In a summer filled with blue genies, talking toys and singing warthogs comes the thoughtful Indian Horse, one of the best Canadian films in recent memory and assuredly one of the better films of the season. Based on Richard Wagamese's wonderful novel (if you don't see the film, I insist that you put this on your summer reading list), Indian Horse sheds light on the dark history of Canada's so-called "Residential Schools" and the indomitable spirit of Indigenous peoples. It has been nearly two years since I first attended the film's world premiere during the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. I was delighted to see Indian Horse be a part of this year's Sun Valley Film Festival, and upon a third screening of the film to prepare for this treatise, I continue to find greater admiration for Indian Horse with each viewing.
Having spent a good amount of my childhood summers in the northern Ontario backcountry in the early 1960s, I had only heard whispers of Canada's Residential School system—a network of boarding schools where Caucasian authorities attempted to "assimilate" indigenous children by "killing the Indian in the child." Decades later, we learned that nearly a third of indigenous children in Canada had been placed in residential schools. It's now estimated that childhood deaths at the schools ranged between 3,200 and 6,000. It wasn't until 2008 that the Canadian government-sanctioned Truth and Reconciliation Commission shed light on what had been a century-long tragedy and began documenting one of that nation's least-talked-about but most-ignominious scandals.
Wagamese, himself a native of the Ojibway Wabaseemoong First Nation tribe in northwestern Ontario, went on to become one of Canada's most esteemed journalists and authors. He used the Residential School scandal as a backdrop for his 2013 novel Indian Horse. Sadly, Wagamese died in 2017, just a few months before the film adaptation of his book would premiere at TIFF. I was privileged to have been in the Toronto theater that historic evening, and I can testify that a river of tears was shed by the film's conclusion. Indian Horse was screened across Canada during 2018, and it would become that nation's most-successful English-speaking Canadian film of the year. Only recently did the movie secure distribution in the U.S., and I'm thrilled to report that it opens at The Flicks in Boise on Friday, Aug. 7.
Indian Horse is set in in northern Ontario in the late 1950s, when 8-year-old Saul Indian Horse is torn from his Ojibway family and committed to St. Jerome's, one of the notorious Residential Schools. In the oppressive environment, Saul is denied the freedom to speak his language or embrace his indigenous heritage while he witnesses horrendous abuse at the hands of the very people entrusted with his care.
"I saw kids die of tuberculosis, influenza, pneumonia... and broken hearts at St. Jerome's," Saul remembers. "When your innocence is stripped from you, when your people are denigrated, when the family you came from is denounced and your tribal ways and rituals are pronounced backward, primitive and savage, you come to see yourself as less than human. That is hell on earth: that sense of unworthiness. That's what they inflicted on us."
Despite the horror, Saul finds salvation in the unlikeliest of places and Canada's favorite pastime: ice hockey. Fascinated by the game, Saul secretly teaches himself to play. In his solitude, he hones a rare skill in which he sees the game in a way no other player can. Saul's stunning ability on the ice leads him away from the misery of St. Jerome's and toward a dramatically different life playing the sport professionally. The ghosts of Saul's past are always present, but in that purgatory between heaven on ice and hell at St. Jerome's, Saul draws on the spirit of his ancestors and the understanding of his friends to begin a process of healing.
One final note of importance, particularly to Idaho filmgoers: None other than Clint Eastwood, Indian Horse's executive producer, made a rare personal appearance earlier this year to attend a screening of the film at the Sun Valley Opera House.
When asked what prompted his return visit to Idaho, the Oscar-winner, who never says more than what must be said, squinted those famous eyes and said, "Well, people need to see this film."