originally published on OpenFile Montreal, December 13th, 2011
I was asked to review the latest remake of the classic disaster film, First Nations Housing. Although the film is still currently in production, the rumours of scandal on set, reports of conflict between the director and the lead actors, and financial troubles which threaten to bankrupt the whole project has everyone talking.
I, like so many others, have thrilled to the various versions over the years, but I admit that I don’t have high hopes for this most recent attempt to re-imagine the story. This time, the film is set in a small Northern reserve in present-day Ontario. The government in power is Conservative rather than Liberal, but don’t expect any twists or turns on that account.
When the first version of this film was released almost 20 years ago, the central plot device was having Jean Chretien’s character introduce a “Red Book” with commitments to develop a housing approach that would emphasise community control and local resources. The symbolism was reminiscent of Orson Welles’s work, and the Liberals rode the wave to election glory, achieving a majority. Of course this made it all the more poignant when those promises were forgotten despite the Liberals having achieved the political power to follow through on them.
Though it was a box-office flop, I still believe the version with the most potential was the first remake, filmed only three years later. It introduced us to the concept of a “Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples”. I remain convinced that the attempt to interest the audience in a drawn out series of interviews and investigations, resulting in numerous recommendations calling for an increase in spending for on-reserve housing, was simply before its time. Today’s viewers are much more accustomed such forensic detail. The government’s dismissal of these recommendations felt so much more tragic than just broken campaign promises.
However it is undeniable that the remake with the most dramatic impact was the film produced over 18 months in 2004-2005. For the first time, native actors were portrayed as having a real say in the development of a solution. There was a delicious build up of tension as native groups were played off one another, and even though you knew there wasn’t going to be a happy ending, the director somehow managed to make you feel like it was possible. The way the Gomery Inquiry utterly gutted the Liberals and ushered in a Conservative government was pure cinematic gold. The closing scenes with the conservatives driving a stake through the heart of the Kelowna Accord literally left me with tears in my eyes.
I am skeptical about the approach being taken by the latest director. Rather than framing the issue on a national level, the story remains intensely focused on one small Cree community, improbably named Attawapiskat, creating ambiguity about whether there are any issues beyond this one reserve. I suspect many people are going to enjoy the way the director delves into the personal backgrounds of the protagonists in lurid detail, but the screenplay reads like a Jerry Springer episode summary. Do we need to spend so much time following Chief Spence around, listening to gossip about salary, her love life, and so on? By the way, what the hell is the Zamboni supposed to symbolise? The director has completely lost me there.
I feel that the portrayals of the Prime Minister and Minister of Aboriginal Affairs as finger-pointing buffoons who claim to have no understanding of the underlying issues are a tad unrealistic. There is no suspension of disbelief possible here as Harper’s character is almost a caricature of the ‘bad guy’ while Duncan just comes across as impossibly dense. Although, the way public opinion in this film swings so quickly from ‘shock and sympathy’ to ‘Indians-as-inherently-corrupt’ fits well into this cartoonish portrayal so at least there is some cinematic coherence.
I do think it’s about time to modernise the story somewhat, and perhaps even introduce an alternate ending that reflects a growing consciousness of aboriginal issues in Canada. I realise I may be a minority in that regard. There is certainly a strong tradition of staying true to the original plot. It is after all a tragedy, and happy endings kind of mess with the formula.