In the wake of the true horror behind Canada’s residential schools – a century long system that forcefully separated Indigenous children from their parents in the name of cultural assimilation – Dene/Métis director Marie Clements‘ Bones of Crows is a soul-searching educational asset that comes at the right time to remind us that the past cannot be forgotten.
Set The Tape’s Nicholas Lay connected with Marie at the 2022 Vancouver International Film Festival to discuss her multi-generational lead character, her star Grace Dove; and what it was like to shoot in the same buildings where Indigenous children lost their rights, their dignity, and in many cases, their lives.
Nicholas Lay: The truth of the residential school system and its impact on Indigenous communities has come to the forefront in recent years. Was there a moment that sparked the idea for Bones of Crows?
Marie Clements: The opportunity developed out of a conversation with one of the producers, Sam Grana. We were talking about how there had never been a film discussing the roots of Canada and looking closely at our history, like there has been in the United States. We took the idea to CBC, which gave us development money, then we brought on Trish Dolman and Christine Haebler from Screen Siren. The idea really stemmed from the need and the passion to look at our history in a way that was multi-generational and takes into account the effect these terrible things had on us.
NL: What was the inspiration behind Aline, your multi-generational lead character?
MC: The primary inspiration for Aline came from my mother and aunties. They were born in the same time period as Aline and their experiences guided me in her creation, which was a great touchstone to have as I wanted to see what life looked like for a modern Indigenous woman in the 1940s, the possibilities that existed for her, and the realities she had to overcome. Like Aline, my aunt Rosemary was in the air force and we had all these pictures of her in uniform. She’s a very striking woman, and it was beautiful to see that and to imagine her being part of the war and part of something bigger. For many Indigenous soldiers who went to war it was a chance to be looked upon as equal and to get away from what was happening across the rest of Canada, because you were fighting alongside others, regardless of race or culture. That generation did not often talk about the past, and their stories came out decades later, usually through their children, who learned so much about their parents as they got older.
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NL: Bones of Crows is a showcase of Indigenous acting talent, led by Grace Dove. What was your process for assembling the cast?
MC: We did an outreach across Canada and the U.S. and were blown away by Grace’s audition. I really needed someone who could embody Aline. Grace is beautiful but what I needed was the inner strength, perseverance, and will to survive that was present in Aline’s generation. Grace did a magnificent job, and we are now at a point of extreme talent amongst Indigenous performers that is really beautiful to see. There’s people I’ve discovered, people I started working with 30 years ago when they were just starting out, and of course all of these young actors we have, many of whom are in Bones of Crows, which is their first real gig. The way they went about their jobs was just so impressive.
NL: The film deals with several highly distressing moments in Aline’s life. What was is like to shoot such emotional scenes, knowing the history behind them?
MC: We had to have a quiet and respectful set because of the content we were dealing with day-to-day, and we were blessed to have a crew and creative leaders who could show that kind of leadership and provide the platform for the actors to do the work they needed to do. We were filming in the Kamloops residential school close to the time when the memorial was taking place, and we could stand in the dorms and look out of the windows and understand that this was the spot where 215 children had been discovered. Those kind of realities are hard to articulate, especially when filming scenes in those same dorms with a group of beautiful young actors, each representing a child who never came home. Those scenes were particularly hard as brutal things happened in those dorms, and the scene where Aline is taken from her mum and dad was excruciatingly hard because many of us have children and understand the depth of that love. To be separated from your children is the ultimate horror for any parent, and that really stayed with us as it made it real and made us face our worst fears.
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NL: There is still a long way to go to fulfil Truth and Reconciliation in Canada. Do you see yourself and the arts playing a role in the movement going forward?
MC: As a creator, this was a huge endeavoor, but I think this story of our shared history shouldn’t be a one off, any more than it should be for the Black, Latino, or Jewish movements, all of which give an ongoing voice to experiences that are terrible and devastating. It reminds us of our responsibilities as humans today; to not allow these things to happen and to not forget those that suffered before us. Part of our humanity needs to be reminded that though things seem good, there are wars going on and lots of things happening that shouldn’t be.
NL: What other Indigenous filmmakers would you recommend people check out?
MC: I should have made a list! I would recommend people go on the imagineNATIVE film site to see the new roster of Indigenous films coming out this year. The site is a great indicator of what’s going on and who’s involved. There is an incredible group of Indigenous filmmakers who are telling stories across Canada and across genres from different perspectives, covering vast subjects. I love watching films by Danis Goulet, Jeff Barnaby, Darlene Naponse, and Gail Maurice, who just came out with her first feature, which is really a beautiful and nuanced piece.
NL: Great chatting with you, Marie.
MC: You as well, thanks Nicholas.
Bones of Crows is currently screening at VIFF and its theatrical release will be announced soon.