Voices from residential schools on the train, when the doors were slammed shut and
the children were banging on the windows and trying to get out.
"Everyone was crying, and we could see our mothers crying and running forward."
"We all fell asleep from that day forward."
Shirley Cheechoo, writer, director and producer
Shirley Cheechoo was born in Eastmain, Quebec in 1952. Shirley is a member of the Cree Tribe and her early childhood was spent in Moose Factory along the James Bay coast. Shirley also experienced part of her young life in various Indian Residential schools until her family later moved to Hearst, Ontario. She is married to artist Blake Debassige and they have one child, Nanoshkasheese.
Memories of growing up within a warm family group have become the focal point for her expression through the medium of acrylic. She recalls here childhood days where she and her brother would create and perform plays to entertain local community. Her paintings represent the personal documentation of the many experiences she shared with her large family in the north as well as those of other Cree families lived by trapping and fishing. She provided the illustrations for Basil H. Johnston's book "Tales the Elders Told”.
Cheechoo gathered like-minded artists and founded Debajehmujig Theatre Company in 1984. This touring company has become one of the foremost and respected independent Native theatre companies in the world, and is located on Manitoulin Island. She first gained national attention in the theatre in 1992 with her play, "Path With No Moccasins". Shirley began directing films in 1998, after working as a playwright, actor and director of notable plays.
Realizing she can ease a pain or raise an issue with her film work, she threw herself headlong into the medium. She enrolled in writing classes, director's labs, acting workshops and film schools. As one of a select group of promising filmmakers, Shirley was invited to attend the prestigious Sundance Institute lead by Robert Redford, where she worked and filmed scenes of her script, “Backroads”. She became the first, First Nation person to write, produce, direct, and act in a dramatic, feature length film from Canada. She has also appeared on several Canadian film and television series and programs, including “The Rez”.
Her film directorial debut is the acclaimed short film, “Silent Tears”, which won several film festival awards for Best Short Film. It was screened at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival and was also awarded the Telefilm Canada and Northern Canada Award for Best Canadian Aboriginal Language Program. Her many achievements have earned numerous prizes over her career over 21 to be exact, including the National Aboriginal Achievement Award, CTV Fellowship Award and the Eagle Spirit Award. Her films have been selected for screenings at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, Reel World, Imaginative and Montreal International Film and Vancouver Film Festival. She has won first prize awards for various works at film festivals including: Montreal's First Peoples Festival, Santa Fe Film Festival, and American Indian Film Festival of San Francisco. In 2002 Shirley was named Independent Filmmaker of the Year at the Arizona International Film Festival. Her most recent award is the Best Public Service for her latest project Sweet Blood. Shirley is gearing up for her second feature film Kelly's Bar, starring Adam Beech.
Her patronage to the arts does not stop there however. She is co-owner of Kasheese Studios Art Gallery, along with her husband Blake Debassige, which promotes native, visual artists from around the world. Both of their works have been recognized and critically acclaimed internationally. Shirley is also the President of her own business and independent film company - Spoken Song Film Productions. Shirley is most recently Founder and Artistic Director of Weengushk Film Institute (WFI) located on Manitoulin Island. WFI is an artist-focused, film and television training centre, dedicated to unlocking the creative potential of Aboriginal Youth and persons of diversity.
Events at this year's American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco