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Edna Manitowabi, middle, in a still from the film ‘Indian Horse.’ (Elevation Pictures) Edna Manitowabi was raised on Manitoulin Island’s Wikwemikong reserve in northern Ontario as the youngest of eight siblings—and in 1947, at the age of six, she was torn from her family and sent to a Catholic residential school. “All of us were taken,” she says today. “I was the last. When I saw the look of horror on my mum’s face when she put me on the bus, I wondered what was going on. Nobody told me. Nothing was explained. But that look on her face was imprinted on my psyche.”

Seven decades later, Manitowabi’s childhood trauma has come flooding back to her as she makes her acting debut in the movie Indian Horse, playing a grandmother in the 1950s who escapes with her family to an ancestral lake, desperate to protect her grandchildren from being abducted to a residential school. For an especially painful scene, the film’s director asked her to wail. “I thought, ‘how am I going to do that?’ ” Manitowabi recalls, on the phone from her home on Manitoulin Island. “What I did is I remembered my mother’s look and cry as she put me on the bus. I used that memory. I wasn’t acting. I was reaching into the memories that are stuck in the body.” As she wailed in take after take, she recalls, “It was cathartic, very emotional. I shook for two days afterwards.”

The scene was cut to a just few seconds of screen time, but it’s one of the extraordinary moments that make Indian Horse so much more than just another Canadian movie. Based on the beloved 2012 novel by the late Ojibway writer Richard Wagamese, it’s a cinematic landmark, dramatizing Canada’s First Nations history and literature with unprecedented passion and fidelity. Its hero is Saul Indian Horse, a resilient Ojibway boy who becomes a self-made star on the hockey rink while enduring abuse by priests and nuns at his residential school. By turns inspiring and heartbreaking, the story forges a powerful drama out of two bedrock Canadian themes—the poetry of hockey and the oppression of Indigenous people. It romances Canada’s game while laying bare our national shame. And though the film was conceived in 2012, three years before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission thrust the historic crime of residential schools into the public eye, Indian Horse lands with auspicious timing. It’s even being screened early for politicians in Ottawa, including Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett, and Sen. Murray Sinclair, who chaired the Commission.

The movie, which opens on April 13 after winning audience awards at film festivals across the country, came about through an ambitious collaboration between white filmmakers and Indigenous talent. Its $8-million budget, while respectable for a Canadian film, was challenging for a period saga spanning three decades, with remote locations, lots of hockey—and a large cast that included 52 Indigenous actors, most of them acting for the first time.

But Montreal-born director Stephen S. Campanelli came to it with a Hollywood pedigree and an arsenal of skills: He has been Clint Eastwood’s trusted camera operator for 24 years, and he arrived at the set of Indian Horse straight from working as director Martin McDonagh’s lead cameraman on the Oscar-winning Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Stephen S. Campanelli, middle, is the director of the film ‘Indian Horse.’ (Elevation Pictures) Campanelli grew up as an Eastwood fanboy; he had posters on his wall of Dirty Harry and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and he even named his dog Clint. His dream was […]

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