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.
I won’t look the other way. The truth will find a way out.
You can’t ignore us much longer. People are beginning to wake up!
That motherfucker made this country a prison!
Put walls in front of me, I’ll knock ’em down!
If you stop my shows, I will sing on!
When you think of revolutionary voices in rap, who first comes to mind? Public Enemy? N.W.A? 2pac? How about Los Aldeanos? Okay, I know you’re asking “Los Who?” In Viva Cuba Libre: Rap Is WAR, you’ll learn all about Los Aldeanos and why they should be considered revolutionary voices.
Los Aldeanos is a rap group beloved by the people of Cuba but greatly feared by the government. Why should the government fear them? We should remember that Cuba is a communist country. The Communist Party run by Fidel Castro in the late 50’s won a brutal war and started a revolution in Cuba. For decades Fidel was the charismatic leader of Cuba firm to the communist ideal. Fidel even stood by his communist beliefs and rulings during the late 80’s-early 90’s as many countries under communist regimes including the U.S.S.R. did away with communist rule. Fidel simply declared the moves to freedom in those countries as ‘terrible, terrible things.’ Tight Communism still stands in Cuba today even after various economic sanctions against the country, even after Fidel Castro’s daughter defected in 1993 and even after Fidel transferred rule over to his brother Raul upon retirement five years ago.
Rap Is WAR shows the difficulties of living in Cuba. Most of us in North America see Havana and the rest of Cuba as a beach paradise or a place where locals like to dance the samba at night spots. Here we see the shabby living conditions Cubans have to go through in cities like Havana and Holguin City or even local villages and farms. We also see of police brutality given to people even simply for speaking freely. Some of us older people may remember how we were taught that in Russia one could be jailed for free speech. It happens in Cuba today. We also learn of young people of how limited their future is and how it appears they don’t have much of a choice in the matter. We also see a crying child at a farm who misses his mother. She’s jailed for prostitution because she can’t afford to raise her family with the meager wage she received.
One pair of people who are not afraid to speak the truth about what’s happening in Cuba is the rap duo Los Aldeanos: two young men from Havana named Aldo ‘El Aldeano’ and Bian ‘El B’. “Los Aldeanos” is Spanish for “The Villagers.” Those two friends see and live the same daily life as the people in Havana and the rest of Cuba. However they refuse to be silenced. They will speak about the struggles about daily life in Cuba. They will rap about how phony those images of Cuba on those postcards are. They will rap about the limited future Cuban people are given. They will rap commemorating those Cubans who lost their lives seeking to escape the brutal Communist life in Cuba. They aren’t even afraid to rap about what cowards Fidel, Raul and the Communist Regime of Cuba are.
Their music is very well-known across Cuba. The music is not allowed any radio airplay or sales in stores. So the duo record their songs and burn them onto discs to give to the people to hear. The music has spread by the thousands or even millions across Cuba. The people on the streets love Los Aldeanos. They dance to it. They rap along to it. Many are proud of Los Aldeanos for speaking the truth. Many feel that Los Aldeanos speak the voice of Cuba that most Cubans are afraid to speak.
However it’s not to say it comes without consequences. Los Aldeanos use their ‘underground’ distribution methods because they know that what they say in their raps is breaking the law in Cuba and can subject them to imprisonment. In fact they often play to concerts without them on the bill as promoters ‘sneak’ them on stage during intermissions. Both men of Los Aldeanos know of the potential consequences their recorded raps and their rapping in their concerts can give them and it’s a gamble they’re willing to take. In fact the documentary shows two incidents where the two men of Los Aldeanos are arrested but released shortly after. Communists, even locals who believe in the Communist regime, would consider them unpatriotic. Truth is they’re very patriotic to the point they believe in a free Cuba.
The film shows images of Havana and the rest of Cuba as their raps are in the background. The film also shows them on stage at a concert only to have the sound shut off just after they say a few lines. That doesn’t stop the audience from rapping their lyrics out loud. We also see Los Aldeanos as they record their next disc Viva Cuba Libre: a disc they believe will be the ‘death of them’ but are not afraid. We see them preparing for a big street concert but the two struggling to negotiate with concert promoters. We also see as Bian’s girlfriend is pregnant. It’s a struggle for Bian especially since her girlfriend has had bad symptoms during her pregnancy and it threatens to put the duo on hold during their anticipated big show. The big show in the square in Havana goes as planned and they both are able to avoid arrest. Bian’s girlfriend did have to go to the hospital where she gave birth to a healthy boy. Bian proudly says that he will rap for a better Cuba for his son.
The film doesn’t strictly focus on the duo as they plan for their next disc or their big concert. The film also alternates from Havana where Las Aldeanos live and perform to Holguin City. There we meet the mother of the Cruz brothers who are in prison awaiting trial for ‘anti-government activities.’ Their crime? One night they played the music of Los Aldeanos out loud from the top of their house, waved the Cuban flag and shouted out “Viva Cuba Libre!” The police were fast as they came and beat the whole family and arrested the two sons. Their house which had freedom messages painted on it was painted over by the government. The mother talks tearfully of the prison conditions her sons are going through and her fears for the youth of the country. Even the father talks of the fears he has for this country. A reminder that even playing Los Aldeanos’ music can result in criminal punishment.
It’s at the end days after Los Aldeanos gave their grand performance that they meet with the parents and hear their story. They even decide to write a rap about the injustice the brothers have been receiving. The parents give the two huge praise. Looking at that, you could say the documentary is two stories in one. The story of the rap group and the story of the two brothers who are political prisoners for loving their music.
The film is an excellent depiction of a rap band, their music, and the status quo they threaten. It let the duo tell their story and the cameraman show the images uncensored instead of a narrator speaking a point of view. There were times when the cameraman had to turn the camera off but not without showing on film the reason why. Hidden cameras were often used in certain scenes. The film is also a risk to all those involved. It’s not just Los Aldeanos but also the villagers and city people who openly speak their mind about how terrible life in Cuba is. It’s also the fans of Los Aldeanos in the street who proudly say their reasons why they love their music and how true it is. They all risk going to jail for speaking the truth or supporting Los Aldeanos. In fact there’s a message at the beginning that names have been changed and identities protected because of fear of reprisal. Even the Americans involved with the film are subject to possible arrest and are unaccredited. The cameraman even is credited as (Anonymous). Director Jesse Acevedo even risks his own freedom for the sake of getting this documentary out. No one involved with this is immune.
One of the things of this documentary is that it restores the credibility of the term ‘underground rap.’ Underground Rap was a huge phenomenon in the 80’s as young people of a generation wanted music that was untouched and devoid of ‘watering down’ from the mainstream. That’s why underground rock and rap was huge during that time. Underground rap especially took off as a phenomenon during the late 80’s thanks to the release of N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton. It received no radio airplay but the buzz of the anger in the songs spread like wildfire and made it go quadruple-platinum. The controversy of songs like Fuck Tha Police made headlines and made young people hungrier to buy the records. Its offensiveness to adult society made young people like it even more. It was only a matter of years when gangsta rap would become a huge phenomenon that would last for almost two decades. The ‘rebel spirit’ of gangsta rap and other underground rap was catchy enough for even white middle-class or upper-class kids to get a piece of the action and don the athletic wear gangsta baggy jeans, multiple tattoos, ghetto hand-gestures African-American accents and the walking swagger. Even though it was phony, it shows how catchy the ‘rebel spirit’ of rap was. Even if they couldn’t live it, they adopted the clothes and mannerisms of it to get the feel of it.
Nowadays ‘underground rap’ appears to be a thing of the past at least in the modern world. Underground music of the past had an impact on mainstream music and has caused changes to it. Much of underground rap was able to come above ground over time. Alternative music no longer has to rely on specialized record shops or independent labels to get their stuff hear. Apple’s iTunes has become a domain where even unsigned musicians can display their music and have the creative control alternative musicians in the past could only dream of. On top of it, the ‘rebel spirit’ of rap has faded over time. When the offensiveness of Eminem and 50 Cent faded, it took the flare and fire of rap with it. Rap music is still popular with the young but its phenomenon in terms of shelling out hot new music talent and dominating youth culture has faded over these past few years. Today’s hottest new rap talents seem simply to be ‘carbon copies’ of past phenomenons or just mere entertainers compared to those of the past. In fact I’ve often said: “Rap and hip-hop has faded in popularity so much over the last five years, it’s no longer sissyish for guys to wear skinny jeans anymore.”
One thing about Los Aldeanos is that they bring back the rebel spirit of rap. It’s rightly so because they are rebels. They’re the ones trying to shake the tight grip of Castro’s Communism in Cuba with their raps and the fans that agree with all they say. They do it at a huge risk knowing that they risk imprisonment for violating the tight Communist speech laws but they’re not afraid to do it or pay whatever price comes their way. It’s like one of their lines in their raps: “Rap is war!” Very true as they are battling the regime with the power of their rhymes. It’s been commonly said that the pen is mightier than the sword. Here’s a chance for their raps to be mightier than the sword in Cuba. In fact when I myself heard the raps of Los Aldeanos, I was reminded of Public Enemy. That’s how good they are.
Viva Cuba Libre: Rap Is War is an excellent depiction of a rap group few people know about and the country they come from. Those who have a chance to see this will see why Los Aldeanos is not only great for Cuba but necessary. I can’t think of any other people in Cuba inspiring the young for the hope of a better tomorrow.
BONUS: If you want to learn more about Los Aldeanos, here are a pair of sites to go to:
Official Music Site: http://www.losaldeanosmusic.com