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Drawn From a Hat TIFF Reviews: Hi-Ho Mistahey!

09/09/2013 04:41 EDT | Updated 11/09/2013 05:12 EST

Drawn From a Hat TIFF Reviews: As part of our Spotlight on TIFF series, the HuffPost Blog Team bought a package of tickets for five random Canadian films (TIFF selected the movies). We then drew from a hat to determine which team members would see what. We did no prior research on the films, the idea being to see what would happen when we came to a movie with an open mind, unencumbered by preconceptions or baggage. Here is the first of the resulting reviews.

So, first off, I cheated.

Not intentionally.

I was committed to the plan of going into whatever film I drew with no background information. Quite a lot of my television and movie watching is informed by prior sweeps of Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes, little blurbs from Entertainment Weekly echoing in my head. I was looking forward to just entering a theatre and being completely surprised by what I saw on the screen for a change.

Then, it came time for our draw, and I picked Hi-Ho Mistahey!, a documentary about Attawapiskat by Alanis Obomsawin. I already knew about the movie because the acclaimed director was writing a blog post for us on her work. It was impossible to unlearn the background I'd already acquired about "Shannen's Dream," the campaign for equal access to education for First Nations children that is the focus of the film.

But even if I "cheated" on this part of the bargain, the "drawn from a hat" gimmick still served a purpose in this case because the truth is that I would never have seen this movie on my own.

As worthy as the subject matter is, it sounded to me like a recipe for something depressing and dreary. I expected the documentary to be a demoralizing onslaught of awful, heartbreaking stories and images. Left to my own devices, I try to avoid that kind of barrage of bleakness.

In reality, Hi-Ho Mistahey! is not the joyless catalogue of wrongs and government failures I feared it would be. Yes, it does give ample first-hand evidence of the pain, hardship, and even tragedy faced by the children of Attawapiskat. One teenage woman details the five friends she's lost from the reserve in just a year, the causes of their deaths ranging from suicide to drowning to a car accident. (It is that last calamity that claimed the life of Shannen Koostachin, the dedicated young activist who is the posthumous "star" of the film.)

But for every grievance and blow the film shows, it offers equal if not greater evidence of the activism young residents and others, such as NDP MP Charlie Angus, are using to try to improve the situation. We see a delegation of First Nations youth take to Geneva to present to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child about the disparity in education funding on reserves. We see protests on Parliament Hill, calling on Stephen Harper to "have a heart" and improve First Nations education. We see school children across the rest of the country holding assemblies and writing letters in solidarity with the cause.

I was heartened by this positive focus. At least the righteous outrage here is directed at doing something, moving forward, change. The proud look on the young Aboriginal activists' faces when they Skype with a room full of young school kids who are supporting and cheering them on is heart-warming.

And yet, I spent much of the film, and the ensuing Q&A with the articulate director and members of the Attawapiskat community, shifting uncomfortably in my seat. I felt like a bad person for not being able to get happily on board with the notion -- which felt prevalent -- that virtually all that stands between Attawapiskat's children and a good education is the lack of a first-rate physical structure. (The community is finally seeing construction beginning on a school after years and years of schooling in separate portables.)

Watching the film, and seeing the neat and cheerfully decorated portables at the heart of the Attawapiskat community's campaign for change, I kept having what felt like a shameful thought: that though the people on the screen were explaining that these buildings were unworkably cramped and distracting for the children, they looked no smaller and in no worse shape than many of the mildly decrepit classrooms I've seen in upper- to middle-class urban public schools. I know that's just "on the surface." I don't doubt that there are real physical problems in Attawapiskat the camera cannot adequately capture -- freezing entryways, noisy furnaces. There is even talk during the film of snakes and mice in classrooms, which is obviously unacceptable.

And I'm not saying the children in Attawapiskat are receiving a comparable education to kids in choice city public schools. Far from it. The movie's portrayal of on-reserve students as lagging in literacy and math skills, being likely to drop out early, and generally struggling to find meaning in school, are depressingly real. (Though the film does also spotlight some dedicated, caring teachers.) But the fact that "good schools" can so easily look similarly run-down and crowded underlines my feeling that zeroing in on material supplies -- the film features longing talk of a science classroom with microscopes, repeated calls for funding -- as a cure to these ills is unsatisfying; because as important as resources are, they're not enough to make an excellent education.

An excellent education takes parents who model and support academic curiosity; a community that values and rewards learning; educators who are willing to encourage students but also hold them to account; and administrators with sincerely held vision. None of these things can be bought. And none of these things is currently the norm in many struggling First Nations communities, where literacy can be fragile, and issues of substance abuse and mental illness can consume so much energy that they leave little left for transforming scholarly attitudes and habits to more closely mirror what's considered desirable by the mainstream.

Which brings us to another problem: Even in the film, we see confusion and conflict about what kind of education is actually desired for First Nations students. Charlie Angus laments the fact that when Serena and Shannen Koostachin moved south for schooling in a non-Native high school, they were far behind their peers academically. The implication is that because they weren't taught what the students in the off-reserve school were taught, they were failed -- denied an equal education. Yet others in the film lament the fact that students on the reserve are not given more time to learn Cree and their cultural stories and traditions.

These two complaints could both be addressed, but probably not at the same time, at least not without choosing an emphasis. Is the call for the students of Attawapiskat to receive an education as rigorous in math, science and written language as that of a student in Toronto; or is it to be absolved of the restraints imposed by the non-Native system and given the freedom to favour the oral tradition? If the latter, then it's probably not reasonable to expect better facilities to change the fact that Attawapiskat students will not be at the same educational level as counterparts in Cochrane or the like.

It would be nice if the fix for Attawapiskat were as straightforward as a better building and more money -- and I'm not arguing that the children there don't deserve these things -- but it seems so very unlikely to be that easy. That's why discussions that focus almost exclusively on these issues feel simplistic and incomplete. Which seems unfair to the Koostachin family, and the others like them, who are so earnestly and doggedly working to provide their children with something better. These individuals deserve honest, full conversations that include the uncomfortable realities that make improving First Nations education so much more difficult than just ponying up more federal cash.

The thing is, one comes away from a movie like Hi-Ho Mistahey!, touching and well done as it is, with the sense that conquering the disparity in First Nations schooling is largely a matter of conquering an inexplicably stingy government. (A viewer without any other background on the matter could be forgiven for concluding that the primary cause of the Aboriginal education gap is the fact that Stephen Harper is an individual inhumanly devoid of a heart.) The engaging film would have greater impact if it emphasized more explicitly that securing more government funding for on-reserve schools is just one piece in a much larger, and more complex, puzzle. And that the holders of most of those puzzle pieces are the residents of Attawapiskat themselves.

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