Music Docs and Telling Diverse Stories at SJIWFF28

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In his 2003 Massey Lectures, Thomas King said,

“The truth about stories is, that's all we are.”

Indigenous populations in Newfoundland and Labrador, and across Canada, know too well the tragedy of denying marginalized voices an audience. When stories are lost, people and their life ways go with them, leaving holes in the lives of generations to follow. 

As always, the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival is doing its part to give space and audience to the telling, sharing and listening of diverse stories. 

Their roster of films this year includes two screenings in particular that tell stories near to my heart.

On Thursday, October 19th, the festival will screen Chavela – a film about the revolutionary singer, musician and performer who carved out her career as an artist in Mexico in the 1950s.  At a time where women were seldom seen on stage across all of The Americas, Chavela Vargas (born Isabel Vargas Lizano in Costa Rica, 1919) dressed in men’s clothing and built her career singing songs traditionally intended for men to sing to women. She was truly a living legend, complete with myths and rumours about her being cured of blindness as a baby when a shaman spat in her eye, or carrying a pistol on her at all times just for fun, and engaging in love affairs with famous women including Frida Kahlo.



I, personally, came to learn about Vargas in my teenage years. She’s been an important role model for me ever since I first heard her sing.

At the age of 83, after only having officially come out as a lesbian two years prior, Chavela appeared and sang in Julie Taymor’s 2002 Frida biopic. I eventually got my hands on a copy of the soundtrack to the film, (which was no easy task at the time). Since then, the deeply emotional and passionately performed songs of Chavela Vargas have been an integral part of my music collection. I cannot wait to see this film!

Closing Night of the festival on Oct 22 features a screening of Rumble: Indians Who Rocked The World.

I grew up on rockumentaries. At university, I took a course about the history of pop/rock music just to get an easy ninety on my transcript. But the story told in this film is one I’ve never seen documented in a rockumentary before. I’m excited! And kind of blown away that this film exists.

Rumble tells the story of the undeniable influence Indigenous artists had on thebirth and growth of Rock and Roll in America. It is centered around the guitar instrumental tune by artist Link Wray called Rumble and how its release was a pivotal moment in Rock and Roll history. Link Ray was a member of the Shawnee nation – something he never particularly shied away from celebrating himself, but something that has seldom been celebrated in the rock world. This film is a game changer. It exposes important truths about the history of Indigenous art, while challenging stereotypes that still thrive in both Canada and the US about what it means to be Indigenous. 

Thank you, SJIWFF, for bringing both of these stories to our city.

Joanna Barker is a singer, songwriter and musician of Innu, Mi'kmaq, Irish and British ancestry. Her album, February, was nominated for two Music NL awards and shortlisted for the Atlantis Music Prize. Currently living in St John's, Joanna is the Co-Director of St. John's Women in Music (SWIM) and the Programming Director at Girls Rock NL.


Candice Walsh