Sunday, March 31, 2019

Deconstructing a Scene: Through Black Spruce

Leaving Moosonee Behind
A new film based on Joseph Boyden’s novel Through Black Spruce is now in limited release across Canada. It follows the Bird family from Moosonee as they struggle with the disappearance of one daughter, an uncle's guilt and a drug feud. Near the start of the film, Annie (Tanaya Beatty) ventures south to Toronto. While it is supposed to be a vacation, Annie soon finds herself immersed in Toronto's Indigenous and drug cultures as she follows in her missing sister's footsteps. How does Annie leave Moosonee? By train of course.

Pretty much the entire railway sequence is shown in the trailer, but having seen the whole movie, it is clear that the train is there for a reason. As Annie's uncle Will (Brandon Oakes) watches the train leave, the camera looks out at the forest as the southbound Polar Bear Express leaves Moosonee behind. The only break in the trees is the right-of-way. This marks the train as the connection between the Indigenous and settler worlds. It is the transitional space. It also adds great realism to the production. Large portions of the movie are very clearly filmed in Moosonee and Toronto with wonderful touches and references that will only make sense to people who have lived in or researched these places. Apart from the railway, aircraft and vehicles also play central roles. In particular, Will's float plan also serves as a transitional space from the conflicts of life in Moosonee to the traditional peace of life on the land.

On the whole, I found the movie somewhat inconsistent and I think it carries a great burden on its shoulders. At times, it feels like the writers are trying to fit every possible contemporary Indigenous issue into the script. Yet this is also powerful because it shows how much of an overwhelming mess we find ourselves in. While brutal, the film is also a story of resilience as Annie nearly succumbs to the city, but ultimately finds herself again.

With powerful acting and a thoughtful portrayal of traditional Omushkego hunting and Cree dialogue (I don't speak Cree, so I can only assume that it's accurate), Through Black Spruce is definitely worth a look. I know it's not a railway movie, but the train is important nevertheless.

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