said in an interview.

"Just watching her work and how she conducts herself as both director and a producer, it's a very non-colonial approach to filmmaking," she said. 

"It's never extractive. It's never just fishing for juicy, hard-hitting stuff. It's giving narrative agency to the subjects and letting them tell their own story."

No generation gap: Sainte-Marie

In an interview from her home in Hawaii, Sainte-Marie, 81, said Thomas had no generation gap with the material, though the director was born decades after, say, the Vietnam war and J. Edgar Hoover.

"Madison may be young, but that doesn't mean she's more in the dark than I was at the time," Sainte-Marie said. "In the 1960s, people like you and me were not hearing that maybe J. Edgar Hoover was questionable.

"If they 'had papers' on you, you were assumed to be guilty of something. To tell you the truth, I didn't know what was going on in the '70s and '80s. They just kept everything secret.

"My talking to Madison last month was pretty much the same as talking to somebody who had been there back then: delivering new information," Sainte-Marie said.

A woman with a bright red streak in her dark hair, wearing a studded leather jacket, smiles widely.
Thomas's film looks at Buffy Sainte-Marie's astonishing history, including her artistic, political and personal lives. (Matt Barnes)

"Working with Madison and Andrea was one of the sweetest things I've ever done in my life," she said. "I hope Maddie gets a statue."

For her part, Thomas is excited to go to Toronto and present the film to an audience that's been starved for the TIFF experience after two years of pandemic-induced abstention.

"It's so important that as many people as possible get to hear Buffy's story and hear her message," Thomas said.

"I'll be honest. Buffy mentioned that she wanted to be a part of the screen at TIFF," she said. "So my first thought when I heard about TIFF is that Buffy is going to be so happy about this.

"It's like hearing you got the reservation at your auntie's favorite restaurant," said Thomas. "She's going to be so happy."


Randall King

Freelance contributor

Randall King is a Winnipeg writer who was born into a family of artists including musicians, a graphic designer and a playwright. He has been covering arts in local media outlets for more than three decades.