"IT hurt. I felt they were taking something away from me. They were stripping away my humanness, my sense of who I was."
The haunting words of residential school survivor Lyna Hart refer specifically to the memory of what she felt, as a four-year-old, when a nun cut off her long, black hair on the day of her arrival at a Manitoba school, but they could easily be used to described the entirety of the residential school ordeal.
Hart is one of two survivors whose stories are told in We Were Children, a powerful docudrama that premieres tonight on APTN West at 10 p.m. or on APTN HD at 8 p.m. Written by Jason Sherman and directed by Tim Wolochatiuk, the film pulls no punches as it draws upon the first-person accounts of Hart and Saskatchewan survivor Glen Anaquod (who died in 2011 before completion of the film) to recall a shameful chapter in Canada's history.
We Were Children -- a co-production of Winnipeg-based Eagle Vision Inc., Toronto's Entertainment One and the National Film Board -- opens with an idyllic scene set on a rural Manitoba landscape, circa 1958, with a young mother calling her daughter in from the horse corral. The four-year-old, Lyna, is smiling, but there are tears in the mother's eyes as she awaits the arrival of a truck that will transport the girl to the residential school that will be her home for the next decade.
"Listen to what they tell you; remember to be good," the mother implores.
In an interview clip that follows the young girl's departure from home, the adult Hart reflects on her mother's words.
"They had no expectations," she offers. "I don't think they could fathom what would happen."
Indeed, what follows is a harrowing compilation of dramatizations based on the recollections of Hart and Anaquod, whose residential-school experiences both began in the late 1950s. Hart was four, Anaquod six. Each experienced and witnessed humiliation, dehumanizing treatment and various types of abuse at the hands of the nuns and priests who ran the Christian schools. The Canadian government gave the schools a mandate to erase all traces of aboriginal identity from their "students" in order to transform them into productive members of society.
"The savage and carefree ways you are accustomed to are over," Lyna's class is told. "Your old world is dying, but we in the civilized world want to save you from certain death."
"Saving," as it turns out, consists of physical punishment for speaking native languages, forced isolation and, in many cases, serial sexual abuse. The pain in the voices of Hart and Anaquod as they speak with an off-screen interviewer about what they endured is obvious.
Director Wolochatiuk's chosen mix of dramatizations and first-person interviews is generally effective; if there's a weakness in the scripted segments, it's that some of the more abusive nuns and priests are portrayed as so over-the-top evil that they lapse into caricatured, Disney-movie-style villainy.
But it's the survivors' stories that give We Were Children its emotional heft, and the impact of what Hart and Anaquod experienced -- which represents the ordeals of untold thousands in the residential school system -- cannot and should not be ignored.
Wolochatiuk, producer Lisa Meeches of Winnipeg-based Eagle Vision Inc., and National Film Board chairman Tom Perlmutter are taking part in an early-morning breakfast panel today at 7:30 a.m. at the Winnipeg Free Press News Café, during which clips from the film will be screened and the panelists will answer questions about the making of We Were Children.
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