Wearing a jerk vest and ready to be pulled through the air on ropes for a stunts course, Dan McMaster eagerly volunteers to go first. They've been the first to volunteer for every class exercise over the past three months.
"I wanted to get everything that I could out of it. Whatever it is, anytime anybody needs a volunteer, go first," McMaster said.
McMaster is one of 15 students in the Counting Coup Indigenous Film Academy at Old Sun Community College in Siksika Nation, southeast of Calgary. The program started in June and has been training members of the Siksika Nation between 18 and 30-years-old the basics of film production, acting and stunt work.
Actor Jessica Matten co-founded the program with some fellow film industry professionals. She's offered the course to Indigenous youth for years in various forms, but this is the first time it's been done as part of post-secondary curriculum. Over the course of the summer, she's invited multiple guests to speak to the class, including makeup artists, directors and wardrobe stylists.
Matten said she wants to empower Indigenous youth to work in the film industry and "be the leaders of the community."
"I'm always going to be there when I can, as present as I can, but really my goal is to pass the torch onto them," she said.
Matten, who is of Red River Métis-Cree descent and from the Métis Nation, has been in the TV and film industry for 20 years. She's played roles in TV shows like Tribal, Frontier — starring Jason Momoa — and Blackstone. She currently stars in Dark Winds on AMC, which is produced by Robert Redford and George R. R. Martin.
After finishing the program, the students will be accredited with the Directors Guild of Canada and certified with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), which represents film and theatre production workers around the world.
'Everybody works together, everybody has a role'
Susan Solway, chairperson of Old Sun Community College and councillor for Siksika Nation, said the film academy was originally supposed to be a two-week pilot program, but it quickly flourished into a three-month course. Now, Solway said she'd like to see it continue.
"The amount of technical aspects they learned and experienced here really helped them grow within themselves and hopefully now they'll be able to see themselves in these roles, whether that's working in the industry or creating their own," Solway said.
McMaster certainly sees a future for themself in film. They said the course came to them at the right time. When starting the program, McMaster was in the early months of recovery from alcohol addiction after losing their mother three years ago.
"I was really, you know, not really going anywhere. And to be honest, I spent a lot of years wanting to die because my mom was dead and so I wanted to be dead too," McMaster said.
Above everything they've learned, McMaster said connecting film production work to their culture has been the biggest lesson.
"Filmmaking is just a lot like living like a Blackfoot. Everybody works together, everybody has a role, everybody helps everybody," they said.
McMaster will graduate the program with their classmates on Monday, and next summer, they plan to make a full-length documentary with some friends about living a traditional Blackfoot way of life.
"It's put me on a path now.... I have stories that need to be told and this is the best way to tell them."