In May of 2021, news broke worldwide of a discovery in Canada of a mass grave containing the bodies of 215 Indigenous children. This would be shocking to many, the idea that schools created by the Canadian government would so despicably treat those in their care, yet not only would this unearthing lead to more across North America, worse, those in the Indigenous communities finally had evidence to point to of the cruelty they’ve faced that their neighbors have ignored for generations. Prior to May of 2021, filmmaker Jules Arita Koostachin (Broken Angel) was already in the process of developing a new project, WaaPaKe (Tomorrow), that explored the ways in which the Canadian government’s residential school program not only traumatized the students, but the generations that followed. Speaking with her mother Rita, her son Asivak, two other children of survivors, and herself, Koostachin examines the devastating ways the Christian perception of superiority not only hurt her mother’s generation, and continues to do so to this day via all the things lost physical, emotional, and spiritual.
In the recently released documentary The Pigeon Tunnel, a conversation takes place between documentarian Errol Morris (My Psychedelic Love Story) and subject author/former spy David Cornwell in which Cornwell describes the act of interrogation as a conversation in which information is shared both ways and the interrogator gives up something of themselves in the process. Considering Cornwell’s past as a spy and writer of some of the more well-known espionage tales in modern media, this is a thrilling way to start a documentary, especially given the use of thriller genre-coded cinematography to evoke a sense that what we’re hearing may, in some regards, be a fiction and it’s up to us to determine the truth amid it all. Koostachin’s approach is the opposite of this, inviting the audience to follow her on to set without introduction, showing us the crew working to set up the interview area filled with various Indigenous artifacts or possibly personal items. A green screen visible behind the seat that will hold each of the interviewees. Unlike The Pigeon Tunnel, Koostachin applies no veneer or trickery as a method of framing; rather, she makes everything we see as open as possible, thereby making things feel far more intimate. This approach invites the audience in, making us feel as though we’re a part of the crew or, to a degree, a part of the communal family so that, even when moments later in the documentary are staged for emotional impact, there’s no denying the resonance of the devastating history shared with us.
In execution, what this looks like is each interviewee sits down in the same chair during their turn, Koostachin asking them to introduce themselves. Depending on the person, sometimes we’ll get a stylized introduction before we meet them, sometimes after, that features their name written in letter-blocks that children might have played with as their relation to the Residential School is displayed via text below it — i.e., “survivor,” “child of survivor,” etc.. But when the person states who they are, Koostachin asks them to do so in English and the language of their people (if they can). Based on the tone and tenor of interviewee and Koostachin, we know before any specific person speaks that there’s a rapport there, a comfort. This helps create a space of trust between them, but also signals to us that we’re being invited to join an inner circle of people as they share their stories. These dual-language verbal introductions serve to not only keep the reason for the documentary upfront (the sharing of cultural history via oral tradition), they set up who the people before us are in relation to Koostachin herself. The subtext of the verbal introduction portion is in the way it highlights what Koostachin herself doesn’t know about her background via the words she doesn’t know in Cree (the word for “ready?,” as example), making loaded later revelations about her upbringing as a once-removed individual from the Residential Schools and twice-removed from her community as a result of said connection.
Another smart technique that Koostachin utilizes comes via the green screen. As a tool, it allows the set with the interviewees to be transformed so that just about anything can be displayed behind them. Considering that Koostachin also intercuts still images of family photos being placed in front of the camera by a bodiless hand, archived footage, new footage, and establishing material, the use of the green screen with the interviewees might seem a little strange at first. It may even create a question of “why not just set up in different locations more native to each interviewee?” to which the answer might be, based on the various masks worn by the crew, COVID-19: fewer variables to manage when you control the set. However, between the narrative itself and the other little things that Koostachin does, there’s a different interpretation — the green screen enables Koostachin to create a visual language in which the interviews go from setting up the participants, casual conversation, and their introductions from their stories. What this looks like is the green fading away into anything from any kind of tranquil nature scene, perhaps to a specific location or time. What might seem hooky in description is elegant in execution because of how the mood shifts when watching it happen, as though we’re going on a journey of memory with the interviewee as the guide. Given the horrors we learn about, this method generates intimacy and protection, making some truly hard to hear truths softer by the nature of narrative construct.
In recent years, thanks to movies like Encanto (2021) and Turning Red (2022), there’s been a trend to consider generational trauma and cultural memory when telling stories. For something like WaaPaKe, what becomes clear is that the responsibility for the trauma that’s been passed down the Koostachin line doesn’t fall at the feet of mother Rita, but those who decided, via their faith, that removing children from their parents, teaching them the ways of Jesus Christ through the use of shame and isolation, and trying to “civilize the savages” are the ones truly responsible. Anyone, anywhere, at any time who utilizes their faith as the excuse to abuse, isolate, and even exterminate a people does not actually believe in any kind of good teachings, but are looking for permission to excise cruelty with impunity. More and more, as stories like the unmarked mass graves become more common, as stories of Black history (Elaine Massacre of 1919, Tulsa Massacre of 1921, and other events of the Red Summer) break from traditional history books to reveal their hidden truths, and as the way in which colonization is being widely argued against as something that continues to happen versus as an act of the past, humanity is forced to grapple with complicated notions of what it means to be human and to exist. It’s well within Koostachin’s right to end WaaPaKe on a note of angry defiance, however, thanks to documentaries like this one that get the message out of past hidden atrocities, there is instead a sense of optimistic resistance that leaves one feeling empowered and connected, attached by a tether that connects spirit to spirit, soul to soul, all in hopes that we can prevent this from happening again.
Screening during imagineNATIVE 2023.
For more information, head to the official imagineNATIVE 2023 WaaPaKe webpage.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.