Documentary on British Columbia’s legacy of residential schools wins Sundance Film Festival

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A documentary chronicling the devastating legacy of residential schools in British Columbia is among the highlight films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Directors Julian Brave NoiseCat and Emily Kassie received the jury prize in the American documentary category for Sugar cane about the investigation into abuse and missing children at a residential school, and its impacts on the nearby Sugarcane reservation.

The awards for the 40th edition of the festival, which runs January 18-28, were announced Friday at the Ray Theater in Park City, Utah.

“The reception here has been incredibly positive,” NoiseCat told CBC News from Park City, via Zoom.

NoiseCat, a member of the Canim Lake Band Tsq̓éscen̓, appears in the film alongside his father.

Ed Archie NoiseCat was forced to attend St. Joseph’s Mission residential school near the Sugarcane Reserve in Williams Lake, located in central British Columbia, approximately 326 kilometers northeast of Vancouver. He attended Sugar canealong with other members of the Canim Lake Band Tsq̓éscen.

“I didn’t think I would be there in the documentary. Initially, I was only supposed to be behind the camera,” said the young NoiseCat.

“But as I continued to learn more about where my father came from, I felt like I wouldn’t be giving it my all if I didn’t show up.”

The boarding school located near the Sugarcane Reservation operated from 1886 to 1981 and was run by Catholic missionaries.

The structure has since been demolished, but the painful memories of survivors and their families remain, NoiseCat explains.

Stained Catholic sculpture from a former mission school
An image from the documentary Sugarcane by Julian Brave NoiseCat and Emily Kassie. The film won the directing award in the American documentary category at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Julian Brave NoiseCat and Emily Kassie)

“As my family had a very deep and painful connection to residential schools, I was hesitant to work on this subject,” he said.

The involvement of fellow director Emily Kassie, however, helped push the documentary forward to bring the documentary to life.

“I was shocked and devastated when I first heard about unmarked graves at residential schools,” Kassie said.

More than 150,000 children were forced to attend residential schools in Canada from the 1830s until 1997. The institutions were created by the Canadian federal government to assimilate indigenous peoples, in part by forcibly separating children from their parents.

“I was in first grade when the last residential school closed in 1997,” Kassie said. “I knew it was a story that needed to be told.”

The Toronto-born journalist had already begun her investigation when she came across a news article about the Williams Lake First Nation’s investigation into missing school children.

“I contacted the First Nation and then I called Julian to tell him about the school,” she said.

The two filmmakers had already worked together on reports for the Huffington Post.

“Out of 139 schools across Canada, she stumbled upon the only school my family attended,” NoiseCat said.

Funny moments, painful moments

Despite the heavy subject matter, says Kassie Sugar cane also has its share of uplifting moments and comedy.

“There are both funny moments and painful moments,” she said.

NoiseCat agrees.

“It’s a road trip movie. You could say it’s also a buddy movie, it’s not just a litany of abuse and genocide,” he said.

A man and a woman holding a camera seated in what looks like a grandstand at a stadium.
Julian Brave NoiseCat and Emily Kassie had already collaborated on a report for the Huffington Post. (Submitted by Julian Brave NoiseCat and Emily Kassie)

Williams Lake First Nation Chief Willie Sellars also attended the screening at Sundance.

In an interview with CBC The first editionSellars said “it was hard to hold it together while watching the film.”

“We got to see the impact the film had on the audience and it was really moving to see it all,” he said.

The first edition8:50 a.m.Candy Cane Premiere at Sundance

We will hear from Willie Sellars from Williams Lake First Nation.

Sellars says he is confident the film will spark conversations about the legacy of intergenerational trauma left by residential schools in the United States.

“There were twice as many Indian schools in the United States as here. Hopefully (Sugar cane) launches a healing and education movement across North America. »

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