Indian Horse (Campanelli, 2017)

Stories like the one told in Indian Horse demand greater representation. The colonial injustices against the Indigenous peoples of Canada, like the abuse they suffered in residential schools for over a century, are a national shame that we must reckon with. The reconciliation process will take years of commitment and empathetic bridge-building, and the entertainment industry can do its part by underscoring the traumas the First Nations have suffered at the hands of settlers so that they are visible. So that they do not drift back into the periphery. Indian Horse is a good first step. It’s based on a popular novel, so the name recognition is there for casual filmgoers. It’s got a primarily Indigenous cast, with Canadian production values and financial backing, so it’s not trying to be something it’s not. The late author of the source text gave the production his blessing before his death, so one is assured that the material is “in good hands.” The only thing it’s missing is an Indigenous director and screenwriter. I understand why they’re not there: the bigwigs behind the scenes are still not ready to fork over their cash to untested people. They want assurances that the film will make money, and the sad reality is that very few Indigenous filmmakers out there can prove that they are capable of generating ticket sales. We are still a long way from a fair system for Indigenous artists, and I hate that. They deserve to tell their stories in their own way. I hate that money is still an issue, when it doesn’t have to be.

Obviously, this story would’ve been better served with a director who had lived through the same horrors. Campanelli tries to recreate the torments of a residential school, but too often it doesn’t feel lived in. It’s noticeable. The interiority of the central character does not quite reach into the filmmaking itself, so his experience does not hit you as hard as it should. There is a detachment to the proceedings that would not exist from a truly Indigenous perspective. It’s the one thing that holds Indian Horse back from being something worth teaching in schools (though I’m sure the novel will continue to be a part of reading lists). It lacks the artistic authenticity to go with its authentic narrative, and thus reads as a little hollow (though I’m relieved Campanelli didn’t try to falsely claim Indigenous ancestry in order to make this, as one notable Canadian author did a few years ago). But, as I said, it’s a good first step in terms of bringing these stories to life in a publicly accessible way. If a film like this can help cast off people’s racist assumptions about Indigenous life in Canada, then that is still a public good worth commending. Outside of Campanelli’s involvement, it’s still a hard-hitting work that brings a greater understanding to past and present injustices, and I could tell my audience appreciated it when they clapped at the end. The important thing is: they’re listening. And by listening, the healing process will be much easier.

Next time, however, I hope to see an Indigenous filmmaker in the credits.