In 2012, Richard Wagamese released his novel, Indian Horse, a semi-autobiographical account of growing up in the Canadian residential school system and finding solace in hockey.
The book has recently been adapted for the screen by writer Dennis Foon and director Stephen S. Campanelli. Wagamese passed away in March 2017 and never got to see the final version of the film.
On screen, Indian Horse works hard to maintain Wagamese’s voice and the unique structure of his book. Taking place over thirty years, three generations of actors play Saul, from a young boy surviving in the bush with his grandmother to an aspiring junior league hockey player to a disillusioned adult. The cycle of trauma reverberates through the film.
In structuring the story around Saul’s hockey ambitions, the narrative showcases a young boy who by all accounts should be able to “assimilate.” Rather than to present this as aspirational, however, it uses the tropes of the underdog sports narrative to reveal the inherent flaws in the white saviour complex and the legacy of structural oppression that holds young people like Saul back. This device offers an inherent criticism of Canadian policy to put young native children in white homes, showcasing for Saul, the importance of being a part of his community as a means of healing and thriving. It is a harrowing and difficult story, whose violence reverberates to this day.
Director, Stephen S. Campanelli, has worked in the film industry for decades. He is a long-time collaborator with Clint Eastwood, working as a camera operator on most of the director’s films since the mid-90s. A Montreal native, Campanelli graduated from Concordia University. Indian Horse is his second directorial effort. Campanelli sat down with IX Daily to discuss his film.
What made you interested in adapting Richard Wagamese’s book?
The producers gave it to me when they were looking for the director. I was very busy doing the first movie I directed, it took me a while to get to it. So finally, one weekend, I sat down – I couldn’t stop reading it. Beginning to end, I was drawn in. What made me want to do this film? I was angry, I was born and raised here in Canada and I didn’t know this story. How, as a Canadian, did I not know about what we’ve done to our First Nations people? I read this script, the script was just as good, I thought we had to tell this story, I want to be the person to tell this story.
I pleaded to the producer, I begged, please let me tell this story. We met with Richard Wagamese and he gave us his blessing because he saw we had a passion for his vision. This is his story.
You did grow up in Canada, do you remember in your history courses on Canada and Quebec, what they were teaching about First Nations people?
I don’t remember anything about any indigenous teachings. Now that’s not to say there wasn’t, I have a very terrible memory. But, honestly, if I think back, we were told about our history of colonization but I don’t remember anything in particular. I know now that the curriculum in Grade 10 that Indian Horse and indigenous books are required reading now, which is fantastic, it’s a huge step forward. Growing up in my era, we didn’t talk about this, that’s why I was shocked when I read Richard’s book. I knew a little bit about it, but not much. I wasn’t even educated enough to even ask, “what happened back then.”
That’s why it hit me so hard, I thought I was an educated adult, how did I not know a lot about this story? Our mission with this movie is to get everybody to know, to get the conversation going, to keep it alive. It’s what all our indigenous actors kept saying, we have to keep telling this story, that’s what helps heal. The more people know about it, the more they can effect change.
You’re working with three generation of actors who are playing Saul. How did you work to create a cohesion with all the performances?
It was one of our biggest challenges. What I did, I made sure that all the actors were together, so they bonded. We shot mostly in order. We shot the little boy first, Sladen [Peltier]. So I asked the two older actors to come to the set and look at his mannerisms and get the feeling for him. Then the two of them bonded because they were watching and they were talking, so they started working with each other.
I’m especially impressed by the performance of Sladen Peltier, he’s working with such difficult material and is so natural.
He’s brilliant. He never acted, not even in a school play playing a tree! It was a big leap of faith to cast him, but he was just so adorable and his face has this rawness. We gave him some acting lessons and I worked with him a week before we started filming to get his trust, talking to him one on one. He was a sponge, he took my direction really well.
The material itself is so difficult, how was it negotiating working with a child and trying to protect him? You must also be thinking, I want to protect this child, while also understanding that he is also portraying real children who went through that at his age.
You don’t want to traumatize them. We knew we had some heavy scenes to shoot and it was tough. What I’ve learned from Clint Eastwood, even when we did heavy subject matter like The Changeling and Mystic River, we kept the set as light as possible. So, I did the same thing with Indian Horse. We had our laughs, I’d sit with Sladen and with the little girl [Lisa Oopik Minich] who sits in the cage, we’d play. Then when the time comes to shoot, the crew was great they were very respectful, now guys we are going to concentrate.
I would talk one on one with Slayten, I’d say “imagine,” it was a word I’d use a lot with the kids, “imagine if you had to be put in this cage and you have no food and water, you didn’t see your mom.” Immediately they’d start to imagine and I’d have the camera rolling, and I’d talk to them and I just stayed off camera and I was giving them direction to make them sad. Then the minute we cut, I went over I’d start to make them laugh, so you just get out of that as quickly as possible. The parents were always nearby.
The little girl never wanted to go in that box, so I went in there. I was not tricking her, but I was playing. I went in, there was a lot of room and she’d start laughing! I’d tell her, “I bet we both can fit.” She’d come in, and she’d say, “wow there is so much room.” So I’d crawl out, I’d look at the cameras and start rolling.
At one point, she has to bang her head against the bars. So, I told her, “let’s see how far you can make your hair swing outside of the bars without hitting your head,” and she’d snap her hair outside of the bars and we got the shot. I tried to keep it as light as possible. I have a daughter, you have to talk to kids and you have to have patience.
I have a question about the hockey scenes, it’s so seamless if you’re using doubles you can’t tell. How did you achieve those shots?
I knew that was going to be another challenge because of how fast hockey is, with all the moving parts with twelve players on the ice. It’s crazy out there. I had to make sure that I was true to the game of hockey, which is a beautiful flowing poetic game. I shot with three cameras, I did a lot of the skating myself, Yves Bélanger was my DP, he shot most of the wide shots and the long-lens shots. Then myself and Daniel Sauvé did all the on-ice skating. To make that work, we did have doubles. Sladen is an amazing hockey player but the other two actors, so they weren’t the greatest skaters, so I had to get doubles and do movie tricks. Forrest is actually pretty good, and then Ajuawak really rose to the occasion but you wouldn’t see them as professional hockey players.
The cool thing is that the two adults played right-handed hockey and Sladen was left-handed, so to match all three, I had to get Sladen to change to right-handed hockey. I knew the adults wouldn’t be able to. Poor Sladen, besides learning his lines, we had to reteach him to shoot hockey from the right and he did an amazing. He switched to right-sided hockey and his dad was one of the hockey coaches and really worked him and he did a great job.
How do you connect the film to the current situation of First Nations people in Canada?
There are still people in 2018 who don’t know anything about this, either they don’t care to know or some people have the attitude, like “I get it, we did some horrible things, let’s get over it.” But you can’t let it go, because it really hasn’t changed that much. There is still a lot of racism, there are reservations that do not have any water and that have high suicide rates: things still be corrected and make changes. Even those who didn’t go to the schools, the generations are affected by those who did. Even though the schools closed 22 years ago, there is still a ripple effect. What I’m hoping is that the conversation continues, it’s to keep the story alive. That’s why this movie will hopefully help in some way, I hope it will educate a lot of people across the country.
As Canadians, we are all slightly responsible to find out what happened in our own country. If they won’t teach it in schools or pick up a book, then go see a movie for 95 minutes and come away with some knowledge that you didn’t it before.
Education is the first step, without knowledge you can’t have any change. And then, it's creating a movement. We have this website, indianhorse.ca, which is not only for the film but offers resources that help direct people in what they can do.
We have the next 150 challenge, Canada just had its 150th birthday, what is going to happen in the next 150? That’s the question. What can I do? Can I go work in an indigenous resource centre? Connect and find a way to help.
There has to be a movement and people have to get off their couch. It’s happening – reconciliation takes a long time and it’s going to take a long time, you can’t just say that “by next year it’ll be fixed.” It will take time and we have to understand that, but it takes a big effort on everybody’s part: The government and the citizens of Canada.
Indian Horse opens across Canada on April 13th, as of today.