It’s impossible to overstate the trauma that is explored throughout Sugarcane, Julian Brave NoiseCat and Emily Kassie’s harrowing documentary on the sins of St. Joseph’s Mission in British Columbia and the Canadian Indian residential school system as a whole. Spurred by the discovery of over 200 unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in May 2021, NoiseCat and Kassie speak with investigators and survivors of the schools, one of them Julian Brave NoiseCat’s own father: Ed Archie NoiseCat.

Since the the 19th century, the Canadian government forced Indigenous children to attend boarding schools that were primarily run by the Catholic Church. If the pronounced goal was something like cultural acclimation/assimilation, the price many kids paid was too great to calculate. Widespread allegations of abuse, rape, and torture were largely ignored for generations. Rosalin Sam, a survivor of St. Joseph’s Mission, recounts the circular direction of denied responsibility. Still a child, she reported the abuse to one administrator, who directed her to another administrator, who directed her to another, until word got back to her father who then “beat the shit out of [her].” And so it goes, on and on for decades.

One of the main subjects in this film is Willie Sellars, the charismatic Chief of the Williams Lake First Nation (commonly known as “Sugarcane”) of the Secwepemc Nation. He does his damnedest to try mining some good from this terrible reckoning. There’s the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, now an official, annual Canadian holiday on September 30th that recognizes the horrors of the past and the families forever affected by these schools and the churches that ran them. There’s also the tight-knit community he serves and their deep bond, built on what’s happened before.

The most compelling through-line in Sugarcane is Julian’s relationship with his father, Ed, and their mutual attempt to find some semblance of peace. When Julian tells Ed they’ve gathered accounts of abuse from other survivors, Ed asks to hear them. “Do you wanna know?” Julian asks him, acknowledging their unbearable nature and his father’s deep, deep wounds. Those wounds, of course, have bled down to Julian’s life, a harsh truth about which the filmmaker confronts his father, a man who’d been absent and addicted for much of his childhood. It’s a heartbreaking attempt at reconciliation.

Jarring archival footage of children in the schools from years prior serve as transitional sequences, quite literally haunting the film from beginning to end. There are also the painful, first-person memories of Rick Gilbert, former Chief of Williams Lake First Nation. NoiseCat and Kassie do incredible work threading these many different, often multi-generational accounts with information from ongoing investigations and video archives from the past. There’s a clear sense of what’s happened and to whom. What’s less clear is who will pay for these crimes. Clips of both Justin Trudeau and Pope Francis’ public relation visits offer little more than the aforementioned official holiday and a couple tacit apologies. Sugarcane ultimately will exist as a living document so as not to forget. As the survivors of these schools grow older and pass on, this film should remind future generations on whose hands the blood rests. More must be done, but it’s a start.

Sugarcane premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

Grade: B+

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