The just-released movie, adapted from the late Richard Wagamese's acclaimed novel about a hockey player who survived Canada's residential school system, highlights problems about who gets to tell stories in this country
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 they don’t get it. They haven’t lived it. They don’t understand it from the perspective of lived experience. And it’s reflected so clearly onscreen.
“It’s yet another film about Indigenous people by non-Indigenous people for non-Indigenous people. It was made for settler audiences to have this emotional catharsis and walk away and feel like they did something.”
There is one caveat that gives Tailfeathers pause, and one that also explains why some Indigenous filmmakers have refrained from voicing their discomfort with the production.
“It’s important that Richard Wagamese gave them the go-ahead,” says Tailfeathers, referring to the late author’s blessings, which are regularly invoked should anyone question the production. “They at least have that going for them.”
Indian Horse producers Trish Dolman, Christine Haebler and Paula Devonshire graciously agreed to address my concerns on a conference call.
“We’ll take the heat,” Dolman says with utmost seriousness, after recounting the production’s genesis dating back to 2012.
“Trish and I had been looking for something along the lines of a residential school story,” Haebler recalls, explaining that her own understanding of segregation via her European ancestry and Dolman’s childhood growing up near a B.C. residential school are what inspired them to explore the subject matter.
After hearing Wagamese discussing his new novel on a radio show, Haebler and Dolman immediately read Indian Horse and pitched the author on making the film collaboratively.
“We just felt this was an important story that Indigenous and non-Indigenous people needed to tell together because it’s about our shared history,” says Dolman.
“Richard liked the idea of making the film with two white women from British Columbia,” Haebler adds, explaining that the collaboration worked with his ideas about reconciliation.
They won the bid, but according to Dolman, it wasn’t because they offered the most money. A fellow filmmaker (who is Indigenous) made a higher bid on the rights to the novel. But Dolman and Haebler’s extensive track record includes the Simon Pegg and Rosamund Pike comedy Hector And The Search For Happiness.
“Richard chose us,” says Dolman. “He chose us because he wanted a film that was as commercial as possible – that would reach as many people as possible.”
To adapt the novel, Dolman and Haebler say they presented Wagamese with a few writers (some Indigenous choices among them). They mutually agreed on Foon, a seasoned scribe whose work they describe as clean and faithful, maintaining Wagamese’s voice above all.
Similar reasoning applies to their picking Campanelli as director. His resumé spans three decades as a camera operator, notably for Clint Eastwood’s films. Haebler mentions that unofficially he did a lot more floor directing on Eastwood’s sets, which is why they felt he could handle their project’s scope.
When hired for Indian Horse in 2015, Campanelli had just completed his first feature, a barely released action thriller called Momentum, which the L.A. Times called “spectacularly generic.”
“Richard loved being the voice of the film,” says Haebler. “So what we were looking for in a filmmaker was a journeyman director to be able to tell the story very cleanly. We were looking at filmmakers who would not put too much of their own stamp on it. They could just render the story and be authentic to it in the way that Richard really wanted it to be.
“Richard really liked him,” Haebler adds. “He really believed in him.”
Before settling on Campanelli, they offered the film to New Zealand filmmakers Niki Caro (who is not Indigenous but everyone seems to assume she is) and Taika Waititi (yes, he is). However, neither jives with the “journeyman” adjective. Waititi would go on to put his own stamp on a Marvel movie.
They also approached at least 10 Canadian directors. However….
“No, we didn’t go to any Indigenous filmmakers,” Haebler admits.
Haebler and Dolman’s reasons are unsurprising. The project had a wide scope and an $8 million budget.
“We needed a director who the financiers would get behind,” says Dolman.
“There was a lot of resistance to this story – in financing it, getting it made, sending it to sales companies and finding distribution in Canada. It was rough. We had a lot of rejection. People were saying racist things like ‘Nobody wants to see a movie about Indians.’”
I don’t doubt it. These are the stories we’ve been hearing for years, if not decades. The lack of opportunity for Indigenous filmmakers is not an Indian Horse problem. It’s an industry problem. And there are many who would congratulate Dolman and Haebler for weathering through it and getting the film made at all.
“I have always found it extremely difficult to get any financing for Indigenous films, up until now,” says Paula Devonshire, the third producer brought on to Indian Horse in 2016 when Dolman and Haebler actively sought out an Indigenous partner. Devonshire is a member of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte First Nation.
“We did have two directors in training who worked alongside Steve in each of the regions we were in,” says Devonshire, pointing to Darlene Naponce and Cara Mumford, Indigenous filmmakers who shadowed the director during production.
That was one of the many efforts the producers made to foster Indigenous talent. Haebler is going on to executive produce Naponce’s next film. Both Haebler and Dolman will be collaborating in the near future with Trevor Mack, a Tsilhqot’in filmmaker. And Devonshire is currently developing a project with Fire Song filmmaker Adam Garnet Jones.
“There’s this trend where both the Canadian state and settlers within Canada feel comfortable approaching historical trauma, like approaching residential schools and the Sixties Scoop,” says Tailfeathers.
“But they are completely unwilling to acknowledge the grave systemic injustice that is ongoing, that is part of the colonial project.”
She turns her attention back to this moment in film culture and Indian Horse’s place in it.
“It’s being paraded as an Indigenous film. But it’s not. It’s taking up space. And that’s what settlers do. It’s about them taking up space. It’s about them choosing which stories have value. It’s about them choosing whose voices should be heard. There are so many incredible Indigenous filmmakers out there. There are so many smart and talented people who have been working so hard and whose work is incredible. Those are the films we should be talking about.”
Jeff Barnaby (Rhymes For Young Ghouls), Michelle Latimer (Rise), Lisa Jackson (Savage), Shane Belcourt (Tkaronto) and Tailfeathers are among the younger generation picking up the torch from stalwarts like Zacharius Kunuk and Alanis Obomsawin.
Jesse Wente, of the newly formed Indigenous Screen Office (and a former TIFF programmer and CBC columnist): “When it comes to movies – in Canada but also globally – made about First Nations people, roughly 99.9 per cent of them have been made by non-Indigenous peoples.”
“We’re not lacking in talent,” says Jesse Wente, the former TIFF programmer and CBC columnist currently figuring out the contours of his role at the newly formed Indigenous Screen Office. Wente is Ojibwe from the Serpent River First Nation in Ontario.
“We’re lacking in opportunity. People often talk about a capacity issue. There’s tons of capacity. Give us something that we need the capacity for. Test us. Don’t tell us we can’t do these things. Give us $5 million.”
The persistent challenge for Indigenous filmmakers is that no matter how much talent they show in their short films and micro features, it barely translates to bigger opportunities. According to an October 2013 report by ImagineNATIVE, Indigenous filmmakers are over-represented in terms of awards and festival exposure but hit a wall when it comes to chances at making features.
Instead they often find themselves working on projects for settler storytellers, populating consulting roles on features or acting as the sole First Nations representative in the writers’ room on a television series. It’s tokenism easing the way for narrative colonialism.
“Tokenism comes from this inherent understanding that [the settler storytellers] are not really coming from a place of truth,” says Tailfeathers. “They haven’t properly collaborated. They haven’t properly worked with the community whose story they’re extracting. We’re an afterthought. And that’s very apparent in their process.”
That process also often trumpets good intentions and well-meaning decisions.
“There’s been a long history of good intentions,” says Wente. “Remember, the residential schools were well intentioned in theory. There are many instances where you have non-Indigenous storytellers who are very well intentioned.
“But the reality is that when it comes to movies – and this is true in Canada but also globally – made about First Nations people, roughly 99.9 per cent of them have been made by non-Indigenous peoples. My estimates are rough, but not far off. That sort of overwhelming history suggests that maybe those good intentions are getting in the way of better results.”
Wente says Canada’s history of denying Indigenous communities their narratives goes back to the Indian Act and then the 1884 Potlatch ban, which lasted until 1951. The ban outlawed religious ceremonies, like traditional dances (the Sun Dance) that served as storytelling. That meant Indigenous communities could not keep their cultural artefacts, which went on to populate museums in Canada and across the globe, all the while getting contextualized by non-Indigenous people helming the narrative.
“You have the storytelling that exists outside of these communities while the communities themselves are denied storytelling,” says Wente, who says these processes contributed (“generously”) to huge cultural misunderstandings or (“least generously”) genocide and erasure.
That is the nature of colonial states, Wente reminds us, where culture-making is as extractive as pipelines. Just as natural resources get seized to make the over-culture wealthy, storytelling is appropriated to elevate settler filmmakers with exposure, awards, careers.
“Even if you come with the best of intentions,” says Wente, “at what point will it be okay with the over-culture that Indigenous people get to tell their own stories? We are long overdue.”
The Indian Horse producers acknowledge that times are changing, and suggest that I would be writing a different story had the film been made today. And signs of progress abound.
Immediately after wrapping on The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open, Tailfeathers hopped over to Kahnawake to perform in Jeff Barnaby’s new zombie movie, Blood Quantum.
And just last week, CBC reported on the upcoming adaptation of Eden Robinson’s acclaimed novel Son Of A Trickster. In a rare and effective move, Algonquin-Metis filmmaker Michelle Latimer won the rights by going 50-50 with Jennifer Kawaja, co-owner of Sienna Films. That partnership meant they could compete with the bigger production houses that regularly scoop up Indigenous stories.
Latimer is developing a series based on the book and its upcoming sequel, and she filled the writers’ room with Indigenous talent: Marie Clements, Adam Garnet Jones, Danis Goulet and Wente.
Meanwhile, Wente is figuring out how to affect change at the Indigenous Screen Office, which was founded by Telefilm, the Canadian Media Fund, the National Film Board, the CBC and APTN.
“The fact that the Screen Office exists, the fact all of these groups agreed to found it, suggests that people in the industry are aware that this needs to be addressed,” says Wente.
The office is designed to support Indigenous screen artists across formats, from theatrical to video games. At the moment, Wente is trying to figure out how to work with the different financing streams available in Canada and forge partnerships to help Indigenous storytellers achieve narrative sovereignty. He reminds us that Canada already has a template to work with.
“I can show you examples where we decided that representation really does matter on all aspects of a production, all over the place, for decades now,” says Wente, aiming squarely at Quebec.
Canada nurtures two very separate cinematic cultures between English and French, with an added funding agency called SODEC (Société de développement des entreprises culturelles) to boost support for filmmaking in Quebec. In all this time, it would have been unimaginable to have a Francophone film directed by an Anglophone. French-Canadian cinema has been protected with the kind of narrative sovereignty that Wente hopes will be afforded to Indigenous artists.
“I suspect it will,” says Wente.
Which would perhaps make this the last time we have to gripe about such issues.
Or the second last time. There’s still that Don McKellar-Joseph Boyden movie in the can.