Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Truth & consequences

Cowboys and Indians reopens the wound that is the J.J. Harper case and the filmmakers are bracing for the firestorm that's sure to follow

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IT isn't an easy movie to watch. And it wasn't an easy movie to make.

But for the people responsible for the made-for-TV movie Cowboys and Indians: The Killing of J.J. Harper, as well as many of the people involved in the real-life incident on which it's based, this is a story that needs to be told.

Over and over, if necessary, until there aren't any more stories like J.J. Harper's.

"Lots of people still don't comprehend the injustice that still exists," said Manitoba-born actor Adam Beach (Windtalkers, Smoke Signals), who took time out from his busy Hollywood career to return home to play slain native leader J.J. Harper in the film.

"It's like nobody wants to hear the truth. And it's stories like J.J. Harper's that need to be told again and again until people start realize that this kind of thing exists out there."

Cowboys and Indians, which airs Friday at 8 p.m. on APTN and Sunday, Oct. 5 at 8 p.m. on CBC, is based on the similarly titled book by Free Press columnist Gordon Sinclair Jr. It re-examines the events and attitudes that led to Harper's death and the painful search for the truth -- about Harper's shooting, and about the justice system's treatment of aboriginals in general -- that followed.

Eric Schweig stars as Harper's half-brother, Harry Wood, with Currie Graham co-starring as Const. Robert Cross, the officer who shot Harper. Garry Chalk portrays Inspector Ken Dowson, who played an active part in the police cover-up and ultimately committed suicide on the morning he was scheduled to testify before the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry.

In bringing Cowboys and Indians to the small screen, scriptwriter Andrew Rai Berzins and director Norma Bailey faced a unique set of challenges, largely because one of the central characters in the story dies in the opening scenes and the other is basically a large, faceless institutional entity whose deeply ingrained racist attitudes were the root cause of that death.

After Harper is killed, the story becomes largely one of police procedures and judicial processes; there really isn't a lot of action to be acted out on-screen.

The only way to approach it, the film's director explained, was to find the humanity behind the processes and procedures.

"I would say that was the major challenge," said Bailey. "The solution is in the writing of the script -- you have to find the central figures and bring them to the front and make the procedure the background."

To that end, this interpretation of the J.J. Harper story actually focuses on three other people -- Wood, who is actually a composite character based on several people who were close to Harper at the time of his death, Cross, who is portrayed as an arrogant cop who comes completely unravelled as a result of the killing and subsequent cover-up, and Dowson, on whom much of the responsibility for the Harper case and the police department's institutionalized racism is pinned.

Oddly, the character of Harper -- as portrayed by Beach -- continues to play a part in the film's storyline long after his death.

Harper appears several times to Wood in dreams and ghostly visitations that seem to energize his continuing pursuit of the truth.

"Part of the reason for that is because it apparently did happen to his brother (Wood), on the night of the shooting," said Bailey. "And then we built on that, using it as a device that allows us to see more of the (Harper) character, because he's really who all of this is about."

Because the movie was shot in Winnipeg and deals with a story that still resonates deeply with many Winnipeggers -- both in the aboriginal community and inside the police service -- Bailey fully expects Cowboys and Indians to generate controversy and spark some angry reactions on both sides of the story.

"I'm sure I'll be accused of not getting it right -- absolutely, without a doubt," she said. "That's something you have to accept going into it, and you just have to focus on making a good film. The only concern for me is to respect everyone involved, and I believe that I have done that, then I can create these characters with a clear conscience."

Bailey added that while it wasn't necessarily crucial to the film-making process to shoot the film in Winnipeg, in the end, making the movie here was the right thing to do.

"We could easily have done it in another city and achieved the same look that we got here," she said. "But I think it was important to do it here because all of the native people involved in this film wanted to work on it (in Winnipeg), because of what J.J. Harper meant to them. For that reason, yes, it was important to do it here."

Indeed, Cowboys and Indians has been the subject of considerable debate even before its premiere on APTN and CBC. The public broadcaster has hosted a pair of public forums -- one for television, and one for radio -- that have explored topics related to the Harper case and the AJI.

CBC Radio's Learn at Lunch initiative held a session titled What Have We Learned From the J.J. Harper Case? last Wednesday, and last week CBC-TV taped a national forum called Crisis Point: Aboriginals and the Law -- Justice For All?, which will air Friday at 7 p.m. on Newsworld, just before Cowboys and Indians debuts on APTN.

Schweig said he believes an ongoing debate of the issues brought to light by the Harper case is essential if relations between the aboriginal community and the justice system are ever going to change for the better.

"This is an important story," he said. "This movie could be used as a training video for cops that are new to the force.

"In order to change things -- including the way police deal with the Indian community -- you have to own what you do. It doesn't matter what kind of past you have as a police force; you have to own that past, embrace it and admit to whatever wrongdoings have gone on.

"It's only then that you can change things.

"If you deny all that stuff, it's just an excuse to keep doing it."

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 27, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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