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‘Sugarcane’ Review: A Documentary That Tackles Cultural Erasure And Community-Centered Reconciliation – Sundance Film Festival

With Sugarcane, filmmakers Julian Brave NoiseCat and Emily Kassie deliver a multilayered film that invites audiences to confront questions about morality and justice, and to bear witness to the lasting intergenerational trauma of the Williams Lake First Nations (Secwepemc or Shuswap Nation) people stemming from the residential school system that included forced family separation, physical and sexual abuse, and the destruction of First Nation culture and language. Drawing on their backgrounds in activism and journalism — as well as NoiseCat’s own personal connection to the story and community — the filmmakers deftly weave together multiple strands to form this compelling, heartbreaking narrative.

Demonstrating unparalleled humanity, and compassion for the affected First Nation communities in North America, the powerful documentary operates from a place of pure and total empathy. At the same time, NoiseCat and Kassie recognize the resilience of the survivors and their descendants, and their determination to seek answers to long-buried secrets. Ultimately, Sugarcane reminds us to respect the humanity in ourselves as well as in others.

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Saint Joseph Mission residential school was among the 139 residential schools for Indigenous children that operated in Williams Lake, British Columbia. Like other residential schools in Canada, Saint Joseph aimed to assimilate First Nation youth into Euro-Canadian culture by removing them from their communities and suppressing their traditional languages, cultural practices and identities. Students endured poor living conditions, menial labor and frequent abuse.

The school leaves a tragic legacy, with many former students reporting physical, emotional and sexual abuse, along with permanent separation from their families and devastating loss of culture. Saint Joseph mission reflects the wider residential school system that caused generational trauma. Though only closed for 30 years, the ruins of Saint Joseph serve as a haunting reminder of a divisive colonial policy that stripped youth of their childhoods.

The abusive practices and cultural erasure at the school reflect Canada’s wider residential school program, but Canada was not alone in perpetrating such systems. In the U.S. from the late 19th to mid 20th century, Indigenous children were also forcibly taken from reservations to government-run boarding schools.

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Mirroring Saint Joseph’s goal to assimilate native youth into Euro-centric society, American Indian boarding schools like Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian School inflicted harsh discipline and manual labor with the stated purpose to “kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” Students were stripped of their culture, forbidden to speak native languages, frequently malnourished and abused. There were 408 schools in total in the U.S., per the documentary.

With his father attending such a school firsthand, NoiseCat lends an intimate lens to the lingering collective harms inflicted through forced family separation and rampant physical and sexual abuse against children. The film articulates how when violence targets entire populations, responses vary from urgent calls for justice to pained self-preservation through secrecy and denial. We see how Charlene Belleau channels her residential school experience into activism, while NoiseCat’s father seeks personal healing.

Yet for all the pain, Sugarcane operates through humanity and empathy. NoisecCat and Kassie’s form of visual storytelling conveys deep solidarity with Williams Lake First Nation that continues to bear scars from schools designed to eradicate their cultures. As the missing children investigations press on, the film stands witness to help bring this grief from the shadows. Moving forward remains a complex balancing act between proper commemoration and protecting survivors from re-traumatization. By allowing space for conflicting outlooks within affected bands, the filmmakers model sensitive community-centered reconciliation.

NoiseCat and Kassie deliver a powerful testament to the resilience of communities still seeking reparations for residential school harms and the Williams Lake First Nation has persisted despite these schools designed to eradicate their existence. Driven by empathy and their peoples’ determination, a much needed resolution will hopefully come quickly.

Title: Sugarcane
Festival (Section): Sundance (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Director-Screenwriter: Julian Brave NoiseCat, Emily Kassie
Running time: 1 hr 47 min

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