Entertainment·Video

Buffy Sainte-Marie celebrates music, Indigeneity and activism in TIFF documentary

In 2022’s Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On, which had its world premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, the 81-year-old musician’s life is revisited through archival footage, photographs, performances and interviews with the woman herself.

'If I were gonna participate, I'd want it to be creative for me,' the musician told CBC News

Buffy Sainte-Marie performs at the Toronto International Film Festival's kick-off event in Toronto on Sept. 8. The Indigenous music icon's life and career is revisited through archival footage, photographs, performances and interviews in a new documentary. (Alex Lupul/The Canadian Press)

When Buffy Sainte-Marie was approached to be the subject of an autobiographical documentary, the Indigenous singer-songwriter knew she didn't want the film to be like anything she'd done before.

After all, she's already the subject of a 2006 documentary by Toronto filmmaker Joan Prowse, a 2012 biography by Regina-based historian Blair Stonechild bears her name; and Vancouver music writer Andrea Warner published a book about Sainte-Marie in 2018.

"I think a lot of documentaries are just talking heads and it's just boring, right?" Saint-Marie told CBC's Eli Glasner. "When they first came to me and asked, I explained I really wasn't interested in doing that. If I were gonna participate, I'd want it to be creative for me." 

"I had some ideas about filmmaking — about how a film can be moody and textural and emotional — and that's what I was most interested in."

In 2022's Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On, which had its world premiere at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, the 81-year-old musician's life is revisited through archival footage, photographs, performances and interviews with the woman herself. 

WATCH | Buffy Sainte-Marie the subject of new TIFF doc:

Buffy Sainte-Marie discusses a new TIFF documentary about her life

2 years ago
Duration 2:22
The Indigenous music icon speaks with CBC’s Eli Glasner about Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On and how she has used her songs to bring awareness to Indigenous issues for six decades.

Winnipeg filmmaker Madison Thomas, who is of Ojibwe/Saulteaux, Russian and Ukrainian descent, directed the documentary with a script written by Warner.

"I gave them lots to choose from," said Sainte-Marie, who went through her personal collection of photographs and scrapbooks to help compile material for the film. "Writings, newspaper clippings, real racist stereotyping … some of them real awful and silly … I was scanning my little head off."

Born to a Plains Cree mother and later adopted by a white man and part-Mi'kmaw woman, Sainte-Marie said the only other Indigenous person in her town was a mailman from Narragansett Indian Nation who designed Indigenous regalia for the movies.

Both her capacity to be a professional musician and her identity as an Indigenous person — "No, you can't be an Indian, there aren't any more around here" — were denied in school, the former because she couldn't read European notations, she said. 

"As an adult, I found out I'm dyslexic in music in exactly the same way as Einstein was dyslexic in certain kinds of math. If you love it and crave it, you get there by a different way. So, like an awful lot of natural musicians in this world, I play by ear."

WATCH | Sainte-Marie recalls meeting Queen Elizabeth in 1977:

Buffy Sainte-Marie recalls the first time she met Queen Elizabeth

2 years ago
Duration 0:50
The singer-songwriter tells a story about performing for Queen Elizabeth and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau at the National Arts Centre in 1977.

Among Sainte-Marie's greatest hits as a singer-songwriter are Universal Soldier, the pacifist anthem popularized by folk singer Donovan; Until It's Time For You To Go which was re-recorded by Elvis in 1972; and Now That The Buffalo's Gone, a protest song about Europe's cultural genocide of the Indigenous peoples.

"In the '60s, they weren't buying it when I wrote Now That The Buffalo's Gone or My Country: 'Tis of Thy People You're Dying. There was no truth and reconciliation. And the attitude was, 'the little Indian girl must be mistaken,'" she said.

"Fifty years later, [with] truth and reconciliation now, at least in Canada … people are aware. So I had an idea. I went ahead in my time, because I knew it was right."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jenna Benchetrit is a senior writer with the business content unit at CBC News. She has also covered entertainment and education stories. A Montrealer based in Toronto, Jenna holds a master's degree in journalism from Toronto Metropolitan University. You can reach her at jenna.benchetrit@cbc.ca.

With files from Eli Glasner

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