Alexandra Lazarowich Used the Ancient Sport of Indian Relay to Fuel a Sundance-winning Documentary
The Cree documentary filmmaker's fulfillment comes from filming people whose stories may otherwise go unnoticed.
By Caroline Barlott | June 28, 2019
After winning the Short Film Special Jury Award for Directing at Sundance in January, Alexandra Lazarowich spent the next several months on the road showing the film at festivals — first in New Zealand, then New York, a skip over to Toronto, then Cleveland. Nearly every week, she was in a different city, screening a film that won one of the most prestigious awards in the independent film industry. But when asked if the award has opened doors, Lazarowich, a Cree documentary filmmaker, laughs. “Not at all,” she says cheerily, “not at all. I’ve had some coffees with some people, but coffees don’t pay bills. All I can do is put my head down and keep moving. Just keep moving.”
It’s a tough business, Lazarowich says, one where filmmakers can be there one moment and gone the next, so, for the ambitious 33-year-old, fulfillment comes from filming people whose stories may otherwise go unnoticed.
The story behind Fast Horse is one that Lazarowich knew had to be told, and she remembers the exact moment that realization struck. She was standing behind a horse chute at the Calgary Stampede as Cody BigTobacco, an Indigenous young man, dismounted one horse before jumping on a second to race towards the finish line alongside several competitors.
The crowd erupted in a roar of applause loud enough that it reverberated in Lazarowich’s chest. She was watching Indian Relay, a fast-paced, treacherous sport whereby jockeys on horseback race around a track three times, each time dismounting and taking a running leap onto a new horse. It’s been practised for about 400 years and has been a part of Alberta’s rodeo scene for decades. In 2017, when Lazarowich attended the Stampede, it was on the international rodeo’s lineup for the first time.
While Lazarowich grew up around Lesser Slave Lake, watching the sport in local rodeos, the moment marked a first for her in a different way. “I had never seen in my entire life 100,000 people from all kinds of backgrounds cheer for native kids,” she says. “I was so moved and shocked … that I knew we needed to make a film that represented that very specific moment that I experienced. I knew that this was going to change people’s lives. And I knew we had to document it.”
Lazarowich was in for another surprise when the film won a Sundance award. She’d already experienced success at international film festivals and Fast Horse had already garnered the Best Short Film Documentary award at imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival in Toronto. Even so, winning one of the highest levels of accolades for independent film seemed beyond the realm of possibility.
“I think growing up as an Indigenous woman in Alberta, these were dreams we weren’t allowed to have, we were told weren’t possible,” says Lazarowich. “I think for a lot of people, including myself, I internalized that sort of stuff. I was proven wrong, 100 per cent.” Going to school in Edmonton and living in the prairies, Lazarowich remembers experiencing the effects of prejudice, though she didn’t realize it at the time. It wasn’t until years later she realized these everyday things that felt like they were her fault at the time were actually the result of societal norms that insidiously perpetuated prejudice. “It’s all the things you don’t think about — like ‘why am I being treated like crap at a restaurant?’ You think it’s because they just don’t like you and that’s not it,” she says. “I think there are so many systemic things that many can’t wrap their brains around in terms of children in care, racism in hospitals, racism in the police force, homelessness issues. It seeps into our culture, and our kids who take that ill will to the small kids at their school. That’s really dark and has long term effects.”
Lazarowich started acting at the age of 10 and remembers being told she “didn’t look native enough” to play certain roles while she “wasn’t white enough” for others. Meanwhile, over the course of about a decade, she kept seeing the same tired roles recycled over and over. Indigenous people were typecast as struggling addicts in a modern context and even more commonly as historical figures in buckskin clothes with little regard for diversity of experience.
“You sort of realize the limitations of the role or square peg you’re expected to fill,” says Lazarowich. She took matters into her own hands and started learning about production by working behind the scenes on films, first as a production assistant and then working her way up. Currently she splits her time between New York, Toronto and Edmonton, creating her own films, which are as diverse as the people from both places that she documents. She is the series producer for the CBC’s Still Standing. Her film, Cree Code Talker, tells the story of a local Indigenous man who used his native language to relay military communication during the Second World War; Alvaro explores a 75-year-old Brooklyn resident’s experience as he cares for stray cats in an ever-changing neighbourhood; and Crooked Creek looks at an old fashioned general store in Northern Alberta. Her most recent film, Lake, was created for the National Film Board of Canada’s series of short films, Five Feminist Minutes. Lazarowich spent two days in a freezing white-out in February filming two female Métis ice net fishers, who have knowledge of the Lesser Slave Lake that dates back nine generations.
Acting was her dream growing up, but that’s changed; she realizes now, the control lies behind the camera. She can showcase stories that otherwise might be overlooked. And she can help flip the narrative of Indigenous people in film to real stories of inspiration and resiliency. By sharing these stories, she hopes to encourage up-and-coming Indigenous filmmakers to pursue work in the field.
And she wants to do more than just inspire. She wants to actively be a part of making those aspirations a reality. Lazarowich is determined to find ways to involve more Indigenous voices in her projects, whether as editors, sound designers or filmmakers. “Without their voice, they’ll never be represented onscreen. And we need their voice; we need their voice on everything,” she says.
She hopes by showing people like Cody on the big screen, she can show the resiliency and courage that’s a part of everyday life for many Indigenous people. “A lot of our Indigenous communities have been treated really poorly. And what’s interesting about our people, is they’re strong and often get right back up and keep going,” says Lazarowich.
There’s a scene in Fast Horse that perfectly embodies that resiliency. During Indian Relay — dubbed “the oldest extreme sport in North America,” as no helmets or saddles are used — things can easily go wrong, as Cody BigTobacco knows. During the Calgary Stampede, another horse smacked into his thin, tall frame as he tried to make his way to his second horse — a devastating blow that forced him, like his community, to get back up.
As Lazarowich comes off a big win, she’s excited for the future, whether she sees more opportunities from her Sundance award or not. After all, she says, she doesn’t make films for the awards or accolades. “I make films for our Indigenous community. I make films that I want to see that I haven’t seen before. That’s why I make films.”
This article appears in the July 2019 issue of Avenue Edmonton