I’m glad I started my last day of the VIFF watching the documentary Call Me Human. I never knew of poet Josephine Bacon until I saw it. I’m glad I did.
The film is an intimate look at poet Josephine Bacon. It’s also a look at the friendship between her and the documentary’s director Kim O’Bomsawin. She was born in Innu territory in Pessamit, Quebec. Like other Innu children in her community, she was forced to grow up in the Residential School system in Canada. It was there she endured the abuses and the pressures to abandon her culture and language. Her young adult years would mean trying to make a living. She’d escape her village to live in Montreal, sometimes sleeping with her friend in abandoned places. She would find work as a director and lyricist. She would work as a translator and interpreter with Elders and would listen to their words closely.
It wouldn’t be until after she turned 60 that she learned that she was a poet. She feels she’s not a poet. She feels she has a natural way of storytelling. Her first collection of poetry would not be published until 2009. It was in both French and Innu and it received renown for its importance of cultural preservation and storytelling. Bacon has continued to have poetry books published. She has won numerous literary awards such as the Prix des Libraires de Quebec, the Indigenous Voices Award, and the Order of Montreal.
The film is more than a biography. The film also features a lot of imagery of Josephine as she goes to various places. She’s often seen with other members of her Innu community. It is there she senses a culture whose traditions and ways of life are dying as the younger Innu are more modernized. She is seen looking out to the natural landscapes. It is in her and her culture that she has this feeling. She is seen at places of her past. It is there where she tells of her past history, both bad and good. She is seen over at a friend’s house for a dinner on Innu-cooked fish. It is there we see the life-long connections she established.
The intention of the film is not just to get us to learn who Josephine is, but to experience what it is that makes her poetry. We see Josephine in many dimensions. She calmly tells the stories of her life, but you can tell when heartbreak is in her, even when she doesn’t show it. We see her looking out to nature both with awe, admiration and sadness. She loves the beauty but she quietly hurts because it is stolen land. Her readings of her poems are done across a lot of imagery from landscape images to personal images to animation. Her poems may be in French or in Innu. All of which paint a picture of who Josephine is and how she finds her voice.
The appearance of the Innu ways is as important as Josephine’s use of the Innu language in some of her poems. Innu is a language spoken by only 10,000. The Innu ways were common before residential schooling tried to get children to abandon. Now the difficulty is modernism. There’s fear the traits and traditions will be lost. That’s why Josephine’s poems are so important. They keep the Innu language and the Innu ways of expression alive. That has a lot to do with why she has won so many awards. Those who see this documentary will be lucky to meet a gem of a talent.
Top respect goes to director Kim O’Bomsawin. Kim is not just the director of the film but comes across as a friend. She helps Josephine as she goes from place to place. She even helps with radio interviews, visiting friends and is there who Josephine accepts an award. Kim does an excellent job of showcasing Josephine’s poetic voice as well as the land that Josephine embraces and the traditions she tries to keep alive.
Call Me Human is more than a documentary about a Canadian poet. It’s also about a people and a way of life that was suppressed and oppressed at first but is now experiencing a revival thanks to people like Josephine.