Music icon

Winnipeg filmmaker’s documentary chronicling the life of music icon Buffy Sainte-Marie premieres at TIFF

Buffy Sainte-Marie casts a spell.

Ask Madison Thomas, the 30-year-old Winnipeg filmmaker behind the documentary Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry on.a free-spirited and utterly charming look at the amazing story of Sainte-Marie, premiering Thursday night at the Toronto International Film Festival before airing on PBS later this year.

By viewing her life, the film embraces the artistic (Sainte-Marie remains the only Aboriginal woman to win an Oscar, for her work on the song where we belong from the 1982 movie An officer and a gentleman), political (she was the subject of an FBI blacklist undersigned by J. Edgar Hoover) and deeply personal.

Thomas says Sainte-Marie’s music has always been in the background of her life, beginning with her childhood in Winnipeg’s North End, where she grew up in a family reflecting her Ojibway/Saulteaux settler roots and Russians/Ukrainians.

“My first thought when I heard about TIFF was that Buffy is going to be so happy about it,” says filmmaker Madison Thomas. (Rae Jennae)

“Growing up and speaking with others, it was apparent that many non-Indigenous Canadians either didn’t know Buffy or had only heard her name in passing,” Thomas wrote in her manager’s statement. “When I was younger, I didn’t understand how someone [whose] the name was a staple in my household could be so overlooked by others.”

After reading Buffy Sainte-Marie: the authorized biography by Vancouver-based music journalist Andrea Warner (who is also the film’s credited writer), Thomas was up for the challenge of making the doc, even though her previous feature films were dramas, including Ruthless Souls (2019) and episodic television, including the CBC series burden of truth and SkyMed.

His latest feature, currently in post-production, is the post-apocalyptic drama Twilight Finalityco-written with Deaf filmmaker Katarina Ziervogel with production from Eagle Vision Inc.

“As far as my transition to a documentary filmmaker goes, I have to give a lot of credit to Lisa Meeches, who is the executive producer on this film,” Thomas said in an interview.

“Just looking at her work and the way she carries herself as both a director and a producer, it’s a very non-colonial approach to filmmaking,” she said.

“It’s never extractive. It’s never just about fishing for juicy, hard-hitting stuff. It gives narrative agency to the subjects and lets them tell their own story.”

No generation gap: Sainte-Marie

In an interview from her home in Hawaii, Sainte-Marie, 81, said Thomas doesn’t have a generational gap with the material, despite the director being born decades before, say, the Vietnam War and J. Edgar Hoover.

“Madison may be young, but that doesn’t mean she’s any more in the dark than I was back then,” Sainte-Marie said. “In the 1960s, people like you and I didn’t hear that maybe J. Edgar Hoover was moot.

“If they ‘had papers’ on you, it was assumed you were guilty of something. To tell you the truth, I didn’t know what was going on in the 70s and 80s. They kept everything a secret.

“My conversation with Madison last month was pretty much the same as talking to someone who was there at the time: providing new information,” Sainte-Marie said.

A woman with a bright red streak in her dark hair, wearing a studded leather jacket, smiles broadly.
Thomas’ film delves into the amazing story of Buffy Sainte-Marie, including her artistic, political and personal life. (Matt Barnes)

“Working with Madison and Andrea has been one of the sweetest things I’ve done in my life,” she said. “I hope Maddie gets a statue.”

For her part, Thomas is excited to go to Toronto and bring the film to audiences hungry for the TIFF experience after two years of pandemic-induced abstention.

“It’s so important that as many people as possible hear Buffy’s story and hear her message,” Thomas said.

“I’ll be honest. Buffy mentioned she wanted to be onscreen at TIFF,” she said. “So my first thought when I heard about TIFF is that Buffy is going to be so happy about it.

“It’s like hearing you got the reservation at your aunt’s favorite restaurant,” Thomas said. “She’s going to be so happy.”