Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Indian Horse



Due to a scheduling conflict, I was unable to see Indian Horse when it played at the Edmonton International Film Festival last October. Having finally seen it this week (it was just released in Winnipeg), I deeply regret having missed it - not because it was a fantastic film (though I thought it was very good), but because I would have been promoting it in advance so that every Canadian reading this review would not miss the chance to watch Indian Horse on the big screen.

The big screen is for the cinematography, which is gorgeous throughout - from the opening scenes in the Northern Ontario wilderness to the shots inside the residential school and on the hockey rinks. But the big screen is also to take advantage of watching this hugely important film as soon as you possibly can and telling all your friends to do the same. 

Indian Horse is based on the 2012 novel by Richard Wagamese, who died last year (while the film was in production). It tells the story of an Ojibwe boy named Saul Indian Horse from when he loses his family in 1959 and ends up in a residential school to some twenty years later when he is in a treatment program. 

The film begins with Saul’s grandmother trying to hide the six-year-old Saul (played by Sladen Peltier) from the authorities. She knows what will happen to him at the residential school and is determined to keep him out. But when Saul’s brother dies of an illness and his parents (Christians because of a Catholic residential school) take the body away for a proper Christian burial, Saul and his grandmother must go it alone in the middle of the wilderness. An accident on the river leaves Saul by himself until he is picked up and taken to a Catholic residential school in Northern Ontario.

At the school, Saul learns quickly that the goal of his education is to remove his Indigenous language, spirituality and cultural traditions and assimilate him into a white Christian culture. Those students who fail to comply with the nuns’ strict demands are severely punished, from the strap to being put into a small cage in the dark damp basement, leading to desperate attempts at escape, including taking one’s own life.

But a priest named Father Gaston (Michael Huisman) takes an interest in Saul and introduces him to hockey on TV. Saul immediately falls in love with the sport. Getting out of bed before anyone else is up, he practices hockey on the school's small ice rink, using frozen horse dung as pucks and skates that are far too big on him. With TV hockey as his teacher, Saul quickly becomes the best player at the school. This will change his life, as opportunities arise that will take him away from the school to a small mining town and then Toronto and even give him a few years of happiness in a loving family environment (by now, Saul is a teen and is played by Forrest Goodluck). 

Unfortunately, wherever Saul’s travels expose him to white people, he encounters racism, reminding of his days in the school. Eventually, these encounters will lead him to a rage he can’t control and his life will begin its downward spiral (by now, Saul is a young adult, played by Ajuawak Kapashesit). 

For a small Canadian film, Indian Horse is an excellent film. The acting is a little uneven but most performances are solid, with the two actors playing the younger Saul standing out. The writing and direction (Dennis Foon and Stephen Campanelli) are also uneven but generally well done. The twist at the end of the film is a questionable choice, but forgivable.

The most important thing about Indian Horse is that it tells a story, in narrative form, that every Canadian needs to hear, and it tells the story well. That makes Indian Horse essential viewing for every Canadian reader. It also means that I feel compelled to give Indian Horse ****. The quality of the film may not warrant such a rating, but it is such an important film (in some ways groundbreaking), and a moving one, that it deserves no less. My mug is up!

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