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Indigenous filmmaker wraps production on documentary ‘Forbidden Music’

In 1952, Halpern and Martin recorded 123 songs in her home in Vancouver
Mungo Martin (Nakapenkim). (Wikipedia/public domain image)

When Barbara Todd Hager heard that an Italian production company was looking for an Indigenous director for a documentary about an Austrian-born ethnomusicologist who joined forces with First Nations singers in Canada in the 1950s to save hundreds of traditional songs from disappearing forever, she knew it was a film she wanted to write and direct.

Hager has now completed 16 days of production in Austria, Canada and the USA on the feature-length documentary, Forbidden Music, with post-production starting this week. The documentary is licensed to Knowledge Network and also received funding from the Rogers Documentary Fund, the Indigenous Screen Office, the Canada Media Fund, CAVCO and Film Incentive BC. Italy’s Incipit Film SRL licensed the concept for the documentary to Hager’s production company, Acimow Media, in 2022.

Hager, director of photography Cliff Hokanson, and the Acimow production team traveled to Vienna (Austria), Yalis (Alert Bay), T’saxis (Fort Rupert), Victoria, Vancouver and Washington DC to uncover the extraordinary story of Austrian-born Jewish ethnomusicologist Dr. Ida Halpern and Kwakwaka’wakw artist and singer Chief Mungo Martin.

In 1952, Halpern and Martin recorded 123 songs in her home in Vancouver. They shared a commitment to saving traditional Indigenous songs that were at risk due to Canada’s Indian Act, which banned First Nations people from gathering, singing and dancing at potlatches. Many of the songs that Chief Martin recorded with Dr. Halpern appear on LPs released by the New York-based Folkways Records in the 1960s and 70s. Today, the recordings are distributed by the Smithsonian Institution’s Folkways Records, and the original reel-to-reel tapes are stored at the BC Archives in Victoria, BC. Michelle van Beusekom, Knowledge Network President & CEO, says that “Knowledge Network is proud to be the lead broadcaster on Barbara Todd Hager’s exciting new feature documentary Forbidden Music and to be supporting the team at Acimow Media who have built an all-Indigenous key creative team and are working closely with Kwakwaka’wakw community members on protocols and engagement.

“It’s such an honour to have the opportunity to make a documentary about the relationship between Dr. Ida Halpern and Chief Mungo Martin,” Hager says. “Despite being from different cultures—Indigenous people in Canada and Jewish people in Austria—both experienced cultural erasure and genocide by the governments of their time. Yet against all odds, these two extraordinary people survived their government’s persecution and met in Vancouver to collaborate on preserving songs that have been part of Kwakwaka’wakw culture for countless generations.”

Over the course of several years, Halpern recorded close to 350 songs with Kwakwaka’wakw singers Chief Mungo Martin, Chief Billy Assu and Stanley Hunt, Nuu-chah-nulth singers George Clutesi, Peter Webster, Fred Louis and Ella Thompson, and Haida singer Florence Davidson, among others.

Today, the descendants of these singers are turning to the recordings to teach their language and keep the songs alive at potlatches and family gatherings.

Hager says, “Dr. Halpern and Chief Martin joined forces during a very difficult time for their people. The Indian Act and the Holocaust had caused untold suffering and loss for both of their families. Yet their commitment to protecting these cultural treasures reaffirms the power of traditional music and celebrates the remarkable revival of language and songs in Indigenous communities in the 21st century.”

Acimow Media acknowledges hereditary Chief David Knox, great grandson of Chief Mungo Martin, for his support of this documentary.

- Submitted article