Docudrama and Performing the Past in We Were Children

Film can have the unique responsibility of conveying complicated memories. For Lyna Hart and Glen Anaquod in We Were Children (2012), film does just that. As two survivors of Canadian Residential Schools, Lyna and Glen give testimony to their experiences in this film that seeks to recreate them. The story takes place in their childhoods, as children who were forced to attend Canadian residential schools by their family and community members (and while we know it was really enforced by the Canadian Government, this is never really shown). The film jumps in time, and between locations, as it shows both Lyna and Glen’s entire time at the schools. We see them change, we see their tears, we see what christianity in this country has done. But do we see enough?

The production of memory through film is perhaps the most succinct method of transferring testimony to public history. When we consider the genre of documentary films, and the structures it aims to maintain (authenticity, ethnographic lenses, etc.), we can see flaws in the process that inhibit the potential of depicting historical testimony. Director Tim Wolochatiuk explains that, “the re-enactments I think serve to take the audience to places where a documentary wouldn’t be able to take you.” This film instead straddles the genres of documentary and drama, delving into a new categorization of filmmaking that can be described as “docudrama”. This category, however, is not so much a genre, but a “mode of representation,” or “way of offering an argument about the past.”[1] The dramatization of their testimony, therefore, argues an interpretation about the past. In their case, this is the retelling of an often overlooked, under-acknowledged, and horrific institutionalized assimilation programme that ran since the mid 1800s. We Were Children is a film where Lyna Hart and Glen Anaquod present their memories on camera for public consumption. The result is a film that attempts to reconstruct their personal histories in a way that affects the audience emotionally. But what exactly is occurring here, and does this method of communication serve to help or hinder survivors?

“They hear all these stories and they tell us to get over it,” Lyna said. “But when they actually see it, it’ll have an impact on them. They will finally know what happened to us.”

The visual recreation of trauma, while it can evoke powerful emotions, is not necessarily a benefit to all survivors. While Lyna has stated that sharing this part of her memory has been empowering, even therapeutic, for her, the production of this film cannot possibly encompass the entirety of this situation. We must also consider what film, or dramatic sequencing in this case, offers their narratives. How does the appeal to emotion as displayed both by the visual and auditory affect the viewer, and alter the story? We have to keep in mind that this film is largely meant for a non-indigenous audience. While film in this sense is a dissemination tool, the motivations behind the creation of this film must be scrutinized. Trauma is experienced and expressed differently by everyone, and while this film is able to recreate the traumatic experiences of two survivors, it in no way encapsulates the 150,000 other children who were subjugated.

Additionally, as historians we must consider: is this film historically accurate in its depictions, and does it need to be? Film has this uncanny ability to recreate history, to rapidly spread images of history regardless of whether or not they are “true” or representative of the actual events. The dramatization of historical events is the process of world-building, but it also largely replaces historical consciousness with film consciousness. While this can be incredibly beneficial, especially in attempts to give voice to histories that are misunderstood or overlooked, it also has the ability to alter perceptions and facts. For instance, if we take a moment to examine those who are depicted as running these schools, what do we see? There is the incompetent and kind nun who loses her job for being too nice to the children or for helping them too much, the heartless and cruel nun who reinforces the rules, and the sexually deviant priest who looms in shadows and dark rooms. And while these depictions perhaps come from the testimonies of Lyna and Glen, we must also take into consideration what the process of recreating these images on film does. Is dramatizing these figures a way of dehumanizing them? Does it distance the history of residential schools so that non-indigenous peoples can stomach this film? Does it properly lay responsibility where it is due?

Finally, we can look to the inclusion of Harper’s speech at the end of the film. What is its function in this film? When he says that Residential Schools are a “sad chapter in Canadian history,” are they applauding the first official apology given by the Canadian Government? Or are they critiquing it? Perhaps the very fact that their intentions are unclear points to some ideological problems throughout the film. Moreover, this re-occurring idea of  a “sad chapter in Canadian history” feels inadequate. As much as the film emotionally depicts survivor memories, it also seemingly intentionally avoids laying blame, or a sense of responsibility. Is this a “sad chapter” or is this part of larger systemic and historical injustices that need to be consistently and thoroughly unearthed?

And this film, while heartbreaking, unfortunately avoids these difficult questions and instead focuses on making the viewer feel, as if it would have otherwise been a difficult thing to do.

[1] Steven N. Lipkin, Docudrama Performs the Past: Arenas of Argument in Films based on True Stories. Cambridge Scholars Publishing: 2011. 1

 

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