The movie Indian Horse is breath-taking – it took my breath away. It left me alternatively enraged and in tears. I went to the cinema last night knowing it would be grueling, intending to force myself to watch, but I turned away at times. And yet, I hope every Canadian and every Catholic sees the film. Not only is the powerful story told with a beautiful and terrible elegance, the least Canada can do is to bear witness to the cruelty inflicted on aboriginal peoples, on our watch, on our behalf, by bigots and cultish religious zealots.
Don’t take just my word for it. “People need to see this movie,” said Clint Eastwood; for the first time the American film icon signed on to someone else’s movie as executive producer to help promote it.
Indian Horse is the life story of the beautiful and gifted Saul. It’s the story of the systemic racism of colonialists. Most especially, it’s the story of a genocidal residential school system that did its best to culturally and physically exterminate generations of Canada’s first peoples. Indian Horse features the boy and man Saul, one Ontario government-sanctioned residential school, and the sadists, pedophiles and cultish zealots who ran the school on behalf of the Catholic church.
Indian Horse is in cinemas across Canada this month, and its coproducer said Canadian box office sales after next weekend will make or break its commercial success – and the chances of more such stories coming soon to light. The film has been lauded at international film festivals and sold in several countries, but landing a crucial, lucrative American distributor depends on how it’s received in Canada, said co-producer Christine Haebler.
Haebler and director Stephen Campanelli – a long-time crew member on Eastwood movies – gave a talk and Q&A session after the two sold-out opening evenings in Vancouver Friday and Saturday. Richard Wagamese, author of the novel Indian Horse and a participating partner in the film, died last year, before its completion.
Canadians will bring varied experiences to Indian Horse. My own includes graduating from a northern high school which incorporated a government-run, non-religious aboriginal residential school, Akaitcho Hall, in Yellowknife, N.W.T.
But my major reaction to the film is as a mother. Had someone tortured my child as the nuns and priests and bigots tortured the children depicted in the film, had bigots treated anyone in my circles as Saul was treated by many people, I’d have fought them all to the death. Had I been present – or had I known such things were happening – I’d have done everything in my power to stop it.
Which, of course, is the point. Indian Horse aims to show, educate, make us think – and goad us to action.
And there’s much to teach, and many actions to take: Campanelli said he was desperate to be involved in the film after reading the script because he was enraged by it: he grew in Montreal but had had no idea about what went on at residential schools. Despite the massive publicity around Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the major reaction to the movie wherever it’s been screened has been surprise, said the filmmakers.
Today the Catholic church remains the only one of the religious institutions that ran Canada’s brutal residential schools that has not apologized. This month Pope Francis refused a formal request to do so. Next week, Canada’s Parliament is to debate a motion calling on the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops to invite Francis to apologize – and for the church to pay its share of the financial settlement to residential school victims.
Haebler said the producers began working with Wagamese in 2012, when his book was published, but struggled for years to find financing. Only in 2016, after release of the searing final report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, did funders step up.
Though Indian Horse is a Canadian tale, it has global relevance wherever institutionalized systems have suppressed, indoctrinated or eliminated “heathens” and political or religious opponents.
The film will resonate especially among the Irish, afflicted by mass incarceration of unwed mothers in state-sanctioned, Catholic-run Magdalene Laundries, and among Australians dealing with their own Stolen Generations.
Copyright Deborah Jones 2018
Related work: Canada’s National Aboriginal Day, column