Saul Indian Horse (Sladen Peltier) has his heritage systematically stripped away from him in a residential school in Indian Horse. Part 1: Seeing Indian Horse
In a story published in Maclean’s last month, a headline declared: “For Indigenous people, ‘Indian Horse’ is much more than a movie.”
The film , landing in theatres this weekend after premiering at TIFF last fall, grapples with the horrors of Canada’s residential school history and the trauma inflicted on First Nations.
In the Maclean’s story, director Stephen S. Campanelli explains his reaction to reading the late Richard Wagamese’s novel and Dennis Foon’s adapted screenplay.
“I was shocked and angered and embarrassed to be a Canadian and not know about this. And I wrote an impassioned six-page email saying why I needed to direct it.”
The uncomfortable question that I’m certainly not the first to ask is why Campanelli’s need to direct a story he previously knew nothing about is prioritized over the ambition of numerous Indigenous filmmakers who have been waiting for the opportunity to tell their stories.
The film follows Saul Indian Horse, a witness to and victim of multiple abuses in the residential school system, where his heritage is systematically stripped away. As played by Sladen Peltier, Forrest Goodluck and Ajuawak Kapashesit at different stages in his life, Saul becomes an against-all-odds hockey star, struggling with whether his gift for Canada’s national sport is a resilient stance in the face of colonization or a sign of assimilating to a dominant culture that will never see him as an equal.
The history is rarely, if ever, told in Canadian film, and I sincerely hope audiences get out and reckon with these past injustices. And Indian Horse stars Indigenous talent in front of the camera, including elders like Edna Manitowabi who have survived the residential school system and expressed pride during interviews and Q&As for having the chance to channel their pain into the film.
But while the film stirs up our discomfort by charting injustice, it ultimately feels detached, patched together and soulless – like so many television specials before it.
Indigenous audiences at screenings across the country have expressed how much the film has touched them. There are others who, like me, were left a bit horrified. We are talking about a film reckoning with colonialism that has been adapted entirely by white key creatives (the main producers, director and writer), a set-up we could argue is narrative colonialism. Indigenous Filmmaker Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers: "It was very apparent that there were no Indigenous key creatives [on Indian Horse]. There’s an outsider/insider perspective. As outsiders, they are inevitably going to tell the story wrong because they don’t get it. They haven’t lived it… And [that’s] reflected so clearly onscreen." “It felt like extractive filmmaking at its finest,” says filmmaker Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, a member of the Kainai First Nation and Sámi from Norway. Tailfeathers spoke to me over the phone from B.C., nearly breathless after wrapping a hectic shoot day for The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open, a feature she’s co-directing with Kathleen Hepburn (Never Steady, Never Still).
She caught Indian Horse when it premiered at the Vancouver International Film Festival last fall and was dismayed by how the adaptation served a book that had resonated with her intimately. Her grandparents had attended a residential school in Canada and she’s seen the impact that system has had on her family and community.
“I felt like I was watching a spectacle of Indigenous trauma,” says Tailfeathers. “It was very apparent that there were no Indigenous key creatives. There’s an outsider/insider perspective. As outsiders, they are inevitably going to tell the story wrong because […]
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