Canada’s first inquest into the treatment of First Nations’ children in residential schools took place in 1966.
The hearing was sparked by the death of Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old Anishinabe boy who ran away from an abusive school and froze to death alone in the bush.
Decades later, Wenjack’s story is inspiring artists, including Fort Frances native Terril Calder, whose short animated film, “Keewaydah (Let’s Go Home),” which had its Toronto premiere on Oct. 21 at the 18th imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival.
“It’s a tremendous honour to have ‘Keewaydah’ premiere at imagineNATIVE as it boasts the largest indigenous film festival audience in the world,” noted Calder, who now lives in Toronto.
“I’m always keen to get feedback from imagineNATIVE’s unique collection of colleagues critics and community,” she added.
“Especially this year because ‘Keewaydah’ plays with the idea of perspectives and looks at a how a story-teller’s point of view impacts how a story is told–and received.
“So far in private settings, the film has played differently to indigenous and non-indigenous audiences,” Calder said.
“imagineNATIVE is a valuable first step in the journey of a film.”
Calder said she was asked to make “Keewaydah” in a collaborative effort with other high-profile artists to bring this one piece of indigenous history into the minds of Canadians and into Canadian history.
“Chanie’s story is so important and was a great place to start bringing our histories to the forefront,” she remarked.
“I didn’t want to focus so much on the tragedy as much as the inquest into Wenjack’s death because it would eventually lead to the closing of residential schools many years later.
“Far too many tragedies happened in those schools and the memories are still carried by the former students who survived,” Calder stressed.
“It is Canada’s greatest shame that Canadians are just now being awoken to.”
Wenjack’s story has been the subject of other artistic creations, ranging from a Willie Dunn song back in the 1970s (and a short NFB film that also was made at that time) to the 2016 music album and graphic novel project, “The Secret Path,” by the late Gord Downie and comic artist Jeff Lemire.
But Calder’s take on it is very personal and distinct.
“‘Keewaydah’ comes at the Chanie Wenjack story from another point of view–the point of view of a Métis woman who grew up in Fort Frances who moved to Toronto,” she explained.
“Many times I felt inadequate to speak to Chanie’s story; I wondered if I was paying respect to his experience and his sacrifice in the right way,” she admitted.
It took Calder a long time to find the ending for the film but when she finally did, it felt right.
“‘Keewaydah’ means ‘Let’s go home,'” she noted. “Chanie took me home because I believe he helped take ‘us’ home.
“The challenge of telling Chanie’s story is to make ‘us’ really mean all of us, in communities, in the country–in the world.
“‘Keewaydah’ is a careful exploration of a painful period in our collective history,” Calder said.
“Sadly, this is an issue that hasn’t totally been resolved as youth are still traveling far from home to access an education.”
Calder conceded this issue can’t be solved with a band-aid solution, but the awareness is a good starting place for change to happen.
“Bringing to light the legacy of Chanie Wenjack is one of many stories that need to happen in a public arena,” she stressed.
“Utilizing whatever gifts we have as artists to bring that message home is important.”
“Keewaydah” was screened as part of the “First Step” short film program. And like Calder’s previous feature film, “Snip,” it was made using stop-motion (or stop frame) animation with poseable dolls instead of actors.
“I work at 24 frames per second–so 24 separate pictures for each second of film,” she explained.
“Some animators will do 12 per second.
“I collect around 500 frames on a good day that equals around 20 secs of film,” she noted.
“I might do a couple of takes per scene, remembering that I’m the ‘actor’ of the dolls and I want to get the right movement for the emotion.
“I need their body language to tell the story,” she added. “So when my ‘acting’ is off and the footage is unusable–that’s a very bad day.”
Calder also has to spend considerable time sculpting, casting, painting, making armatures (bones), and dressing the dolls.
She also designs, builds, and paints the sets, as well as does her own special effects (or compositing) and editing.
“Most people work in teams and I’m known for being a little determined. I do think this is a Calder trait,” she quipped.
“So all in all it takes me about nine months to create a 15-minute piece,” she added.
“My feature [‘Snip’] took me four years. You really have to love it to see it through the long haul.”
imagineNative is the first festival that “Keewaydah” will be in but Calder has received acclaim for “Snip.”
It was selected for the Toronto International Film Festival’s Top Ten Films of 2016, and also received an honourable mention at the Berlin Film Festival.
“Both of these experiences were absolutely face-melting,” Calder enthused.
“When they called out our name out in Berlin, I could hardly get to the stage as my legs were shaking so much I thought I’d fall down in front of hundreds of people.
“All of these experiences are so incredible,” she added. “But they never eclipse what I’m very passionate about and that is the work that I do and the films that I’m making.”
Calder said both “Snip” and “Keewaydah” address indigenous histories that need to be recognized as Canadian history–the residential school system being one of them.
The festival, which ran Oct. 18-22, featured more than 100 feature films, documentaries, shorts, and music videos created by indigenous filmmakers.
This year, 72 percent of the films presented at imagineNATIVE were made by indigenous female directors.