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VIFF 2017 Review: Indian Horse

Indian-Horse-Film-1

Indian Horse follows the life of Saul Indian Horse (played here by Ajuawak Kapashesit) and his struggle with himself and his Indigenous heritage.

I was lucky to see a lot of Canadian film this year at the VIFF. The last Canadian film I saw was Indian Horse. It touches on a dark moment of Canada’s history, but it also gives a ray of hope.

The story begins with Saul Indian Horse in a rehab clinic for alcoholism. He is around other First Nations people who tell of their experiences being raised in a Residential School. It’s there where Saul needs to make sense of his past.

His first memories come back to 1958: before he was taken to the School. He had a grandmother who spoke in her Ojibway language and still practiced Indigenous spirituality. Her daughter, Saul’s mother, was raised in the School. It changed her terribly. She called the mother’s religion blasphemy and would only speak English. The grandmother would be undaunted and would comment on how she was drinking the ‘white man’s drink.’ Their first son, Saul’s older brother, was to be home from the School temporarily, but was terribly sick. Eventually the brother died. Saul never saw his parents again.

It was just Saul and his grandmother shortly after. The grandmother took Saul to a remote location to try to hide Saul from being taken by authorities to the School, but she died. The authorities did find Saul and took him to the School. The first day was terrible. Saul was joined by a boy named Lonnie who spoke nothing but Ojibway. They were told how they would be made to speak English, revoke their ‘pagan Indian religion’ and not act like ‘savages.’ It all started with the cut of Saul’s ponytail.

The School was where the First Nations children were ‘schooled’ and ‘raised.’ They weren’t taught much in school as far as education went, but they were taught a lot of the Catholic religion. As far as ‘raising’ the children, the priests and nuns ‘raised’ them through abuse and humiliation, even keeping them captive in the basement cage at times. Saul witnesses it all and is even victim to the abuse. He witnesses Lonnie constantly beaten for speaking Ojibway, Lonnie’s failed escape and being held captive for punishment, one girl held captive for behavior and even dying in the cage, and her sister later committing suicide.

Saul did find a way out of the horror. There was one priest, Father Gaston, who appeared to be less strict than the others. He introduced the boys of the school to the sport of hockey. The school had a hockey team and the boys were allowed to watch Hockey Night In Canada. Saul wanted to play but he was too small at first. Fr. Gaston allowed him to tend the uniforms and clean the ice. That time allowed Saul to learn skating for himself and to learn hockey…using frozen horse turds as pucks. Fr. Gaston is astounded by Saul, but the head priest is reluctant to let Saul on the team. After a year, Saul is allowed on. It was a smart decision as the team came the surprise winner at many games with Saul outpowering and outplaying players way bigger than him.

Saul improves so much over the years in hockey, he’s allowed to leave the school early to play for a team on a nearby reserve. Before he leaves, he promises Lonnie he’ll see him again. He’s given a rooming home by an Indigenous couple who are empathetic to what he went through. He even blends well with his new team: The Moose. The Moose are not just a team that plays well, but a team with a brotherly bond. Whenever they win, they celebrate together no matter who the big star is. When they go to a bar to drink, they stand their ground against any bigoted white men why try to fight them.

Years later, Saul is offered a big opportunity to play with a team from a big city, and play professionally for money. The coach, Jack Lanahan, makes an offer in from of Saul’s teammates. Saul refuses at first, but his teammates encourage him to go for it. Saul accepts. Saul is the only member of the team that isn’t white and the team makes him feel like a misfit. On the ice, things aren’t any less discomforting. The crowds taunt him and whenever he scores a goal, they throw Indian figures on the ice. The media isn’t any kinder as a drawing depicts him as a warrior and even the journalist writes him as a warrior. Saul can’t take it anymore and he quits the team, and hockey as a whole. Years later, Saul is doing menial jobs like dishwashing for a restaurant. As he walks the streets of the town, he sees so many First Nations people with drinking problems. Then one day he notices Lonnie on the street with a bottle in his hand. That leads to Saul dealing with his own bout of alcoholism.

It’s 1989. Saul was hospitalized with liver problems. The doctor tells him any more drinking, and he will die soon. Saul check into a rehab centre specifically for First Nations people. There he hears many residential school stories similar to what he endured or what he saw happen to others. One of the counselors ask him if he ever cried. He never has; Saul has always made himself stoic in emotions. He’s asked to go retrace his past. Saul goes back to all the places he knew. First place he returns to is the residential school. It’s no longer running and is now just a shabby building. As he tours the place, he’s reminded of the memories of the ice rink where he learned to play, of the basement where students were locked up, and even the stairway where we learn Fr. Gaston used to perform ‘abuse’ on him. Saul returns to the land in the woods where he lived as a child before being sent to the school. It’s there Saul cries for the first time. It’s also there where he experiences a reconnection with his family and his indigenous heritage. This time he feels the pride. Then he returns to the reserve and is welcomed by his foster parents and The Moose with open arms.

This film is remarkable because it touches on a subject that remains the darkest blemish in Canadian history. The residential school system was set up with contempt in indigenous culture. The white English-French Canadians who ran Canada over a century ago always saw indigenous culture as ‘pagan,’ ‘wicked’ or ‘demonic.’ They felt they were doing the right thing by ‘whitewashing’ the indigenous people. Instead they created a huge mess that was very hurtful to the indigenous people. I attended high school in downtown Winnipeg and I saw firsthand the social problems the indigenous people endured from the late 80’s onward like alcoholism, drug abuse, homelessness, teenage pregnancies, gang violence and suicides. One scene that stuck out for me was when the white authorities were taking Saul away to the schools as his grandmother lay dead beside him. They only cared about taking Saul: they didn’t care about the recently-deceased grandmother at all. What does that tell you?

It’s only until revelations of abuse at the schools, both physical and sexual, surfaced in the 90’s after the system was dismantled that we finally got our answers why the indigenous had all these problems. It’s only now since the beginning of the 21st century that efforts have been made to reconcile and to clean up this mess. The stories experienced by the children that were put in the schools were echoed in the 2012 novel Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese. The novel has earned huge renown and even won awards since its release. The story of Saul is a story commonly echoed by many indigenous people that were ‘prey’ to this system.

Now adapting Wagamese’s novel into a film would prove to be a challenge. This was a story that needed to be told, no matter how painful the details. However the goal was not just to simply create a film, but create it in a ‘movie’ format so it can be viewed by a wider audience. Direction ended up in the hands of Stephen Campanelli who actually has a reputation in Hollywood as a cameraman, mostly for Clint Eastwood’s films. Campanelli has become Clint’s most trusted ‘camera eye’ since The Bridges Of Madison County. Scriptwriting was given to reputed Canadian scriptwriter Dennis Foon, but not without consultation with Wagamese himself.

The film had to include a lot of important elements of what happened both in the lives of the protagonist and what the indigenous peoples endured over the decades. However if this was to be a movie, the film had to be made into something watchable. The days back in the 90’s when we used to admire directors like Harmony Korine and Lars von Trier who’d take the unwatchable and shoved it in people’s faces are long gone. Making it ‘watchable’ would be a huge challenge. The subject of child abuse is never easy to write about. Seeing images of bigotry toward the indigenous children makes it additionally harder to watch. I don’t deny that anyone who went through the system will say that the depictions of abuse were ‘light’ in comparison to their experiences. However they were very good in telling exactly what they went through. The priests and nuns insulted them, humiliated them and even tortured them whenever they did wrong or didn’t live up to their standards. I may be Catholic, but I felt a lot of wrath towards the priests and nuns who taught at the schools when I was watching. I even thought: “They’re in hell now!” However the film also pointed to their mindset too. The film gave the impression that the priests felt the using abuse to teach and punish was the right thing to use not just on the indigenous, but in raising children as a whole. We shouldn’t forget there were people back in the 50’s that thought using abuse to raise children and punish them was the right thing.

Another element the film had to include was the common prejudices indigenous people received which helped lead to their lifelong identity crisis. The image of indigenous people has always had a difficult time. I don’t want to get started about all those ‘cowboys and indians’ movies of decades past. Imagine an indigenous child watching one of those. How’s he supposed to feel about his identity? The film does a good job in showing the identity crisis the indigenous continued to face just after Saul leaves the school. They would face prejudice whenever they’d go into a bar or any other place mostly filled with white people. Whenever an indigenous would make news of an accomplishment, they would be subject to journalism depicting them as a ‘warrior.’ That scene of Saul reading over that news story is something very common. There are a lot of white people who think that depicting the indigenous as ‘warriors’ through sports names like Redskins or Tomahawks are doing the right thing. Instead it only adds to their inferiority complex.

I think the purpose of the film is to show Saul’s experience as an indigenous person from childhood to adulthood as difficulties shared by most indigenous people in Canada. Throughout the film, I was thinking that this film is not based on a true story. It’s based on a thousand true stories. I’m sure there are many indigenous people who will see the abuse or bigotry or feelings of inferiority happening to Saul and the people around him and feel that this is their story too. This is a mirror of what happened in their lives too.

However going back to how this film was to be in a ‘movie’ format, it still needed to be watchable. There were certain harsh truths that could not be hidden from the movie, but the story is about finding a way out of the harshness and even finding a feeling of belonging after it all. The story of hockey makes for excitement and gets you cheering for Saul. Those in the audience who never read the novel want Saul to come out the winner. Even after we see all that Saul has been through, we want Saul to come out triumphant after all the ordeals he had been through in his life. The ending is the highlight because the end scene of Saul’s recovery and coming to terms with his past shows a ray of hope. All of Canada has seen the harm the system has done to the indigenous people. Even the indigenous peoples of Canada themselves don’t want to hurt anymore. They want to live their lives and be seen as people deserving of respect. The end scene may be a bit simple and may be seen as ‘sugar coated’ by some, or even a ‘prodigal son’ moment by a few, but it’s also part of the theme of hope. That scene where Saul returns to his foster parents and the Moose greeting him is a reminder of those that will never leave you no matter what. There are people that will find you when you’re lost.

Director Stephen Campanelli and writer Dennis Foon did a very good job of bringing the novel to the big screen in movie format. There were some noticeable imperfections and even a thing or two that could have been done better, but that doesn’t stop this for being an accomplishment for Canadian cinema. As for author Wagamese, unfortunately Wagamese died on March 10th of this year at the age of 61. It’s unfortunate Wagamese didn’t live to see its debut at the TIFF. Many in the indigenous communities say he’s still here in spirit.

The actors did a very good job in their roles. All the actors who played Saul did very well, but the standout had to be Sladen Peltier who played Saul at 9. He never acted before, but he was excellent. Forrest Goodluck was also very good too. The 19 year-old from Albuquerque has professional experience already through roles like Hawk in The Revenant and has two films to be released soon. Even newcomers like Ajuawak Kapashesit and Bo Peltier were impressive. The film shows a lot of good young indigenous talent in Canada that have a promising future. The music was a good mix of original score by Jesse Zubot and modern-day indigenous music or indigenous pop.

I know I’ve often said about Canadian film that there’s two groups: Quebec and English Canada. I’ve often elaborated how Quebec is the class of the field while English Canada is struggling with its identity in film. This is a film that I feel can change that. This is a very professionally-done film about a story that creates a lot of intrigue and gets one hoping for the protagonist. Oh, remember I said that Campanelli was a cameraman on many of Clint Eastwood’s films? Well, Eastwood himself is an executive producer of this film! This film was a big hit at the TIFF and won the Audience Award at the VIFF. I heard during a Q&A that this film will have an American release in April. That could open more doors for Canadian film in the future.

Indian Horse attempts to do something tricky in film making: attempt to make a ‘movie’ out of a hard subject in Canadian history. It succeeds in doing so, albeit imperfectly, and even serves as a ray of hope for the future.

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Oscars 2015 Best Picture Review: The Revenant

Revenant

Hugh Glass (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) will soon find himself at odds with his former trapping partner John Fitzgerald (played by Tom Hardy at left) in The Revenant.

If there’s one movie that’s had its box office results significantly after the nominations, It’s The Revenant. If you’ve seen it already, you’ll easily see why it could have done excellently even without the Oscar buzz.

It’s 1823 in an unsettled wilderness part of the northern area of the Louisiana Purchase. A group of trappers under the command of Captain Andrew Henry search for pelts until a surprise attack from Arikara Native Americans kills many from the camp and cause the survivors to flee on a boat. Part of the camp is Hugh Glass who is on friendly terms with the Natives–even being a widow to a Native American woman and fathering their ‘half-breed’ son Hawk who’s part of the camp– and knows the area well. At Glass’ recommendation, they abandon ship and walk on foot to return to their outpost Fort Kiowa. This does not settle well with some of the trappers including John Fitzgerald who has a hostile attitude towards Natives after being scalped years ago. He is noticeably hostile to Hawk.

Glass scouts ahead alone for a while but he is mauled by a mother bear protecting her cubs. The attack is brutal and Glass is severely mauled but he’s able to stab the bear. The other people in the camp find Glass but doubt his chances for survival. Henry commands to three men in the camp–Hawk, Fitzgerald and the young Jim Bridger–to stay with Glass until he dies and give him a proper burial. Fitzgerald tries to smother Glass when alone but Hawk stops him. Unfortunately stabbed is killed by Fitzgerald as Glass can only lie and watch. Fitzgerald attempts to bury Glass prematurely but stops when he sees Bridger flee and follows.

Abandoned with only a canteen, Glass is somehow able to survive and slowly heal. Days later, he’s able to heal to the point he can move, then crawl, then walk. As he heals he’s haunted by visions of his deceased wife. He even sees visions of her as he comes across an abandoned church. However he also has to deal with the Arikara whose chief is searching for his kidnapped daughter Powaqa and trusts no white man.

Both Fitzgerald and Bridger are heading to Fort Kiowa but Fitzgerald scares Bridger into being fully under his control. One at the Fort, Fitzgerald tells Henry that Glass died and Hawk was attacked by the Arikara. Henry gives both Fitzgerald and Bridger a cash reward. Fitzgerald accepts without guilt but Bridger refuses.

Glass encounters Hicuk, a friendly Pawnee who gives him food and shelter and helps him along the path back to Fort Kiowa. Hikuc has also lost his family. Upon hearing from Glass his intent for revenge, he tells Glass “Revenge is in the Creator’s hands.” The day after the blizzard, Glass wakes to find Hikuc hanged by French pelters. Not only that, he finds Powaqa being raped by leader of the French pelters. He’s able to kill the two leaders and free Powaqa but has to escape with Hikuc’s horse and Bridger’s canteen. An ambush by the Arikara causes Glass to flee on horse only to fall off a cliff. Glass survives but the horse is dead. Glass uses the horse’s carcass as a shelter overnight.

Meanwhile word has gotten around to Fort Kiowa that Glass is in fact alive. This is known as a French hunter brings Bridger’s canteen there. Henry however thinks it’s stolen from Hawk and organizes a search party but Fitzgerald knows the truth and flees. Henry finds Glass alive in the search. Infuriated, he charges Bridger with treason after returning to the Fort but Glass insists it’s all Fitzgerald’s doing.

The operation then goes to find Fitzgerald and bring him to justice. Henry however is caught by Fitzgerald in an ambush and is killed and scalped. It’s now up to Glass who hatches a plan to finally get his revenge. It works in catching Fitzgerald and having him shot but not without Fitzgerald being able to run off. It then comes down to a fight between the two for Glass to get his revenge. It ends with Glass making a decision and an ending we’re all left to decide for ourselves Glass’ fate.

Now just to get things straight, this is not the true story of Hugh Glass getting revenge on John Fitzgerald. In fact historic documentation shows Glass let Fitzgerald live because he knew the heavy penalty of killing a soldier in the U.S. Army. Fitzgerald became a soldier in the U.S. army and was stationed in Fort Atkinson, Nebraska. Fitzgerald did give Glass his rifle back.

This film is actually a revenge story adapted from the 2002 novel The Revenant: A Story Of Revenge by Michael Punke. I think the focus of the film is more about telling the story than it is about retelling history. I have not read Punke’s novel but I’m sure that was how Punke would have wanted Fitzgerald to face the music upon abandoning Glass to die. There is actually very little information about who John Fitzgerald was or even what type of person he was in real life. We have the historical documentation of what happened to Glass and what happened in his pursuit of Fitzgerald but not much else. The novel was not only Punke’s chance of creating his own revenge fantasy in Fitzgerald but giving Fitzgerald a character of his own. The film helps Punke’s story come alive and even paint a picture of Glass, Fitzgerald, the times, the terrain and the domain of all that happened.

This revenge story is not your typical revenge story you’d see in your typical Hollywood movies or even from the likes of Quentin Tarantino. This revenge story is also a story of survival and also shows a human side of the perpetrator Hugh Glass. Yes, he was as tough as a frontiersman and a trapper of the time should be. However he did have a soft side. He still has feelings towards his deceased wife who was a Native American woman and he truly loved his son despite others seeing him as a ‘half-breed.’ He also had to be tough as he needed to survive the brutal bear attack and recover from his wounds in order to pursue Fitzgerald. He also had to develop the will to live knowing that his son was killed by Fitzgerald. He also had to be right in his mind in deciding what he had to do to Fitzgerald in the end.

I will admit there were times when I questioned if this film was becoming too much of a tall tale. One example is when seeing Glass pursue Fitzgerald in what appeared to be just days before his attack. I often asked: “Would someone who suffered such a brutal bear attack recover in that fast of a time?” Even that scene where Glass and his horse fall off a cliff. The snowy tree broke Glass’ fall and helped him live without any severe bodily damage but the horse died. That scene also had me scratching my head. Maybe those scenes and the elapsed time were also part of Punke’s novel. Nevertheless it still had me questioning its believability.

First off I’d like to give respect to Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu for delivering an excellent movie. He may be renowned for his ‘filmwork’ but here he takes his first steps in directing a movie intended to draw big crowds while still maintaining some top film making qualities. Very little was compromised and the end result was excellent as it both succeeds as a film and as a movie. I’ll admit I was unhappy about Birdman winning Best Picture last year because it didn’t give much for a film audience to either enjoy or appreciate. Yes, it had top-notch acting, directing and scriptwriting but who truly enjoyed it?  This is ten times more enjoyable while still maintaining top acting and directing. Yes, there were some scenes that can scare many. In fact I’ll admit the film made me hope I never walk in the woods again. Nevertheless it was a very good movie full of drama and thrills. As I said, I have never read Punke’s novel but the script Inarritu co-wrote with Mark L. Smith definitely makes the novel come alive. I know the script was not nominated for an Oscar. However the unspoken scenes in the movie told as much as the scripted scenes.

The film would simply be a popcorn movie if it weren’t for the acting. Leonardo DiCaprio did an excellent job of Hugh Glass. He said a lot especially in the scenes where Hugh Glass was unable to speak. His performance was as much about telling a lot through physical actions as it was through dialogue. Hey, it’s been said 80% of communication is non-verbal and Leo was able to say a lot in those scenes. That’s why I’d be shocked if he doesn’t win the Oscar. Also just as excellent is Tom Hardy. He didn’t play your typical rotten-to-the-core villain. He gave John Fitzgerald some fears and insecurities to the role and conveyed them well. Nevertheless he also made Fitzgerald hateable as a remorseless villain who even calls the dead Hawk a ‘pussy’ in Glass’ face. Additional performances of respect include Bill Poulter as Jim Bridger, the young trapper who possesses the conscience Fitzgerald lacks, and Forrest Goodluck as Hawk.

Additional qualities of acclaim is the cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki, the costuming by Jacqueline West including its use of furs and hides, the film editing by Stephen Mirrione, the visual effects including that of the bear attack, the excellent use of both natural settings and constructed sets that fit the times and scenes perfectly and the film’s score by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Carsten Nicolai and Bryce Dessner.

An additional note. I also give the film respect for its treatment of Native Americans. I may have been a baby when Sacheen Littlefeather refuted Marlon Brando’s Oscar on his behalf and spoke of his protest to the on-screen depiction of Native Americans or First Nations peoples as Canadians commonly refer to them as. However I already know of Hollywood’s past and how they’re famous for shelling out ‘cowboys and indians’ movies from decades past. I can completely understand why Brando would have been angry with that depiction as Brando has had a history of activism in the 1970’s on behalf of people of various races. I will admit Hollywood has been better at its depiction of indigenous Americans from films like 1990’s Dances With Wolves and even the character of Chief in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest that was shown in theatres a mere three years after Brando’s Oscar protest. I’m sure there are some people that can spot imperfections in Hollywood’s current treatment of Native Americans including in this film but I found it hard to pinpoint a scene that was insulting to them. Sure there were battles with tribes and there were bigoted attitudes among many white characters but there were many positive Native American characters in this movie. In addition the main protagonist Hugh Glass had positive interaction with the Native people including marrying one and treating his son with love while many despised him as a ‘half-breed.’

The Revenant isn’t just a dazzling movie. It’s one that will keep you intrigued from start to finish and not know what to expect next.