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‘Sugarcane’ Review: Memories of Past Sins Haunt a Documentary About Indigenous Children in an Abusive Catholic Institution

“Sugarcane,” the documentary that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this week, is billed as “an investigation,” but its silences speak louder than its revelations.

The film from directors Julian Brave NoiseCat and Emily Kassie is a stunning and brutal look at the lasting trauma of the St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School, a government-funded institution run by the Catholic Church where indigenous children were sent with the aim of stripping them of the connection to their culture. The abuses that took place at St. Joseph’s and the places around North America like it were innumerable — though much of the evidence of wrongdoing is, devastatingly, lost to time. But as NoiseCat and Kassie’s film shows, the legacy of harm has echoed throughout generations as the survivors reckon with what they saw and endured, keeping some of their experiences, too painful to fully grasp, buried.

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NoiseCat and Kassie follow a cast of characters throughout the Williams Lake First Nation in British Columbia all of whom are connected to St. Joseph’s, which shut down in 1981. What results is as much a piece of art about the sins of the past as it is about living with the memory of those sins in the present. It evolves into a study about shame and pain, but also survival in the face of that.

At the center of the narrative that the directors weave is NoiseCat himself — a writer — along with his father Ed Archie NoiseCat, who was born at the school under circumstances of which even he is not quite certain. In the midst of the broader story about the ongoing search into the truth of what happened at St. Joseph’s there is a father-son story of reconciliation and the holes that can never be filled and the realities that can never be uttered. This culminates in a heartbreaking scene in which Ed and Julian go to speak to Julian’s grandmother. The camera never shows her face, instead focusing on the beautiful landscape, as she tearfully recounts how she prefers not to articulate what occurred.

The facts that are known about St. Joseph’s are horrifying. There are accounts of rape by priests, who impregnanted the girls and disposed of their babies. There are stories of torture being enacted on the students, who were given numbers, and children who died trying to escape or by suicide. Investigators have used radar to find the remains of people who were buried in unmarked graves on the site of the school.

Throughout the film, NoiseCat and Kassie introduce their viewers to the various community responses to the film. There are the activists like Charlene Belleau, who have dedicated their lives to uncovering the secrets of St. Joseph’s. In one of the most infuriating scenes, she calls up one of the few surviving priests, who almost cheerfully brushes off her questions and hangs up on her, his politeness masking conspiracy.

And then there are those still in the process of reckoning with what they endured like former Chief of the Williams Lake First Nation Rick Gilbert, still a devoted Catholic. Gilbert is a fascinating figure, quiet alongside his talkative wife. The cameras follow him on a journey to Italy alongside a group of other indigenous leaders who have been offered an audience with the Pope. The question of faith — especially Gilbert’s — is one that is left a little elusive. It’s an area where you occasionally wish NoiseCat and Kassie had dug a little deeper, but you also understand that might be penetrating a still raw wound.

With cinematography by Kassie herself as well as Christopher LaMarca, the filmmakers generate tableaus that celebrate the striking landscape—which we are reminded in a tune sung by the NoiseCats is “all Indian land” — as well as the vivacity of the community that still exists in the ashes of St. Joseph’s, still damaged but not unbroken. There is little archival footage, however, what is used comes from a black and white 1962 television documentary called ‘The Eyes of Children,’ a sanitized account of life at a school similar to St. Joseph’s, where the children play happily and are led in prayer by nuns. There’s an eerie quality to that material, which is juxtaposed with not only the grim facts of these supposed centers of learning, but also the vivid culture that they were trying to erase.

Those who come to documentaries looking for resolution might be slightly disappointed with ‘Sugarcane,’ but it is not depicting a history where that is easy to come by. That’s in part because so many of the victims and perpetrators are dead and in part because of how memories go suppressed or unacknowledged. ‘Sugarcane’ doesn’t force conclusions that aren’t there. Instead, it lets the empty parts of the saga linger so the ghosts of what transpired feel present. It means, ultimately, that ‘Sugarcane’ is something more meaningful than a mere history lesson. It’s a portrait of what remains when injustice occurs.

Grade: A-

“Sugarcane” premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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