19th First Peoples’ Festival film reviews

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Rain of the Children
Vincent Ward
(New Zealand, 110 min)
In the late 1970s when New Zealand director Vincent Ward was 21, he spent two years working on a documentary about an elderly Maori woman and her schizophrenic son living in a rural area on the North Island. Thirty years later, the world-renown filmmaker (Map of Human Heart) returns to the area in an attempt to better understand Puhi Tatu, the woman who walked between the worlds of the living and the dead. Viewers are given insight into Maori history in the 20th century (especially Rua Kenana, a chief-turned-prophet who sought guidance from the Old Testament to heal the land and his people) and an indigenous belief system in which the curse still plays an important role. Besides interviews with Puhi’s relatives, the documentary interweaves dramatic re-enactments, archival footage and photographs with ease.

The Only Good Indian
Kevin Willmott
(USA, 113 min)
The destruction of Native culture through the residential-school system wreaked havoc throughout all Indigenous communities in North America. But one kidnapped Kickapoo teenager (Winter Fox Frank) decides the white man’s policy will not break him. Escaping from the Methodist-run, Kansas-based school (with posters stating “Kill the Indian, Save the Man”), the determined teen is tracked by the dapperly dressed Sam Franklin (Wes Studi), a bounty hunter of Cherokee ancestry who works for the school and rides a motorcycle. As Sam proudly declares, “I’m going to out-white the white man.” Set in early 20th century, this film depicts how the ideals and lifestyle of the Old West are in a collision course with the modern world.
No More Smoke Signals
Fanny Bräuning (Switzerland, 90 min)
By focussing on KILI, the community radio station on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, this Swiss-made documentary tells the tragic story of the proud Lakota Nation and underlines the injustices faced by all Aboriginals in the western hemisphere. Site of the horrific Wounded Knee Massacre of Dec. 29, 1890, Pine Ridge is an impoverished speck of land stripped of much of wealth. Juxtaposing the natural beauty of the surrounding Black Hills and Badlands with the poverty of the reservation, the film underlines the wrongs that have befallen the Lakota people. Set up in 1979, the station, dubbed “the heartbeat of the Rez”, serves a vital voice in informing the people and creating a sense of community and identity. Poet/activist John Trudell and imprisoned activist Leonard Peltier are featured; their presence underscores the fact that the battle against the U.S. government continues even until today.

River of No Return
Darlene Johnson
(Australia, 52 min)
Frances Daingangan wants to go to acting school. All her life, the 45-year-old mother of three and grandmother from Arnhemland in northern Australia has dreamed of becoming an actress like her idol Marilyn Monroe. While it might sound like pure fantasy, Daingangan is no stranger to acting. Besides being a natural-born thespian and being the niece of Aborigine actor David Gulpili, she had a pivotal role in Ten Canoes, a remarkable film by Australian director Rolf de Heer. It is this film that allowed Daingangan to walk the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival and see the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Now Daingangan struggles to find her place in a male-dominated reserve and realize her dream.

My Own Private Lower Post
Duane Gastant’ Aucoin & Gord Loverin (Canada, 32min)
You don’t have to have gone to residential school to be a survivor. That’s what Tlingit filmmaker Duane Gastant’ Aucoin from Teslin, Yukon realizes when he sits down with his aging mother and discusses how her experience at a residential school at Lower Post, B.C., affected his own life. Together mother and son confront their individual and shared demons and start the healing process. This short documentary captures an emotionally moving journey from darkness to light. As the opening credits state, this is a film “in memory of those who survived and those still surviving.”

The Last Explorer
Neil Diamond (Canada, 52 min)
Cree director Neil Diamond takes his audience on a personal journey of uncharted territory in this docu-drama about his great uncle, George Elson. In 1903, Elson was hired to guide two white American adventurers (Leonidas Hubbard and Dillon Wallace) into the wilds of northern Labrador and Quebec to explore the yet unmapped Naskaupi River system. Unfortunately, the outsiders didn’t seek Elson’s advice and the expedition ended in disaster with Hubbard dying. Two years later, Hubbard’s widow, Mina, hires Elson to complete the journey. It is this second voyage and the relationship between Mina and Elson that Diamond focusses on. With the handsome Nathaniel Arcand cast as Elson, it is easy to understand how a New York socialite, with proto-feminist ideas, might fall for the Cree guide.

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