Jay Cardinal Villeneuve’s short documentary Holy Angels powerfully recaptures Canada’s colonialist history through impressionistic images and the fragmented language of a child.
In 1963, Lena Wandering Spirit became one of the more than 150,000 Indigenous children who were removed from their families and sent to residential school. Villeneuve met Lena through his work as a videographer with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Wandering Spirit spent six years at the Holy Angels Residential School in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta. Against a backdrop of now-empty hallways and classrooms, fragments of memory return—the shadowy figures of nuns, bits of remembered catechism, and the nightmare sounds of the basement boiler.
“They call us by number,” she remembers. Wandering Spirit’s experience, like that of many other adult survivors, remains jagged and bright with pain and fear. But other, deeper memories also endured—of running barefoot in summer and picking berries, of stories shared, and of the warmth and love of family.
Five-year-old performer Phoenix Sawan brings Wandering Spirit’s recollections to vivid life, dancing through an abandoned building in easy defiance of the bleak history of the place. Filmed with elegance, precision, and fierce determination to not only uncover history but move past it, Holy Angels speaks of the resilience of a people who have found ways of healing—and of coming home again.
1) Can you talk about your experience in meeting Lena Wandering Spirit, and how you came to the decision to tell her story?
I initially met Lena in Edmonton, while filming survivor stories with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I recorded her private statement about her experience at Holy Angels Residential School. Her story was filled with compelling and unique details that really intrigued me, things I hadn’t heard before, like the fact that she was picked up by a snow machine and taken through the bush via a trap-line. To actually see the dilapidated Bombardier rotting behind the museum was quite moving. Her story about movie night at Holy Angels also really struck me. I couldn’t imagine what it was like for a child to see moving pictures projected on a screen for the first time, especially seeing the old cowboy and Indian films. For Lena to see her Indigenous culture represented in that way must have had an intense effect on her.
2) One of the things that is most compelling about your film is that it works in the way that childhood memory works—fragments and pieces of place (sensory) memory that resurface in ways that are extremely powerful and deep-seated. Can you talk about the process of working with Lena Wandering Spirit to recover and relive some of these memories?
I just let her tell her story in her own way, and I listened. The questions I asked were sincere, and we were already friends so our conversation was relaxed and considerate. Our interview took place over two days, and at times Lena really struggled with her memories. However, because I remembered her private statement, I was able to direct the questions in a way that wasn’t too journalistic or invasive.
3) The healing power of dance and culture, having to do with body memory, stored inside a living art form that’s passed on from grandmother to granddaughter is particularly resonant. Can you talk about the role that dance plays in your film?
Dance is the lifeline that reconnects Lena with the little girl she was before being taken to residential school. It was imperative that Phoenix performed the healing dance in the residential school, not only as a way to interpret Lena’s memories, but also to provide healing in a place that desperately needed it.
4) The layering of interviews, shadow puppetry and performance feels very physically embodied, and at the same time recalls the curious way in which trauma is held and dealt with by the mind. How did you come to discover this balance between mind and body in the film’s narrative?
One of the things that stuck with me while listening to residential school survivors was the out-of-body experiences they had while being horrifically abused, when they were children. I struggled with hearing these stories. It is one thing to hear second-hand about abuse, but it’s very different when a survivor tells you their story right to your face. I had a responsibility to be there with them, to help them heal in a small way. Almost every time we were finished I received a hug or at least a thank you for listening. I cried every single day I worked with residential school survivors. I suffered from nightmares and am still dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. I hold a lot of anger in my heart towards the church, organized religion, and the Canadian government because of this. On the one hand, I wish I had never heard these stories, but on the other I’m glad that I did, because I know the truth.
5) What was it like to return to Fort Chipewyan?
Fort Chip is a breathtaking place with remarkable people. It’s so isolated, and the natural beauty is awe-inspiring, but it’s also horrendous due to the fact that the surrounding water is polluted from the oil sands, the price of the food that’s available to residents is astronomically high and its quality is substandard.
6) You have talked about your experience of visiting decommissioned residential schools, and the very particular quality that they possess.
When you enter a residential school you feel something. I had a very strong reaction, an almost sick-to-my-stomach feeling. There is a very weird and ominous quality, a sense that the energy is not right, and that very bad things happened in these places. There were times when I was alone in a certain part of the school and I felt creeped out and needed to leave. One thing that most affected me was the fact that some residential schools are now used as office buildings and/or workspaces. I’ve recorded survivor stories in the actual schools that people had attended as children, and they’re now working there. I don’t know how survivors deal with it—they just keep on keeping on, I guess. A lot of survivors are in therapy.
7) Can you talk about your own family history with residential schools?
My grandmother, Florence Cardinal, attended residential school in Wabasca, Alberta. Until she passed away she spoke fluent Cree and was extremely religious. I never felt I had the opportune moment to ask her about her experiences there. It affected my dad because his mom (my grandmother) went to residential school. My mom also attended an Indian day school, which was a residential school, but because my mom’s family all lived together on a Métis settlement, she and her siblings only had to attend school during the day. As a young child, though, I remember some dark times, and I know this was a direct result of residential school.
8) Honouring the survivors is a central idea of your film, and the most remarkable thing about Lena Wandering Spirit is that she can talk about the experience with some degree of lightness, and even humour. Was making the film ultimately a liberating experience?
For Lena, I think in a way it was. For me, filmmaking is a cathartic process, and this was a story I felt very connected to. I’m still dealing with the effects of taking on the stories of residential school, and I need to find other ways in which to let them go. Lena and all the other survivors have to deal with the impact of residential school on a level we can never fully comprehend, and if we listen to their stories we might be able to help in their healing journey.
9) How do you see your work in the continuum of promoting greater understanding of Canadian and First Nations history?
I see it as another way of revealing the truth. It’s imperative that we tell our own stories, otherwise we’re enabling colonization in the sense of non-Native people portraying First Nations’ history, culture and tradition. Unfortunately, “Hollywood Indianisms” still exist, and this romanticized mentality promotes ignorance and racism towards Indigenous people. For me, making films is my own form of activism. It’s how I can represent and showcase what I feel is important right now.
10) Can you talk about some of the films and filmmakers that have influenced your work?
Documentary film really made an impact on me growing up. I’ve always been captivated by movies that showcased theatre, opera or ballet. I’m fascinated with silent film, German Expressionism, and film noir. I love genre movies, especially horror, but also gritty independent films that resonate with visceral neorealism and violence. I hated the Technicolor films of old when I was a kid, especially costume dramas and Westerns, but now I want create my own take on all of them. My favourite filmmakers are Alanis Obomsawin, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Takeshi Kitano, Darren Aronofsky, Andrew Dominik, Sarah Polley, Werner Herzog, Sophia Coppola, Dario Argento, Sonia Boileau, Robert Rodriguez, Denis Villeneuve, David Cronenberg, Ana Lily Amirpour and Zacharias Kunuk, just to name a few.
11) Cinema is a means of communication but also a tool of empathy and understanding. Do you see filmmaking as part of a healing process in dealing with Canada’s colonialist history?
Film is a very powerful weapon. As it’s a relatively new means of storytelling for First Nations people, we can utilize it for healing, decolonizing and teaching. But it’s also about entertainment. There are so many variables through which filmmaking can contribute to restoring the story of the attempted eradication of our people, so I’m going to try and trailblaze a warpath with my films, and hope to inspire along the way!
Written and Directed by
JAY CARDINAL VILLENEUVE
LENA WANDERING SPIRIT
Director of Photography
First Assistant Camera
Sound Design and Re-Recording Mixer
Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Fort Chipewyan, Alberta
Sister Cecile Goyer
Kathy “Nan” Omoth
Fort Chipewyan Bicentennial Museum
Rob “Kasp” Sawan
Willow Song Sparrow Villeneuve
Michelle Van Beusekom
A NATIONAL FILM BOARD OF CANADA PRODUCTION