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.
A River Changes Course is one of the many documentaries being shown at the VIFF. It has its own message to say and it says it by the way a family lives.
The film focuses on three families that live on the Tonle Sap River: the Math family, the Moh family and the Sabourn family. The Math family is a fishing family who rely on fishing for their income. The Mok family works the rice farms but it’s hard considering the mother has a big family to raise. The Samourn family is an indigenous family living in an agricultural area that help to keep their family with a decent income.
Things have not been easy for either family. Sari Math must quit school to help the family but the fishing population of the river is dwindling. Khieu Mok, the eldest daughter of the Mok family, leaves the family farm for the capital Phnom Penh for a factory job to help pay her family’s debts. And Sav Samourn notices the land she’s always known as home being bulldozed for the sake of factories and farms for export. It hurts her as she always called the area ‘home’ whether through good or bad times.
The object of the film was to get the people to tell their stories. There’s no narrator. There’s just the camera showing the family through their everyday lives. Whether it be fishing from a boat, reaping harvest or working in the factory, or selling what they’ve made, it shows the difficulties they go through to make a living. It even shows the children of the family working in the farms, from the boat or even near the fish market. That shows childhood ends early and one makes a worker of themselves at an early age. It also shows conversations with those in jobs associated with the subjects being filmed. Just as Khieu talks of her difficulties in making a livable wage at the factories, two of her other co-workers talk of their own difficulties. Basically this documentary about the lives of three families in Cambodia showcase the lives of millions.
Even outside of the images of the people working and struggling, other scenes also send a message too. One is of a young boy singing a song with lyrics; “Marry me and I will make you rich.” Many times in the film, you will hear people sing songs in which they composed themselves. Another is seeing the small children in school learning how to read. Another is where the family gathers in a town area to watch television: one television per village. Another is even when it’s raining in the area but the young boys see it as swim time in the river. That’s a reminder that despite the hardships, childhood does exist. Actually all the images that don’t deal directly with the main plot say something.
One thing about the film is that it’s not just a showcase of daily life in Cambodia but it also shows glimpses of hope for the nation. We shouldn’t forget that Cambodia has a troubled past. There’s the dictatorship of the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot in the late 1970’s where 2 million Cambodians were slaughtered. Cambodia has struggled to rebuild but it hasn’t been easy especially since the country is under a fixed democracy. Agriculture and fishing have always been ways of life in Cambodia but it’s always been conditional depending on the crop year or fish catch. The factory work offer some hope, albeit limited. Just as land is cleared for factory land or cropland for China, Khieu talks about the potential for better chances closer to home. Khieu’s mother talks of her son being a migrant worker in China. Even the images of the young children in school show an image of hope. Especially while Sari is talking in the background of quitting at Grade 7 and lucky to get that far. I believe that’s why it’s titled A River Changes Course as it shows potential changes for Cambodia.
However despite the images of hope for the future, it does come at a price for others. Sav is completely unhappy with the deforestation as this has been a land she has always called home, being indigenous. What’s seen as hope or a future for others can be seen as a big loss for someone like Sav. She even says: “We’ve worked so hard on this land and now they’ve come to destroy it all. Sooner or later it will all be gone.” It also shows that the title A River Changes Course does not completely have a positive meaning.
This documentary is not just a showcase of life in Cambodia but also a ‘homecoming’ for director Kalyanee Mam. She was born in Cambodia and emigrated with her family of nine to the USA in 1980 as refugees of the Khmer Rouge regime. She is a law graduate of Yale and UCLA Law School and has worked as a legal consultant in Syria and Iraq. Mam has also done film work along the way. She completed her first documentary Between The Earth And Sky in 2009. She also worked in the cinematography in the Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job. Mam is now working on another documentary Power of Pearl, due for release in 2015.
Mam also took time at the VIFF showing of A River Changes Course where she told her story of her family escaping Cambodia for the United States and living as refugees. She told about why she did the documentary and also about some of the raw deals Cambodia is getting in terms of creating crops for China, like none of the harvested crop going to Cambodians: all straight to China for ethanol. I myself asked her a question about politics in Cambodia: if it’s a democracy or dictatorship. She told of how fixed a democracy it is right now. Nevertheless she and other Cambodians believe in a hope for the future. In fact Mam made mention that when Khieu casted her ballot, she said it was for a livable wage. A River Changes Course is a chance for her to tell the story of her homeland across the world in hopes for a better tomorrow. In fact you’ll learn more about it at the film’s official website and how you can help too.
A River Changes Course has already received a lot of acclaim. It’s already received the Grand Jury prize for documentaries at this year’s Sundance. It has also won top documentary prizes at the Green Film Festival in Seoul and the San Francisco Film Festival. It has also received other awards such as Best Feature at the Atlanta Film Festival, a Human Rights Award at the River Run Film Festival, a Best Feature award at the Yale Environmental Film Festival, and a Grand Jury Conscience award at the Docville International Documentary Film Festival. I’m sure there’s more to come.
A River Changes Course is Kalyanee Mam’s most acclaimed work yet. It is an accomplishment too as it helps open people’s eyes towards what is happening in her land of origin and raise awareness and help. I believe that art can make for a better future. Much the same way The Killing Fields opened people’s eyes over what happened during the Khmer Rouge, this documentary can shed a big light to its aftermath many decades later.