Documentary addresses the loss and reconnection with culture
‘For Love’ screening and discussion is part of Park City Film’s Raising Voices series
The film, which focuses on the past, present and future impact of colonization of Canada’s indigenous population, comes when atrocities of the so-called “American Indian Boarding Schools” are hitting the headlines.
The children who were forced to attend these schools were taken from their families, land and culture and required to assimilate with the Euro-American culture.
This is only one of many inequities and horrors that have happened to indigenous cultures across the globe. The film is about the overrepresentation of these populations in Canada’s child welfare system and was a perfect fit for Park City Film’s new Raising Voices series, said Katharine Wang, Park City Film executive director.
“Raising Voices showcases and supports communities that are traditionally underrepresented in the arts,” she said. “As we looked at our diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, and how we select our films, it’s always been important for us to see who is on the screen, and who is behind the camera. Representation matters. It not only empowers underrepresented voices, but also exposes others to the story and puts value on it that may not have been there before.”
“For Love” isn’t just a film about the atrocities that have happened to Canada’s indigenous population. It’s also a story of hope, according to Wang.
“It’s about the resilience and resurgence of these people who are reclaiming their children and their culture,” she said. “As you see in the film, some of these children who have been orphaned through the system are being reconnected to the elders, language and culture in their old communities. And this sets the tone for their futures and opens new possibilities.”
The documentary’s director Matt Smiley and his producing partner Mary Teegee tossed around the idea of making this film after completing their 2015 documentary “Highway of Tears,” which is about the unsolved reports of missing indigenous women and their murders that took place along a 724 kilometer stretch of highway in British Columbia.
During filming, Smiley and Teegee developed a friendship while pushing for a federal initiative, known as the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, that would help end the high level of violence against this population, according to Smiley.
“There were a few things in ‘Highway to Tears’ that were successful in terms of raising that awareness,” he said. “During the time we were filming there were a little more than 400 missing indigenous women, and now we know through the National Inquiry that the number is well over 4,000.”
While screening the film in Canada, Smiley and Teegee met with family and community members and community leaders to talk about this and other issues — such as keeping indigenous children out of the foster care system, Smiley said.
“This was something Mary and I toyed around with,” he said.
Smiley was also inspired by the work Teegee and Cindy Blackstock, who became one of the producers of “For Love,” had done on behalf of Canada’s indigenous children.
“I was also privy to seeing what they had been doing in terms of taking the government to court for discrimnation against indigenous children and the vast underfunding of social services for this population in comparison to others,” he said.
At first, Smiley was hesitant to make the documentary because of its scope.
“There were a lot of tentacles that we could follow and get wrapped up in, and we knew from the get-go that we had to go from one edge of the country to the other — East to West or North to South — to present it in a way that was more digestible for a mass audience,” he said. “Also, in Canada, like here in the U.S., there are so many different native dialects and cultures. And this was something we had to be cognizant of.”
Also, the topics addressed in “For Love” aren’t easy for a pop-culture audience to digest, Smiley said.
“My intent was to have a world-wide audience to understand the issues fairly quickly and grab a few things while being visually stimulated,” he said.
The native population helped the filmmakers find their focus, Smiley said.
“A lot of communities sent us invitations and showed us what preserving their cultures meant to them,” he said.
Smiley began principal photography in mid-2019.
“We had to break it up into different categories because Canada is so huge,” he said. “We racked up a lot of air miles going from location to location.”
Sometimes the conditions of some of the places Smiley filmed surprised him.
“Attawapiskat, which is three hours north of Toronto via a puddle jumper plane doesn’t have access to fresh water because of the high levels of methylmercury,” he said. “But the culture is fighting to still be there and take control of the land. And you can see that especially when big corporations try to come and take over the natural resources. The people have started to use the judicial system as a tool to preserve what they have.”
Another topic addressed in “For Love” is the impactthe residential schools havehad on the indigenous culture throughout the generations.
“This film is for all the children who did not come home from residential school and all the survivors who are living with the hurt and trauma,” Teegee said in a statement. “This film is for the parents and grandparents who lived and live with broken hearts at the loss of their child to the welfare system or succumbed to the impacts of colonization… This film is for all our ancestors, elders, knowledge keepers, cultural teachers, language speakers, hereditary chiefs and matriarchs, who have kept our culture and language alive through generations of cultural genocide. This film is for all those watching and who are committed to work with us to right the wrongs of the past.”
One of the things Smiley found personally fascinating during the filming is the epigenetics of how behavior and environment can impact a person’s genes.
“From what I witnessed, especially in the community gatherings, when the kids learned where they were from, and learned about their culture, you noticed an inherent connection,” he said. “I saw how the drumming, dancing and singing in some of those cultural-based land activities really had a positive impact on the kids. And in the film, you see these broken families, who are able to see their connection with the community, find a sense of purpose and belonging. And that’s a beautiful thing to witness.”
Smiley knows the wounds of the history of inequity will not heal overnight.
“It’s a long process because there was a lot of suppression over generations,” she said. “Sometimes what you think is part of the culture is not necessarily part of it, so there has been a good deal of real relearning.”
The relearning isn’t just for the kids, Smiley said.
“Some of the adults, including Chief Darlene Bernard, talk about how they themselves are starting to learn about their own cultures,” he said. “It was fascinating to see adults learning their native tongue and finding happiness.”
The screening will be followed by a panel discussion that will include Smiley and producer Lindsay Eberts, who will attend the event in person, and Teegee, who will attend via Zoom, Wang said.
“Lindsay is coming full circle with this,” she said. “Her father was a producer and connected with the Sundance Festival back in the day. And it was through her that we learned about this film.”
Smiley is honored to screen “For Love” in Park City.
“To me, it’s also one of the hubs of cinema,” he said, referring to the Sundance Film Festival. “With a film like this, in terms of its impact, it’s nice to have a stand-alone night to have a strong discussion.”
When: 7 p.m., Thursday, May 19
Where: Park City Library’s Jim Santy Auditorium, 1255 Park Ave.
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