Interview with Catherine Bainbridge and Ernest Webb
The evening of the interview, I showed up at Catherine and Ernie’s door. Ernie had just come back from a rehearsal with the Montréal Symphony Orchestra for Tomson Highway’s opera, Chaakapesh, The Trickster’s Quest.
When Catherine got home, we talked a little about our theme for this issue, “Beyond the Pale,” focusing on renegade filmmakers who honour their vision and put their heart and soul into it, defying the resistance and obstacles they face.
I brought up their film Power of the North from the early ‘90s, which portrays what happened when the Québec government massively flooded the Cree territories around James Bay for hydroelectric power. The flooding caused high levels of mercury in the water, which was disastrous for the fish and everyone who depended on them for survival.
As soon as we got talking about Power of the North, Ernie and Catherine started singing a song from the film, “Daba jeegajee mwoh’némas” (“You can’t eat the fish”). The first time I met Ernie, he and Catherine had come to hear Choeur Maha rehearse that song. They had given Maha’s director a refrain in Cree and asked her to create a song out of it for Power of the North. I can still see Ernie there with tears in his eyes, listening to a choir of non-Native women singing in Cree.
Jody: You seem to naturally create Native/non-Native collaborations that are based on respect, leadership, recognition, teamwork. And you bring a lot of heart to your creative projects. How did that come about?
Catherine: For me, the spirit of collaboration (and understanding it as something natural and fantastic that humans do) came from improv, as the rule of improv is that no one is in control and you’re sharing… and you’re not blocking. Not blocking is the No. 1 thing. You’re just building on each other’s idea and no one can control it. When it’s not shared, that’s when it’s not good.
I think we’re taught to block at a very early age. To say “no” because we’re afraid. We’ve been taught to block very early, I think, sometimes by being put down for our ideas. Women know what that looks like. Most people of colour know what that looks like, to not be listened to… to not be heard.
Improv breaks all those things. The people who really get it wrong are the ones who try to control and shut down and not listen. If you’re not listening, you’re doing it wrong. All you have to do is listen. That’s the awesome thing. It’s transformative, for me.
Ernie: One of our mantras, I keep repeating this, is that the right people get together at the right time for the right project. And when it’s right, it’s right, and when it happens, it’ll happen. And hopefully magic will be there as well, too.
Catherine: I think part of it is that you put it out in the universe… like, this [refrain] would be an awesome song. I can’t quite remember how those pieces came together for Maha. Do you remember how it happened?
Ernie: Shawn [Goldwater] rapped it.
Catherine: Shawn rapped it, and then we thought that with Choeur Maha it would be amazing…
Ernie: Yeah, ‘cause we’d just gone to their show the week before…
Catherine: (laughing) There we go! It’s as simple as that: they’re awesome, let’s put them in the film! […] Whenever you’re making a film, or writing an article, or painting, or in the process of doing anything, you’re curious and completely open to “How do we tell this story?” And then every experience is feeding into it, every person you meet…
Ernie: And there’s the way you approach it, as Catherine said: “How do you tell this story?” You get to look at all the different angles, the different perspectives… One thing that we learned early on is that you don’t pull your hair out and go crazy by trying to tell the story. You try to tell a story.
Catherine: Another one we learned that we always stand by is that we go at everything with love… that no one in anything we do will feel humiliated to be in it or embarrassed in any way… even when discussing difficult things. That’s a super important thing that we follow.
Jody: Back in the early films as well?
Catherine: The one person that I slightly worry about was the Hydro Québec public relations representative whom we had dancing on the dams, doing a jig on the dams. He was so funny and lovely, and I hope he didn’t get into too much trouble for it, ‘cause we really loved him.
Jody: I had a feeling that you two took that kind of approach, that but didn’t know how conscious and deliberate that was.
Catherine: Super conscious… but not from an intellectual point of view, just as human beings.
Jody: … that everyone should feel valued in this…
Catherine: … even in difficult discussions.
Jody: It also seems that the stories you tell – it’s almost unavoidable – look at power relations, but not from an abstract way of doing it. Like with Power of the North, it was really what happened to the Cree community when their lands were flooded, right? And what happened to the fish.
Catherine: Yeah, and how to make it entertaining. Just like the opera that Ernie’s in right now, the opera written by Tomson Highway. It’s really funny. It’s exceptionally funny and goofy, and yet parts of it are very serious. It does speak about Chaakapesh, the main character …
Ernie: … who’s on a quest
Catherine: … who’s on a quest to save the Beothuks from being murdered by the Europeans, the “moniasses”…[Jody:: rhymes with boney-asses!]
Ernie: … which is what they call the white people out west –“monias.”
But at the same time, he’s talking about it in an absurd way. There’s so much truth in absurdity. You know, it’s the contrarian kind of view, ‘cause we have the sacred clown as well, too, who’s free to tell the truth no matter how biting it is.
Jody: And doing it clowning around…
Ernie: It’s the sacred clown. You say what needs to be said and what follows might be uncomfortable laughter but it’s still the truth, you know? And that’s how I feel that Tomson, as a storyteller, is. He was born on a trapline in northern Manitoba and he grew up with the same traditions (you know, with Chaakapesh). We have the tradition of Chaakapesh, too, as a folk hero, as an archetype, as a character in a legend. So it’s actually quite universal in the north-eastern nations. Some call him “Little Brother.” And so what Tomson’s done is he’s brought to light and started a conversation on something as horrific as genocide, but he’s using an archetype where you can laugh, where you can sort of point and say “hahaha,” but that truth, that deep truth, is still there.
Catherine: And here we are at Place des Arts with 2,000 mostly non-Native people in the most European setting you can imagine, right? With the MSO (Montréal Symphony Orchestra) there, and that is what’s on stage, that’s what’s being seen, these white opera singers singing about that, and it was awesome. I was weeping and laughing, it was magnificent. And there were definitely people being a bit uncomfortable…
Ernie: … (wondering to themselves) should we laugh?
Catherine: Yeah, they didn’t know whether to laugh or not… We were laughing loudly, so we were trying to help everyone laugh, trying to make everyone laugh loudly! But it was wonderful, it was magnificent. Like we were saying, you know, Robert Lepage didn’t get it. That collaboration you can feel in the [opera] performance that they doing here – it’s all over it! So that’s the thing when people talk about all these questions – [it’s about] collaboration, sharing…
Catherine: yeah… It’s collaboration… It’s the voices being heard.
Ernie: (laughing) Right, good night!
Jody: So for Rumble, more than 25 years after you two started… Rumble takes you to such high places and it has so much depth at the same time. It really feels like a coming-out party, celebrating people who many people didn’t know what or who they were calling on for their music and for the rhythm of their being.
Ernie: Well, I think I’ll pick up on what you said, “Welcome to the party.” There was that Native North America album that was released a year or two ago. I was playing all those songs thirty years ago on the radio, on the community and regional stations…
Catherine: Like Morley Loon and Willie Dunn and all those people…
Ernie: And so I’m like, “Welcome! You’re 30 years late, but welcome to the party!” And picking up on what Catherine was saying, you take on this project and you don’t know where it will take you.
And I have to honour Catherine’s efforts in our projects. She took Rumble – you know, Rumble is based on a song by Link Wray and it was banned – it was an instrumental song, but it was banned…
Jody: from the radio
Ernie: … ‘cause it might incite teen violence. And so from there we explored the blues, we explored jazz, we explored the Choctaw fiddlers. We went to Coeur d’Alene and saw where the jazz vocals and stuff were born. And through it all, Catherine was the brains behind the operations. She’ll deny it, but she’s the brains… and hopefully, the two of us together make the heart of whatever project we work on. She was engaging scholars of the blues and telling them, “You have to look at the blues and the origins and where it comes from in this way now, and they would keep denying it ‘til the end of the phone call. But then she would talk to them a week later and they’d be, “Well, let’s see now…”
Catherine: But what Ernie said is way too nice and wrong! It’s not like that.
Ernie: Oh, please!
Catherine: But I’ll tell you how it is. How it is, is (and I’ve said this before): women can direct in any way – quote unquote like men or just like women – they can have a vision, and know it, and do all that. But there’s something I always say: there are hunters and there are gatherers, and women can be gatherers, too. And we do that exceptionally well. It’s one of our talents that doesn’t have as much place in the industry…
Jody: or as much status…
Catherine: … or as much status in the industry. It’s very hierarchical, it’s sort of military, and I understand why. There’s a lot of money on the line and a lot of time on sets, and it was built in that manner. But women gather super well and, again, in that spirit of improv. Ernie and I have always seen the world the same way, and he’s the rock of everything underneath how we look at stuff. You know? And that’s the most important thing. And then, within Rumble, when I say gathering, the people who truly are responsible for the storytelling in that film are not us. We went to them… and that’s why there’s that depth. They’ve spent their whole lives knowing this stuff… knowing it very, very, very deeply. Like Pura Fe from Ulali. It was lived knowledge and oral traditions…
Ernie: With Catherine, though, she helps bring those people, those things, those ideas, that information together in a cohesive and loving manner. These people spent their lives [researching]… like the Choctaw fiddlers. There are two photos of them in the film, but that’s the result of somebody’s 15-year, 20-year research journey.
Catherine: This brilliant academic who’s in the film spent seven years researching in the Library of Congress in the basement, finding these stories, and we get the results of that…
Ernie: Even if it’s just two photos in a two-hour or three-hour movie…
Catherine: And they’re brilliant photos. And there are other researchers in the film – there’s a ton of them.
And another thing that’s super important is to mix things that aren’t normally mixed together. Like Stevie Salas is a rock star, and he comes from LA… rock!
Catherine: Rock, you know… chicks! and
Ernie: … big hair!
Catherine: … big hair, and awesomeness, and wanting to make it! A real balls-to-the-wall rock star kind of guy, you know…
To mix him, who was very much a muse in the film, very much, coming from that world – and someone like Pura Fe, who were the two …
Ernie and Catherine (in unison): pillars!
Catherine: … And then a third person, Tim Johnson, who’s Mohawk – he comes from a scholarly point of view and he was the head of programming for the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian. So those three people, content-wise…
And logistically-wise and business-wise, there’s 9 thousand million people, too – unsung heroes of huge proportions …
Jody: who are still trying to catch up on their sleep…
Catherine: yeah, exactly, who are still slightly traumatized from when we didn’t have money to finish…
But those [three – Stevie Salas, Pura Fe, Tim Johnson], in terms of content – they were the pillars. And we were following them. We don’t have a lot of fear, ‘cause we have each other. Right? I think that’s why we don’t have fear. And in not having fear, we absolutely believe it’s possible. And early on, we felt there was something there that other people were saying wasn’t there. We’ve had a whole history of our society telling people that Native people aren’t there, that their music’s not there, that their culture’s not there, that they’re not there…
Ernie: that our culture’s primitive…
Catherine: yeah, that it’s primitive, it’s disappeared, it doesn’t exist, it doesn’t matter, it’s dead, it’s gone, it’s whatever… And knowing that that’s not the truth, and then knowing there’s something buried there, ‘cause we could feel it! When Pura Fe – Pura Fe was not believed for so long! And we talked to all the blues scholars and they said, “No, no, no, no, no. Native people are not there [as a major musical influence.]”
Ernie: “It’s from Africa”
Catherine: “It’s all from Africa.” Which it certainly is – the whole blues and jazz, as we say, none of that is possible without African people… African-American culture. But it was the African experience in America that created all those genres, and that experience in America involved Native people – at the beginning, hugely. Hugely! And that part was wiped out, that chapter was missing for a million reasons that you find out in the film. Why? That was the question. Why? Like, a) Is it true [what we felt]? We would push and push and everyone would say, “No!” All the official channels would say, “No.” And we kept pushing, pushing, pushing. Stevie, Pura Fe and Tim Johnson – they believed, and we believed. They hadn’t put it all together, and that was our job to go and put everyone’s story together. Once you put all the stories together, then it’s undeniable.
Jody: The part that stopped me cold was when someone interviewed in the film talked about wanting to pass as black so people wouldn’t know they were Native.
Catherine: That was Monk Boudreau. He’s from New Orleans.
Jody: The extent of the violence is not something white people want to acknowledge.
Ernie: Get over it.
Jody: There’s denial, yeah, but what I’m saying is that the stories have to be told and told and told.
Ernie (sighing): No matter how many times you tell the story, there’s always going to be echo chambers.
Catherine: What does that mean?
Ernie: When you go to a website and hang out with people who only share your views. So it’s just like an echo chamber…
Catherine: I feel like Rumble got out of the echo chamber, ‘cause people felt a safe place… that’s the power of music, ‘cause music connects you to the divine. That’s what it does. And it connects people together. It connects us together without fear, and by doing that, it leaves you open to hear things. I saw so many white people at screenings and film festivals understand the violence and feel it from [another perspective], and they weren’t being blamed for it. They were inside, with the people, and were feeling what they felt, so it was another experience. Maybe that’s the thing – we’ve got to get out of the echo chambers.
Ernie: But this music that we featured in this film, everybody grew up with that. And everybody had ideas about where it might have been from, who was doing it and why. But these people who’d come up to us and say, “Holy shit, I thought I knew!” Like even this radio disc jockey from the Mohawk nation. He comes up to me after a screening and says to me, “I thought I knew it. I thought I fuckin’ knew it. But apparently I didn’t.”
Catherine: I love running into all the musicians who really know and love music history, who say that. The musicians who really know their stuff know it’s true what the people are saying… what the storytellers are saying.
Ernie: Even writers from Rolling Stone…
Catherine: They said they didn’t know. David Fricke in the movie was awesome – he was one of the main interviews. He’s from Rolling Stone. He’s a brilliant speaker and writer and knowledge keeper for the music industry, and he was so awesome. But he, too, said he didn’t know all that.
Ernie: But every film for us is a journey. And you learn from every one. If you see our films in a chronological way, you won’t see too many of the same mistakes repeated with each subsequent film.
Catherine: We’ll make new mistakes, I suppose (laughing).
Ernie: But they’ll be, I think, philosophical from this point on as opposed to technical (both laughing). Hire the best and get out of their way!
Jody: Your editors must have been pretty intense.
Catherine: Yeah, it was a very intense process. We had great editors. It really was like a village. I have to say, Alfonso Maiorana who is co-director and director of photography… the visual beauty of the film is his – it’s his gift. And he’s a real lover of music. That was such a gift, all of that.
And then Meky (Marie-Pier) Ottawa is the animator. She is Indigenous from here, and she didn’t know all those people [in the film]… She was like, “What?” and you can see it in her animation. She has this very funny, edgy, beautiful style. She was just featured at the Musée de Beaux Arts. She’s a brilliant artist.
And Stevie [Salas], I have to say, is a real great collaborator. He was always saying that he wanted famous people [in the interviews] ‘cause [otherwise], they’re not going to believe us. I’ll quote him: “If a bunch of Indians say we had something to do with this, they’ll be like, (tsk) Shut up!” But if, uh,
Jody: Tony Bennett says …
Catherine: If Tony Bennett says it…
Jody: or Martin Scorsese says it…
Catherine: you know? Or if what’s-his-name, the punk guy… Iggy Pop! If Iggy Pop tells you, you’re going to believe it. So if you look at the structure of the film, there are a lot of very famous people telling you stuff before we get to Pura Fe telling you stuff. That’s in the Link Wray section – it’s stacked with famous people, right? Well that was Stevie’s contribution, 1,000%. He wanted those famous people in there, to set it up. You know, you’re going to believe that Iggy Pop knows what he’s talking about when it comes to Link Wray, and Martin Scorsese…
Ernie: Ignatius Pop!
Catherine: (laughing) Ignatius, you know? Right?
So those kinds of tricks you learn as you go. We’ve been doing Native content for a long time now. And it’s only now that anybody is actually interested, outside of Indigenous communities.
Ernie: When we would pitch ideas and documentaries, one time this guy said, “Ah, I don’t want any more Native crap.”
Catherine: He was head of CBC! Seriously, you don’t know what to say. You’re just shocked. I remember pitching to this gal – I won’t say which network she was from – and she said, “Well, what would people find interesting about that?”
Ernie: But I think, to get to talk about your theme “Beyond the Pale,” there’s a price to be paid to be beyond the pale. Sometimes you carry like a debt, or something that you need to pay – an indebtedness … And sometimes you get offers where you could pay off that indebtedness by not being beyond the pale. Sometimes it looks like a way out from your struggles and hardships that you’re going through. There are a few instances where a “yes” would have resulted in an easier go for us in terms of doing what we love to do and what we’re compelled to do, and what we’re asked to do. And one of the things we’re most proud of as storytellers, as people who are tasked to tell [other] people’s stories as well, too, is that we never gave up or we never sold out…
Catherine: We didn’t sell out, I guess is the thing. If we’d got a yes… we tried [to get a yes]! We just never were successful at it. We were so bad at pitching commercial-league, “viable” ideas – we were just terrible (laughing). People would say, “Uh…no.”
Ernie: But the one thing that we’re most proud of is that we stuck by our principles and our values.
Catherine: Yeah, it’s true. So the hardship comes…
Jody: Is it true you had to remortgage your home?
Catherine: Yeah, numerous times. We put our house up on mortgage so many times. Yeah, you have to pay enough to cover your bank loans to finish films. So you’re on a wing and a prayer. Ergo, in the finance department, Linda Ludwick, brilliant woman that she is, is still (like you said) traumatized about finishing a film that doesn’t have money to finish. You go on a wing and a prayer and you do it. But they’re all such brave folks that we work with. You know Christina [Fon]. Christina is a salesperson, getting out there and selling. So you have all these different characters, everyone doing their bit.
Ernie: You guys complete each other.
Catherine: Yeah, totally. I’m very nerdy in my thinking, you know. [Ernie sighs. I start laughing and challenging her.] Like a complete egghead. I like thinking and talking about intellectual things, and then trying to find ways to make them entertaining. I like big thoughts and ideas. Not academic, but I love ideas and how things work. But Christina is a trained athlete. She was a national gym champion in Canada. Athletes are great to work with, ‘cause they’re focused, they’ve got a goal, and they work towards it. And they’ve got their eye trained on the prize.
Ernie: To get back to Reel Injun, Christina called the assistant of Clint Eastwood once a week for a year before we got the interview with him for Reel Injun. And we only had 45 minutes on a specific date. We sent him beautiful Cree mitts made from Waskaganish, and maple syrup.
Catherine: He almost cancelled because it was raining or something, and Christina pleaded with his assistant. And because Christina had talked to her for a year, the assistant got him to show up for the interview. And because the assistant did that, and because Christina had developed a caring relationship…
Ernie: (laughing) a loving relationship!
Catherine: A loving relationship with that person – it really was like that. That woman really came through for us and for Christina.
Ernie: The right people get together at the right time.
Catherine: And now we’re working with Neil again – Diamond – the Neil Diamond, not the singer – on a movie called Red Fever, about cultural appropriation and all that it entails. And the complexity and nuances and questions and cool shit – conversations and stories – that it can bring up. Neil’s line is: “Why do you love us so much? What did we ever do to you?” Like, why are you wearing your head-dresses to Coachella and all the music concerts? Fashion, why are you appropriating it all the time, like music? Why do you love us so much – what did we ever do to you? You know, that Jewish/Indian thing that always works. Similar humour – you know, genocide, they get it.
Jody: I read that you were working on a film What’s up with White People?
Catherine: Yeah, we’re in development on a film that, for now is called White Privilege aka What’s Up With White People? And it’s the history of the creation of white privilege. What actually happened, how was it built. The actual moments. This is straight-up history, not an emotional thing. A factual thing.
The discussion went on about a book called Before the Irish Were White, and Theodor W. Allen’s book, The Invention of the White Race, and Nell Painter’s book, The History of White People. Ernie disappeared to make pasta with Bolognaise sauce. Catherine was jotting down ideas in her notebook, sparks flying off her pen! Then we all converged in the kitchen with two of their daughters and their nephew, and took the feast to another level. I still have a smile on my face. Welcome to the party!
For more about Catherine Bainbridge and Ernest Webb and their wild and wonderful team, check out Rezolution Pictures:
Postscript on Rumble: The film has also started to air on certain television networks in French, English and German. Keep an eye out.
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sxolq7IuiqA, Power of the North, 1992, directed by Catherine Bainbridge and Anne Van Der Wee, produced for MTV (USA) and Much Musique Plus (Canada) by Wildheart Productions (Belgium, Canada)
 The film Rumble: the Indians Who Rocked the World had its television broadcast premiere in English on The Movie Network / HBO Canada, where you can still stream it. It aired in French on Radio-Canada last fall and had its European premiere in French/German on ARTE. It has also aired in French on APTN (Aboriginal Peoples Television Network) and will be in English as of February 2019. Its US broadcast premiere is set for January 28, 2019 on the PBS series, Independent Lens.