SANTA BARBARA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2023 REVIEW! Canada has recently been grappling with the dark history of its Native residential school system. For more than 100 years, they put more than 150,000 First Nations children into “reeducation camps,” often through coercion or force. These children were separated from their families, denied their language and culture, and sometimes sexually abused, experimented on, and malnourished. The enormity of this history is overwhelming, but writer-director Marie Clements’ Bones of Crows thoroughly explores all of the gut-wrenching details in a multi-generational drama spanning the late 1800s to the present day.
The film is centered around Aline Spears (Summer Testawich), a Cree girl ripped away from her family. Along with her sister and brother, she’s placed in a residential Catholic school. There she faces horrible abuse at the hands of priests and nuns, although since she has a musical gift, she is given special piano tutoring. This leads to Aline being paraded around as an “example Indian,” although any respite she gets from the sessions is, in time, destroyed as they turn into a nightmare. First, we flash forward to her as a young woman (Grace Dove) serving in the Canadian military and ultimately starting a family. Then we see her as an older woman (Carla-Rae), now a matriarch and elder, trying to address the Catholic Church on the subject.
While all this generational trauma can seem overwhelming, Bones of Crows takes its time, develops its characters, and shows them as complete people, not just victims. When one scene ends with something unspeakable, we often jump in time to see another area of personal growth. Over time, a beautiful tapestry of family is woven together. Yes, they’re still dealing with trauma through the generations, but there are also beautiful moments of defiance, strength, and love.
“…Aline Spears, a Cree girl ripped away from her family.”
Clements is Métis, and the production is filled with people of Indigenous ancestry. As a result, we get a point of view that we’ve rarely seen on screen and that we’ve been desperately lacking. Think about the countless Westerns presenting the native people of the Americas as savages. Even the best-known intergenerational epic, the Godfather trilogy, is from a male and Catholic viewpoint. These perspectives are so thoroughly ingrained into our moviegoing experience that they form part of the language of cinema. When we see Catholics, we expect forgiveness and redemption to be major themes. So when someone comes along with a new language, it is exhilarating. Not only do we get a story unbounded by past tropes, but we also get a new way of relating to the world.
The acting in Bones of Crows is superb throughout, but I want to especially call out the trio of Summer Testawich, Grace Dove, and Carla-Rae, who take us through Aline’s journey seamlessly. First, it is always great to see a child give a great performance, something no doubt made all the more difficult by the tough subject matter involved. Dove carries the middle journey, bringing hope and grit in the face of adversity. Finally, Carla-Rae brings quiet dignity and determination. I’m a sucker for films looking at a complete life story, and this nails it.
If there is one thing that the theatrical version of Bones of Crows suffers from, it is that there’s just so much story to tell. Some characters are only seen briefly, and we sense there could be a deeper backstory. In particular, the people on the Catholic Church side are pretty one-dimensional. We get a sense of something perhaps other than pure evil in one nun, but the glimpse is fleeting and incomplete. Still, this isn’t their story, and humanizing your oppressor is by no means a necessary or even desirable part of this story.
The good news is that Bones of Crows will also be a miniseries from the Candian Broadcasting Company. I look forward to what Clements and company can do with an even more expansive canvas.
Bones of Crows screened at the Toronto International Film Festival and the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.