Cree filmmaker Jules Koostachin’s WaaPaKe (Tomorrow) collects testimonials from residential school survivors, their children, and grandchildren to illuminate intergenerational trauma and how Indigenous people are working to heal.
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Cree filmmaker Dr. Jules Koostachin’s documentary feature Waapake is a heartbreaking and essential work of creative nonfiction about the legacy of Canada’s residential ‘schools.’ Koostachin interviews her mother, a residential school survivor, her son (actor Asivak Koostachin of Run Woman Run and Red Snow fame), herself, and a few friends — poet Joseph Dandurand, Indigenous counsellor Maisie Smith, both children of survivors — about how they’ve felt the effects of intergeneration trauma and the challenges of healing.
Koostachin’s subjects represent a handful of specific, sadly too common, Indigenous stories. Importantly, she’s chosen her family and people whose job is communicating and working with trauma survivors. Her family, including her son Asivak, are also no strangers to the camera, having previously appeared in Koostachin’s AskiBOYZ (2014).
They talk frankly, sometimes uncomfortably, into the camera, telling traumatic, personal stories. They choose their words carefully, knowing their anger and trauma can’t be seen in a vacuum. The parents who hurt them were themselves victims, and the colonial system is ultimately to blame. There’s a remarkable display of equal parts compassion and hard-won anger. There are often stories of years of silence and not knowing how to talk about their hurt and trauma.
Revealing the filmmaking process in WaaPaKe (Tomorrow)
Shot in a studio against a green screen, Koostachin regularly shows us key behind-the-scenes moments that speak as loudly as her subjects’ stories. Each interview begins with Koostachin asking her subjects to introduce themselves, including in their language and with traditional introductions, if they feel comfortable. Several of her subjects admit, with some embarrassment and anger, that they don’t know their language and will have to do so in English.
Koostachin’s son, Asivak, attempts an introduction in his language but makes gaffes that his mother teasingly points out, asking him to correct them. It’s a reminder of how these simple actions have been taken away from so many Indigenous Peoples. Residential schools separated them from their language and cultures.
The asides are often equally important. When Dandurand comments on his mother’s need to tell the courts about her residential ‘school’ experiences, he notes offhandedly that the sexual abuse she experienced entitled her to an extra five hundred dollars. Details like this highlight the harshness and cruelty of the truth and reconciliation system. They aren’t the story’s centre, but they tell us a lot.
Each interviewee surrounds themselves with objects of personal and cultural importance during the interview, like a Renaissance painting coming to life. The green screen behind them, which we see before it’s filled with images, shows us the land where each subject hails from. It ensures that we understand that the traumas occurred in a specific context and place throughout each story. Koostachin often intercuts the testimonies with archival footage, home videos, and photographs to illuminate the stories.
Finding a path forward
Koostachin begins the film with her speech to the crew about how they would follow Indigenous filming protocols, including having professional help on set should things become too difficult for anyone involved. Even though the film deals with traumatic experiences, there’s a concerted effort in the filmmaking process and in what we see on screen to focus on healing. The purpose of the testimonies, hard as they may be to give, is to share stories, to stop the silence, and to find some catharsis. Although the film’s subjects tell harrowing stories, the film is as much about how Koostachin, her family, and her subjects deal with their anger and find ways to prevent the cycle of trauma from perpetuating.
It’s particularly remarkable to see three generations of Koostachins on film. Koostachin’s survivor mother is the most camera-shy, but she also has the hardest story to tell. But her story is the origin one, essential for understanding Jules’s and Asivak’s trauma. Asivak comes next, and he talks of loss and absences. He couldn’t communicate with his great-grandparents because they spoke different languages. He was denied access to their stories and their cultural teachings. He’s since worked to learn to hunt because his grandmother once idly mentioned how much she missed fresh meat. He realized this was an important skill he’d never had the opportunity to learn.
Jules Koostachin’s invaluable testimony
The testimony from Jules Koostachin herself ties the film together. She’s so articulate about her anger, lost childhood, and the challenges of being raised by a traumatized woman who never had a childhood. She also understands the need to balance her trauma with compassion for her mother. Her frankness, she notes, may be controversial. Her two other subjects, survivors’ children, help contextualize her comments. They’ve also done much work to understand the duality of their reactions to their experiences.
Still, the film is about hope for the future, as the title WaaPaake, which means “tomorrow” in Cree, suggests. The film ends with an image of the subjects gathering together in a smokehouse outside the studio. They then walk outside into the sunlight with newfound hope and confidence. It’s cheesy, perhaps, especially considering the VFX that accompanies it. But it’s hard not to share the joy and catharsis of important stories finally being told.
Screens virtually across Canada until October 28.
Related reading/listening to Jules Koostachin’s WaaPaKe (Tomorrow)
More films by Julies Koostachin: Read our review of Broken Angel (also featuring her son Asivak).
More Indigenous Films: Read all of our coverage of Indigenous films here.