“Documentary film can show the human side to a complex problem, and brings the human element back into the discussion,” says filmmaker Beth Wishart MacKenzie, whose film, Gently Whispering the Circle Back, was recently awarded Best Documentary Short at the American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco.
MacKenzie’s film takes place at the Blue Quills First Nations College in St Paul, Alberta, which in 1862 was the site of the Blue Quills Indian Residential School—one of many across the country where aboriginal children were sent to become “civilized.” The schools were a site of cruelty, but MacKenzie’s work focuses on healing—for survivors and subsequent generations. MacKenzie was commissioned by the college in 2012 and began gathering stories from people who had been affected by residential schools, and their journey to move forward. A large part of this came in the form of healing circles, which MacKenzie says create a space of community either through discussion or more artistic forms of expression.
“What I found in the circle was this deep sadness for loss of connection with parents,” she says when asked if there were any noticeable commonalities amongst the stories she heard. “I came to recognize the terrible rupture of the residential schools on the family structure and community structure of our aboriginal peoples and how so much of what we see in present-day Canadian society, the brokenness in our communities with addictions and family breakdowns are very much the legacy of the system that we put in place … we need to rethink how do we strengthen our help and walk with our indigenous communities towards strengthening them so they can be the good community and parents they have within them and not always resort to removing children from those settings, but to work to strengthen those settings.”
MacKenzie, who has a master’s degree in comparative literature and religious studies from the University of Alberta, admits she was not aware of residential schools prior to working on the documentary. She believes it’s a piece of history that Canadians need to take responsibility for and is not simply a thing of the past since the effects are still felt today in the aboriginal community. The schools were run by Christian orders who felt they were doing good, but MacKenzie says we as a society cannot always feel we know what’s best when it comes to other cultures and beliefs.
“One thing that’s beautiful about Gently Whispering the Circle Back is the remarkable people that contribute to it and they, just in their gentleness and generosity, call out respect and I’m hoping we’ll shift attitudes in mainstream society about our indigenous people and help mainstream society come to a deeper appreciation of what that community brings forward,” says MacKenzie, who was reconnected with her own aboriginal heritage. She had aboriginal grandmothers, but her grandfather did not let his children know about their heritage for fear of potential discrimination. “Now our family has recovered that history and it’s something I honour and celebrate, but it’s not something I can claim to have a deep awareness of, so for me part of this is trying to understand and honour that background.”
MacKenzie’s education background is in comparative religious studies, and she is furthering this experience in her next documentary, Brothers in the Buddha. The story follows a Vietnamese monk who lives at the Trúc Lâm monastery in Edmonton, but attends McNally High School, focusing on his day-to-day transitions from traditional practices to contemporary public high school, and how he incorporates his practice into both realms. He’ll be graduating in June and MacKenzie hopes to have the project finished in time.
“I embraced filmmaking as a way of exploring the spiritual dimension of the different communities that make up our society,” explains MacKenzie, who worked alongside members of FAVA to make the technical aspects of both productions possible. “It informs my filmmaking, but trying to do human studies of the people in our midst and how different religious traditions have made their home here and have taken on and informed who we are as Canadians, taken on a new shape in Canada, but also are shaping Canada.”
Trailer for Gently Whispering the Circle Back: