For young Aila (Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs) and those around her in the late 60s and into the 70s, hope has retreated to the boundary line of the Red Crow Native reserve.
Director Jeff Barnaby’s fictitious Red Crow reserve seems foreign and not possibly based on Canadian aboriginal experience. Its dysfunction and hopelessness conflict with the cohesive narrative normally told of larger Canadian society and its relations with its aboriginal communities, yet it is our story told by a promising Canadian writer/director.
Like his actors who experienced life on a reserve, Barnaby, who is from the Restigouche First Nation, pulled from experience to write the script for his film Rhymes for Young Ghouls, which, not surprisingly, deals with ghosts — everyday ghosts numbed by alcohol and drugs, as well as ones actually belonging to the spirit world.
About both we learn from Aila as she takes us through life on the reservation with its wild parties and colonialist rules. She is an old soul, and explains at one point why certain substances thrive on the reserve. “The art of forgetfulness,” she says, “ — this is what brings my people together.”
Her people are particular about forgetting, and pay good money for it, not unlike others living outside the reserve. Too bad they — young and old ghouls alike — don’t resort to rhymes. But this thought-provoking film isn’t filled only with despair.
Hope lives in Aila’s father Joseph (Glen Gould) who has missed a good chunk of her adolescent years, but is practically the only one able to see that she is, for all her savvy and alligator exterior, still a child in need of protection. Unfortunately, though he has great hopes for and aims to protect his beautiful, resilient daughter, he has his own sorrows to overcome, sorrows they share as a family and a larger community.
The gutsy Aila stands out among her supporting crew of youngsters, whom she inspires to dress up as ghouls to carry out a vengeful plan against the colonial goon on the hill named Popper (Mark Antony Krupa). In so doing they inspire affection and laughter.
Laughter, Barnaby and Gould told Saturday’s TIFF audience, is important to aboriginals. It is especially useful in overcoming tragedy, since no matter how serious the issue, laughter stimulates discussion. With this, one audience member who says she lived on a reserve, agreed, saying the addition of laughter in the midst of “pain and rage” rang true.
It is that authenticity which makes the story seem current, although introductory words set us on Red Crow in 1969. The language, and timeless bluesy selections like Joe Carter’s Mean and Evil Blues may also contribute to that contemporary feel; but then again, how much has life on the reserve changed given the limitations of law, as well as environmental and financial resources?
The film won’t answer that. It doesn’t bring you up to date about life on a reserve, but it makes you curious as it gradually, over nearly 90 minutes, ensnares you and focuses you on issues that led to later protests.
You clue in subtly as you hear the Mi’kmaq language mixed with English on the reserve, and as other cultural identifiers pass out of reach. Notably, the community without valued elders seems to lose its way. And perhaps because of that, life on Red Crow conflicts with more romantic concepts of Canada’s indigenous, even as it re-enforces common prejudices.
That risky relationship between truth and prejudice is part of how Barnaby hooks you. He also uses flashbacks and cartoonish dream sequences that create a hypnotic story-within-a-story effect, artfully melding the spiritual and physical world that informs Aila’s perspective. And although some of the cartoon work may not have been necessary with a large budget, as it stands, shallow pockets brought us deep creativity.
What that creativity also does is illuminate the pain of the residential school system that tore native families apart, showing how methodically colonialism altered a people’s way of life and self-concept.
The wrongdoing has been documented in ongoing Canadian truth and reconciliation commission hearings, which already informed us of language and cultural disenfranchisement, in addition to physical, psychological and sexual abuse enabled on reserves by the Indian act of 1876. As part of the Act, residential schools were funded by the Canadian government and overseen by a network of Christian churches which were allowed to appropriate children from 5 to 16 years of age to ensure education, or more aptly indoctrination — religious and otherwise.
The government has apologized for more than 120 years of injustice, including the abuse at the hands of religious figures/organizations, but this film shows some of the outcomes of those earlier policies, and that more is needed to right those wrongs. What? — Neither the film nor its director prescribes. Barnaby, in the TIFF post-screening Q&A suggested that the way ahead is for us all to decide, as a society.
Rhymes for Young Ghouls, a title Barnaby says is from a 70s poetry compilation, may seem an odd one, but it mirrored for him, in mood and content, life on Red Crow, which could stand-in for numerous other reservations, or other cultures. And it is that reserve life and the people who came together to stop residential schools, particularly in the 60s when it seemed oppression was greatest, that he pays tribute to with this film.
Now, having screened at TIFF’s Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival and split first prize at VIFF (Vancouver International Film Festival), Barnaby’s Rhymes for Young Ghouls opens in Toronto on January 31 at Cineplex’s Yonge and Dundas theatre. See it.