by Kohan L. Eybergen
Jay Cardinal Villeneuve is an indigenous filmmaker and actor from Slave Lake, Alberta, and his film, Holy Angels, produced and distributed by the National Film Board of Canada (Producer: Selwyn Jacob), was featured in the Edmonton International Film Festival on Sunday, September 30 at 4pm at Landmark Cinemas 9 at City Centre. Holy Angels is an artistic documentary about Lena Wandering Spirit and her experiences in the residential school system in the 1960s. I was fortunate enough to be able to engage in a half-hour interview with Jay about his amazing film; I was joined by Seth Arcand, a local filmmaker and fellow CUE student.
Kohan: What inspired you the most to do the project Holy Angels?
Jay: What inspired me most was Lena Wandering Spirit, an elder that I met when I was working for the Truth and Reconciliation commission. I was filming these private residential school stories, which were really intimate, one-on-one kind of things; a lot of times it was just myself, the camera, and the elder survivor and their family in the room. I met Lena in Edmonton at the Alberta National event. By this point, I had already been working for the TRC for a while, and I had heard lots of stories. But I heard some things I hadn’t really heard before when I was filming Lena. Also, like her, I’m from North Alberta (she’s from Fort Chipewyan), we’re both Cree, so there was that initial connection. And also, it was her story that inspired me, and it stayed in my head for a long time after I had first worked with her. So I wrote her a letter and we stayed in contact, and I, as well as her, really wanted to share her story.
Kohan: How do you think that Holy Angels differs from other documentary films about residential schools?
Jay: Lena’s story is kinda unique; well, they’re all unique. Out of the hundreds of stories I’ve heard, they’re all very similar and have lots in common, yet super unique and individual as well. With Lena, she was taken from the bush, through the bush on this big snowmobile thing, which was the first time I’d ever heard that. She talked about movie nights at the school and how they would watch old cowboys and Indians movies. And also the name of the school Holy Angels itself, and how the name is so pristine-sounding and elitist and the irony is the things that they did to these kids is so hypocritical to what the religion stands for. And there are elements of the film itself as well that are different, like the use of the shadow puppets that tell the story on the wall. It’s also not like a typical documentary where there’s just a talking head throughout the whole thing, it’s more like a residential school ballet. Throughout the film, there are shots of a little girl jingle dancing through the halls of the school, which contrasts what happened back when Lena was in a residential school. I guess it’s more of an artistic piece, and it’s somewhat experimental. I also really wanted to bring Phoenix, the little girl, into a residential school, and it was cool to have her in the school being a kid and dancing. Especially since back when Lena was there, the kids weren’t allowed to be kids or be their culture or just be themselves because they would get it beaten out of them. So in that sense, it’s different from other residential school documentaries because there’s humor, and there’s hope in the story as well.
Kohan: What were some of the biggest challenges that were faced when filming?
Jay: Well, the actual school Holy Angels was torn down, so we had to film at a different residential school called Saint Mary’s. Also, while filming, Lena got sick and had to be airlifted to a hospital out of town and we didn’t know where she was. We weren’t allowed to know where she was because we weren’t immediate family. So we did all the external shots of the school and church first, and then when Lena was better we could do all the filming of her in the chapel of the hospital later. Which really helped her be more comfortable doing the interview since she was removed from the actual school itself. Also, Fort Chip is a place that you can’t really drive into, you have to either fly or go by boat, so just getting there and back was a challenge with all the gear. But it made it more of an adventure.
Seth: How can Canada show that they’re actually serious about reconciliation?
Jay: Well, first of all, they can stop with the racism. There’s still just so much ignorance in Canada surrounding Indigenous people, and I really hate it. And there’s still so much racism present today, especially with some of the online platforms’ comments sections that seem to have become cesspools of hate towards Indigenous people. These people (the racists) need to be human beings and put it on themselves to realize that the effects of the residential schools are still seen and felt everywhere, and still plague First Nations people today. And there are tons of First Nations people who are heavily involved in their communities, and who raise their children well and contribute to society, yet we’re still so often stereotyped in such negative ways as drunks and homeless. And then we still have to fight the government over pipelines and stuff. But then we also feel like we have to stand behind Canada as a whole and support our country. There are also still many communities that have boil water advisories, Fort Chip being one of them, and then you look at the government and wonder if they actually care about these people. So many of the Elders have tons of alternative ideas for some of these issues, and they’re extremely smart, but the government won’t listen or give them a chance. They’re still living in the same racist mindset that John A. Macdonald was in when he first started the residential school system, and it’s frustrating. I also still don’t really like the word reconciliation either.
Seth: I don’t like the term reconciliation; it just feels like it’s used as a buzzword to avoid actually talking about the issue itself. I don’t think many of us Indigenous people like the use of the word.
Jay: It feels like it’s a way out. Like we’ll all reconcile and then everything will be fine. But things still won’t be fine since there are still so many people living with the negative effects of these schools and the abuse that happened.
Kohan: I mean, even when you look at the meaning of ‘reconciliation’, it means, essentially, to say sorry. It’s like they think that if they just apologize and acknowledge the things that happened, everything would be okay. But it doesn’t work that way, they have to do something physical about it, ‘cause you can say sorry a thousand times, but it doesn’t actually do anything or fix anything. It’s not a solution.
That was definitely the heaviest question we had Jay, thank you.
If you had to pick between filming and acting, which would it be?
Jay: Honestly, I love them both so much that I don’t think I would ever be able to choose between the two!
Seth: Is there anything that you’re working on right now?
Jay: Well there’s this contest right now in Vancouver called the crazy eights where you have to make a short film in eight days. So I’m planning on doing that. I really like horror stuff and noir crime films, so I’m planning on doing something like that as well. I’m also doing this project where I play an unfunny stand-up comedian, and we shot the first part in Vancouver, then the second in Hollywood.
Seth: One last thing, I just wanted to mention one thing that really struck me is that my dad was born in 1963 when Lena was first taken to the residential school, and in 1969 when she left the school my dad was six, so he was then old enough to have gone to one too. I just think it’s so important to add those dates to realize how recent the schools really were, that it wasn’t hundreds of years ago, that your parents could have been in this too. I also just wanted to thank you for making your film.
Jay: Well said. That’s super important to remember because it is still so recent. The last residential school only closed down in 1997. And some kids were even as young as four years old when they were taken away to these schools, so it’s not even that many generations ago. I’ll just leave this as the last point; lot’s of the survivors of the schools still live in the towns, and even though the buildings aren’t schools anymore they’re office buildings and some of these people who had to go through those horrible things now work in the same buildings where those things happened to them. Anyway, thanks a lot for the interview guys!
Kohan: Thank you so much, Jay, both for your film and sharing Lena’s story, as well as doing this interview with us!
Seth: Thanks, Jay!