Young dynamo

Origin Stories: Madison Thomas

Filmmaker Madison Thomas

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Madison Thomas is a young Winnipeg filmmaker who, now 28, has already written and directed two feature films, This Is Why We Fight (2013) and Ruthless Souls (2019). She wrote and directed episodes of the fourth season of Burden of Truth, the CBC series starring Kristin Kreuk and produced by Eagle Vision. 

Thomas’ father is Russian-Ukrainian, and that side of her family has lived in Winnipeg’s North End for three generations. Her mother is from Pine Creek First Nation.

“Even as a young person, I was aware that there were parts of my community that were not being represented on TV. I grew up in a very diverse neighbourhood, (but on) Canadian TV, (there were) mainly white, heteronormative stories,” Thomas says.

She loved her neighbourhood, even though it could be rough at times. 

“I was very fortunate to grow up in my culture, even in an urban setting,” Thomas says. “My mother was in the foster-care system, and when I was younger, she began connecting with her roots and with her community. I like to honour that. I’m a proud Ojibwe-Saulteaux woman, and the Indigenous film community, not only in Winnipeg but Canada-wide, is so rich.”

In high school, Thomas took a Winnipeg Film Group workshop, where she wrote her first film. Seeing someone say her words on camera was a transformative experience. 

“It was the best natural high of my life. I’m very much a natural storyteller, but film is the format I use the most,” Thomas says. 

Thomas was one of the first alums of Sisler High School’s prestigious film program run by Jamie Leduc, who encouraged Thomas to pursue film. Thomas went on to study film at the University of Winnipeg, but her practice really developed when she took a semester off to study at Prague Film School, at Leduc’s recommendation. She was the first Indigenous Canadian filmmaker to attend the school, and the experience was a game-changer for her, leading her to adopt a more European filmmaking style.

Before she graduated from university, Thomas worked on many film sets and made her own films with friends. With that team, she wrote and directed her first feature This Is Why We Fight with a budget of only $300. 

Her followup film, Ruthless Souls, was shot in 2019, and “still had an indie vibe,” Thomas says. “But with funding from Telefilm Canada, we were able to do something on the scale we never would have been able to on an indie level.”

Thomas has also written and directed several documentaries, including Zaasaakwe, Declutter and Exposed Nerves, which are all available on CBC Gem. She has travelled as far as New Zealand to work with other Indigenous artists from around the world.

If everything goes to plan, she will shoot her third feature in 2021. It’s about an Indigenous woman and a refugee from Nigeria trying to survive in the Manitoba wilderness after pollution has made the Earth's atmosphere toxic.

“I’m just really interested in character, stories and (centering) unheard voices. As a mixed-race woman, I have a natural draw to those types of stories,” Thomas says.

Published in Volume 75, Number 09 of The Uniter (November 12, 2020)

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