Director Zoe Hopkins sits down with Wider Lens to talk about her work on the APTN series Little Bird, an experience she calls one of the most beautiful moments of her life, and the critical need for trust and resources to be given to Indigenous directors so that they can authentically portray their stories. 

“The Sixties Scoop was a truth that was hidden from the public for reasons that allowed our own oppression to continue. People aren’t imprinted with these images, and so they’re ignorant of the very recent past and the ongoing abduction of our children.”

Director Zoe Hopkins

Tell us about your career so far and what brought you to filmmaking.

Director Zoe Hopkins: I come from the independent film world. I’ve been making shorts since 2004, and I have a couple of features under my belt now. Everything’s been non-union until Little Bird, so it’s been a bit of a journey to get to this to this point where I’m making my own work. I thought that if I ever got to direct a series, it would be my own show. It always felt like the doors were closed until just recently. Things have changed so dramatically in the past few years, and there are so many more Indigenous productions on a premium level and on networks and streamers. There are a lot of us out here making our own work, so it’s nice to see Indigenous filmmakers finally allowed into that space.

Have you ever faced feedback or been told that your work was “too Indigenous” or didn’t have a broad appeal to enough Canadians – or the “right” kind of Canadians? 

Zoe Hopkins: Back when I first started making more films, I’d hear the word “esoteric” all the time about my scripts. That’s the language they used to use. There are always things that we hear from the non-Indigenous point of view about how to tell our stories or the fear that it’s too exclusive or niche, which I disagree with. 

I think streamers and networks now recognize that having a great niche market for something is actually really wonderful. I sort of bump against that word “niche,” though, when a story like Little Bird is so human and so important to this country’s history. I think we’re still telling a lot of stories about truths and reckonings because people are terribly ignorant of the Sixties Scoop. Stories that come from our community and personal experiences certainly portray a lot of traditional knowledge that non-Indigenous Canadians don’t have much experience with. Another note that I hear a lot about my work is the desire to have these things explained in an expositional way. I think that audiences like to see things that they don’t entirely understand but can appreciate as being from another culture. I think the respectful way to treat your audience is to not always explain everything to them. 

Little Bird especially is a very human story about generational trauma and hope that crosses cultures – any mother or father, regardless of their history or ethnicity, would be absolutely devastated to have their children taken away from them. Could you tell us more about the writing process and how you told this very human story?

Zoe Hopkins: The Little Bird writer’s room was one of my favourite writing experiences, which was unfortunately on Zoom but was still so wonderful and intimate. It was myself, Hannah [Moscovitch, Little Bird Co-Creator], and Jen, along with Raven Sinclair, who was our advisor throughout our writing process. It was so wonderful to have her. We broke all the episodes fairly quickly, and we weren’t afforded a lot of time to do that. But there was a version of the pilot that already existed, so we sort of went from there. One key part of the writing experience for me was when Jen brought us to Muscowpetung, which is the community where her mother is from. Long Pine, our fictional reserve in Little Bird, is modelled after Muscowpetung First Nations. She brought us there to meet her Auntie, who was our cultural adviser throughout the production. We got to go and stand in the Qu’Appelle Valley,  one of the most beautiful places in the world I’ve ever been. Standing there on that land, crying because it was so beautiful, and listening to Jen’s Auntie sharing stories about her family, I just felt so blessed and grateful and so impacted by this woman’s power and grace. That was huge, and I’ve carried that feeling with me throughout the entire production. A person can withstand so much pain and loss and still stand before you, full of grace, beauty, and power. It really reminded me that we’re not just telling a story about trauma. We’re telling a story about hope, power, and love.

The land really informed my direction. One of my episodes is called “The Call of the Land.” Claudine Sauvé, who was the DP of my three episodes, really showed the colour of the land in Esther’s journey. Claudia is such a visionary; she truly paints with the camera – it’s cheesy to say that, but she really does. She brought trees and plant life into reflections and shadows, and you always feel it, even in urban environments. In the prairies, we always felt the sky. It was a really incredible experience, and I felt really grateful to be in that position as a Writer and Director on the show.

You directed the last three episodes of Little Bird, which audiences in Canada can watch on Crave. What are you hoping audiences take away from this series?  

Zoe Hopkins: Little Bird is a tough story to watch because we’re reckoning with these hard truths, and seeing the impact is really hard and sad. I really hope that people will find their way to the end of the series to discover that it’s not just a story about trauma, but it is a story about love and hope. Canada is facing the discomfort of reckoning with these truths, and I think that in order to arrive at reconciliation, the truth has to come out, and everyone has to feel uncomfortable for a good long while.

As an international community, we are imprinted with images of something like the Holocaust from having been taught about it in school. But the Sixties Scoop was a truth that was hidden from the public for reasons that allowed our own oppression to continue. People aren’t imprinted with these images, and so they’re ignorant of the very recent past and the ongoing abduction of our children. It’s not over. So it’s important that people have these images. If you think about World War II, you can conjure up ten images in your brain of that genocide. But what can you conjure up of residential schools and the Sixties Scoop? When you walk around Berlin, there are monuments to history everywhere. But here, there are no monuments. There are so few stories like ours that we’re telling now. Certainly, this is the first one on this level. So what I hope is that shows like Little Bird will live in part of people’s memories.

Do you feel that Indigenous artists and filmmakers are being given a platform to tell their stories on a much bigger scale than before?

Zoe Hopkins: It feels like a long time coming to be able to work in this premium TV space, and I’m not just talking about myself – other Indigenous creators are now able to tell stories on this level. I really feel like Little Bird is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever made, and it’s because of this kind of budget and platform that we were able to do something that’s so beautiful. I think we always had this in us, but being given those resources for the first time, it’s kind of like, “See what we can do when we have a little money?” It’s such a different storytelling game when you have more resources.

“I really feel like Little Bird is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever made, and it’s because of this kind of budget and platform that we were able to do something that’s so beautiful.”

Director Zoe Hopkins

What more do you think needs to be done to level the playing field in Canada? There is a huge push for diverse stories lately to represent the full Canadian experience, which isn’t just the white settler Canadian experience. Do you think this call for diversity in Canadian film and TV is here to stay?

Zoe Hopkins: I hope this push isn’t temporary, but maybe that’s just my fear from having been a starving artist before, and you have those “feast or famine” periods of creation. It does feel like the doors are opening and will stay open. It’s really hard to predict with funding cycles and changes in government, and different priorities in terms of the arts in this country. But with the formation of the Indigenous Screen Office and the Black Screen Office, I really hope and think that we are at a new level. 

In terms of storytelling in this country, we need to keep allowing more creators into this space and recognizing the talent that exists. None of us got here overnight, and the incredibly talented group of my peers have been primarily working in film because the TV game wasn’t open to us. There’s an incredible group of Indigenous filmmakers out there who are ready to make work at this level but haven’t had the opportunity. So I’m excited for more opportunities for more people, and I think it comes down to streamers, networks and financers trusting talent and recognizing that more resources mean a better end product. 

When casting or crewing on Indigenous productions, one of the unique challenges that we have is a smaller talent pool. We can’t cast and crew entirely out of one major production centre. We have to cast and crew nationally or even across the continent if we want to have an entirely Indigenous cast or keys who are Indigenous craftspeople. It’s difficult to find all of those people in one place, so we’re dealing with stuff like taking a big hit on tax credits. I’d love to see a fund to offset some of the hits that you take for wanting to crew or cast the right people for the right roles and jobs. We are a people that live far apart from each other, and we need to audition nationwide. 

Because Indigenous communities can be far-flung and have different levels of access, what do you think needs to be done to ensure Indigenous people who want to work in film and TV have the right skills and training? 

Zoe Hopkins: For most of the Indigenous productions I’ve worked on, I’ve had trainees come in, but I want to see the industry recognize that we’re already here. I’ve been making films for decades, and this was my first opportunity to direct TV. Time and time again, I see non-Indigenous people given a chance to have a series or given $7 million to make a film about our people. They’re not from our communities, and then the people who are from Indigenous communities aren’t given any resources to tell stories about themselves or their community. It’s like there are two levels of trust. There was a time when I would have been given a more senior white Director to hold my hand through this experience, and it took [Little Bird Co-Creator] Jennifer Podemski to knock down that concept and blow open the door. I’m now directing my third series, so I don’t think I’m going to face the threat of having somebody hold my hand again. But I think it’d be really great if the networks would just have that trust in us. If you trust a white guy to tell a story, for the first time, at this level, maybe we’re just as talented. 

“A person can withstand so much pain and loss and still stand before you, full of grace, beauty, and power. It really reminded me that we’re not just telling a story about trauma. We’re telling a story about hope, power, and love.”

Director Zoe Hopkins

The current cohort of Indigenous filmmakers is making such incredible and powerful work. What advice would you give to an aspiring filmmaker who’s young and Indigenous and really wants to tell stories and represent themselves in an authentic way?

Zoe Hopkins: There’s part of me that wants to say if you’re a filmmaker, you’ll find a way. You’ll always find a way if you have a story to tell. When I look at my group of peers, who are making incredible work and winning top prizes at every festival, it’s so wonderful to see them being celebrated at such high levels. There are some really amazing filmmakers out there, like Elle-Maija Tailfeathers, Tasha Hubbard, Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, Lisa Jackson, and Shane Belcourt. We all started our journey of filmmaking by just deciding to make films, and we all found a way to tell all these stories. So whatever that looks like to you, it’s finding the money and figuring out how films are funded in this country. There’s no one way into this life. I worked as a field producer for magazine-format TV shows for a number of years, I worked as a researcher, I did lots of different things and met lots of different people. But I do have a degree in film, I did go to film school, I did meet a cohort of peers. I came away from those experiences and ended up falling into the ImagineNATIVE Film Festival, which was like a big nursery school for all of us. When Danis Goulet was the Executive Director, we were all really coming up and created The Embargo Collective, and that was a big jumping-off point for a bunch of us. It’s really notable when you look at the work these people made after The Embargo Collective. Taika Waititi made an Embargo Collective film, and look at him now! 

We all came up in this industry together as a little group of filmmakers and often worked together and watched each other learn and grow. A huge part of my development as a filmmaker was just coming home to ImagineNATIVE every year, watching new work and connecting with one another. We grew an international community of Indigenous filmmakers, and we often only see each other abroad. There are some great festivals in Australia, the Māoriland Film Festival in New Zealand, and Berlinale is also a wonderful friend of Indigenous films. For a long time, Sundance was as well, but I feel like it’s a bit less so now. We all are connected around the world, all of us Indigenous filmmakers, even north of the Arctic Circle, with the Sami and their wonderful work. So one piece of advice might be to find your peer community and work alongside each other. And you can do this from your own community – I live on my reserve, and I do a lot of my own work on my reserve. I don’t live very remotely, so I do have access to things that other, more remote communities don’t. But I have made films in my mom’s remote community and shuttled a whole film crew up. It’s not impossible. If you want to make a film, find a way and just do it. I don’t always think that film school is necessary. I’m glad that I went to film school, but I don’t think that you learn how to make a film in film school. I think you learn how to make a film by making a film. 

Watch new episodes of Little Bird weekly on Crave.

Related Posts



This Pride Month, we spoke to DGC Ontario Members who are spotlighting marginalized voices, changing our cultural perceptions of what it means to be part of the 2SLGBTQ community, and sharing queer stories of hope and resilience. In our latest Creative Spotlight, we speak to Director, Writer, Producer and Actor Sharon Lewis about her powerful documentary film With Wonder, which screened at the recent 2022 Inside Out Film Festival in Toronto and takes the viewer on an extraordinary journey to explore the intersection of the queer, Christian community of colour.

Subscribe to get our newsletter

Scroll to Top