Sugarcane (2024)

Sugarcane Review

This year, a jury awarded the documentary “Sugarcane” the Sundance Film Festival’s directing prize. It is an understated and extraordinary piece by filmmakers Julian Brave NoiseCat (who wrote this piece) and co-director Emily Kassie. The movie goes through the terrors at Canada’s St. Joseph Residential School on British Columbia’s Sugarcane Reserve near Williams Lake which, it turned out, closed only in 1981 with restraint and empathy.

Another key player in “Sugarcane” is Rick Gilbert former chief of the Williams Lake First Nation, steadfast Catholic and witness to horrors at St. Joseph’s (where he suspects his father was one of the priests) who takes it upon himself (and his wife Anna) to safeguard religious items from his church after hearing about the recent spate of arsons. Eventually, Gilbert gets invited to the Vatican for a meeting between Pope Francis and Indigenous Canadians. The pope sounds genuinely sorry for what happened to Gilbert and other St. Joseph’s students. But words, as the filmmakers repeatedly point out, mean nothing without action whether they’re coming from Church leaders or Canadian prime minster Justin Trudeau.

As powerful as “Sugarcane” is on first viewing, it becomes more disturbing when you later replay it in your mind, considering unanswered questions and seemingly throwaway details. Early on, Julian NoiseCat appears ecstatic when he wins first prize for traditional dancing at a First Nations powwow; you can’t help but think that though he wasn’t a St. John’s student himself he has also felt disconnected from his heritage. (On another hand, it’s suggested that he and his father are bonded in part by their shared abiding love for fellow Canadian Neil Young.)

At first you may wonder why more of these tormented children never told their parents or local authorities what they were seeing and experiencing. But then you realize that even if they had and there are many indications that they did they were not believed or were silenced until their experiences locked themselves away in that part of the human heart where wide-awake nightmares are reflexively exiled but never entirely forgotten.

“Sugarcane” is made by humane filmmakers with keen eyes who want us all to remember forevermore who have put their moral outrage to exceptional use. And yet still. You can’t shake off the desolate suspicion that their best efforts to find justice for the living and the dead, however noble, are part of a campaign that might be endless. Meanwhile, the weight of unbearable memories keeps driving survivors of St. John’s and these schools to substance abuse and suicide. “Searches for unmarked graves are underway at more than 50 former institutions,” we’re told at the end. And yet: “Indigenous people are still dying from residential schools.” More are still living, despite them. Maybe God is on their side after all?

Watch Sugarcane Review For Free On Gomovies.

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