Mi’kmaq Heather Condo’s tribute to basket making is Vimeo’s first staff curated Indigenous film

Written by Oscar Baker

Oscar is an award-winning multimedia reporter from Elsipogtog First Nation and St. Augustine, Fla. Winner of the David Adams Richards award for non-fiction writing for The Violent Ones. Follow him on Twitter @oggycane4lyfe

December 4, 2017

Mi’kmaq filmmaker Heather Condo’s short doc ‘My Father’s Tools‘ is Vimeo’s first-ever Indigenous-made film to be selected for its popular staff pick premieres.

“I hope it opens doors for other Natives to step into that [filmmaking] realm and I’m very honoured,” said Condo.

Vimeo is the world’s largest ad-free video platform, which makes it popular with aspiring and established filmmakers. The short film, which was also an official selection at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, chronicles Condo’s spouse and master basket maker Stephen Jerome as he follows in his late father’s footsteps, harvesting black ash and weaving the baskets. Condo and Jerome are members of Gesgapegiag First Nation, a Mi’kmaq community on the south shore of Gaspésie in Quebec. It is part of the Mi’kmaq Nation District that extends from the Miramichi River to the tip of the Gaspé Pennisula.

Mi’kmaq filmmaker Heather Condo.

Both have basket making woven throughout their lives.

“There are films that show people making baskets but it’s by white people who are just passing through the reserve and shows about 30 seconds of it,” said Condo. “Its nice to have this down for our grandchildren and children to see.”

She was able to make the film with the support of Wapikoni, a mobile film studio that provides Indigenous youth with access and training to equipment and technology to assist in telling their stories through video and that also provides support to filmmakers such as Condo.

“I think sometimes people have too much of a negative vibe on Mi’kmaq people, and I think that this is just a a positive film about something that we do,” she said.

“I just love baskets and I love the way they’re made and how the whole thing is processed. I think it’s incredible that we still have this in our culture.”

Her dream is to raise the profile and appreciation for Mi’kmaq baskets so this traditional art comes to be associated with Mi’kmaq people much like Navajo people are famous for their colourful blankets. Condo is also glad the film is a Vimeo’s staff selection premiere because it might help other Indigenous people in film.

Condo was born in Gesgapegiag but grew up in Marlborough, Massachusetts. She spent her summer breaks in the Mi’kmaq community and would often return with baskets woven by her uncle to show off at school. In 2005 she moved back to Gesgapegiag and met another basket maker, Stephen Jerome.

Today Jerome has his shop near the couple’s home, filled with the tools he inherited from his father and Condo spent many days watching him work sometimes up to 14 hours a day crafting the baskets. It was her son and fellow Mi’kmaq filmmaker Zachary Condo-Greenleaf who encouraged her to contact Wapikoni to help her tell Jerome’s story.

The film follows Jerome as he crafts a black ash basket, a practice he first learned as a young boy from his father Francis Jerome 35 years ago. His father was confined to a wheelchair and was dealing with multiple sclerosis, but took time to teach Jerome and his brothers the intricate workings of basket weaving. After his father died 15 years ago, Stephen Jerome remained committed to the art and says his father’s greatest tool was the knowledge he passed down, such as the way to identify the perfect black ash.

“The smell of a good tree is like a sugary smell almost like a red wine or cherry,” he says. “You’ll never forget the smell of a good tree.”

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