Photo courtesy of VIFF
DIR: Timothy Wolochatiuk | Canadian Images | Canada | 2012 | 85mins | English, French, Cree
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Devastating and powerful, We Were Children tells the story of a shameful and often overlooked chapter of Canada's history through the stories of Lyna Hart and Glen Anaquod, two First Nations survivors of church-run residential schools. Except for the stark statistics book-ending the film and a brief clip of Stephen Harper's 2008 apology to the First Nations people, We Were Children narrows its focus to the individual and personal. But at the same time, the realization that this kind of story happened to more than 100,000 of Canada's First Nations children leaves a visceral impact.
The story is a docudrama, with filmed reenactments of the survivors' experiences interspersed with them talking to the camera directly. While Glen was 6-years-old when he was taken to a residential school in Saskatchewan, Lyna Hart was only 4-years-old when she left her mother to go to a school in Manitoba; however, the memories still appear fresh to the survivors.
We see the pain washing across their faces as they describe horrific tales of humiliation, physical and sexual abuse. But at no time does the film feel exploitative or explicit, mainly letting the survivors' words speak for themselves with reenactments that stay true to their stories. The performances from the child actors reenacting the stories likewise feel natural; in particular, the actress playing 4-year-old Lyna effortlessly conveys the innocence, bewilderment and apprehension that any child would feel upon being separated from their mother and forced into an unnatural environment.
Through their stories, we are able to see how, in small ways and large, the residential school system as a whole was designed to try to destroy an entire culture, to "kill the Indian in the child," and make them feel ashamed of who they were and where they came from.
The religious authorities running the schools casually toss off words like "savage" and "heathen", while in one segment, Lyna remembers being punished for speaking her own language by being forced to hold her tongue until the drool dripped from her chin. In another part of the film, she watches a fellow First Nations girl vigorously scrubbing her hands because she was not "white enough."
But while Lyna and Glen detail stories of humiliation and abuse, they also recount stories of defiance, survival and tenacity that allows them to believe that "someday people will listen, someday they'll believe."
By allowing these two survivors to tell their stories, this film takes steps towards preventing the whole story of the residential school system from becoming merely a footnote or a paragraph in Canadian history, but something that still casts a dark shadow over Canadian society today.
Patricia Lim is a sometime librarian and full-time culture vulture; she enjoys letting her mind wander and scamper about.