Cody Lightning never thought he'd revisit his breakout role of Little Victor, the kid he played in the 1998 film Smoke Signals.
For the Edmonton-born Cree actor and his friends, his turn in the Indigenous coming-of-age story was an inside joke.
While waiting for drinks in a packed bar they'd say "just tell them you're little Victor," he said. "It was just a joke."
Lucky for him, his directorial debut Hey Viktor! isn't exactly a reprisal.
Lightning's mockumentary follows a fictionalized version of himself who 25 years after his turn on the big screen tries to self-produce a sequel to Smoke Signals to get his life back on track.
The project was written in Banff and Canmore by Lightning and his friend Samuel Miller.
They shot on Enoch Cree Nation with locations in Edmonton, Devon and Wetaskiwin. Lightning is a member of Samson Cree Nation, and it was a priority to root production in the province.
The film's crew is 95 per cent Albertan "and it just worked," he said.
Hey Viktor! reunites many of Smoke Signal's stars, icons in Indigenous cinema like Adam Beach and Gary Farmer. They play themselves, shaking off Lightning's attempt to find relevancy. While it's firmly rooted in humour, the story deals with tough subject matter.
"I'm a degenerate alcoholic, I've burned every bridge," said Lightning. "It's a dark story of a man in the dumps, fighting for the career he believes he deserves."
Why a mockumentary?
"Just so I could be an absolute maniac. I think it's hilarious."
Lightning, left, stars alongside Hannah Cheesman, center, and Simon Baker, right. Baker starred with Lightning in the original Smoke Signals, and was game to play himself as a part of Hey Viktor! (North Country Cinema)
Hey Viktor! is part of a wave of Indigenous films and TV gaining steam.
FX's Reservation Dogs released its third season this month starring Mohawk actress Devery Jacobs, who will be starring alongside Lightning in the upcoming Marvel series Echo.
The 2023 Toronto International Film Festival is screening more than a dozen documentaries, comedies and dramas from Indigenous creators like Kim O'Bomsawin, Taika Waititi, Carol Kunnuk and Lucy Tulugarjuk.
"There's been a huge change in the number of and the kinds of productions that come to us, the kinds of productions that are being made," said Kristy Assu, director of funding programs at the Indigenous Screen Office (ISO).
Creating space for Indigenous creators
Created in 2017 the ISO champions Indigenous screen-based storytellers and narrative sovereignty. They provide funding to films and programs like Tantoo Cardinal's Tap Root Academy in Alberta, a land-based acting and filmmaking academy for youth in Kikino Métis Settlement.
"We're really trying to figure out what the gaps are, what kind of experiences we can give to our people."
In the last year, the ISO disbursed $11.8 million in funding to 191 companies and individuals working on projects across Canada. Alberta is home to the second-largest number of recipients, tied with Ontario at 33.
"Allowing people further opportunity for different types of formats, people are more willing and eager to write their stories and get them produced," said Assu, who worked in the industry as a producer.
Lightning and his producing partner shared their own knowledge at TIFF, speaking at the Centre for Indigenous Theatre about funding, grants and "their life and how it moulded into this project," he said.
"For not just myself but for the youth that I work with back home, I want them to have hope and faith that people can make cool projects.
"You just have to have an idea."
Teneil Whiskeyjack, left, plays Fawn, Cody’s girlfriend and mother to his kids in the film. (North Country Cinema)
Toronto is not Hey Viktor!'s first warm welcome. The film screened in New York at Tribeca Film Festival this spring, and scored an international deal with New York-based sales company Visit Films.
Now it's landed a Canadian distribution deal through Toronto's levelFILM ahead of its screening at the Edmonton International Film Festival at the end of September.
"It's a really cool feeling," Lightning said. "My name is on there as the director, but it's the entire team that made this. It's rare."