In Indian Horse, Saul is taken to a Catholic residential school in Ontario.
Louisiana public schools became a tool of forced assimilation when Cajun children were forbidden from speaking French during the first half of the 20th century. In Canada, more stringent efforts to aggressively assimilate First Nations people lasted a century. Children were taken away from their parents and put in government-funded, religiously administered residential schools, often for 10 months of the year. It’s against that backdrop that Indian Horse is set.
Winner of several film festival awards, Indian Horse is one of several recent Canadian films screening in Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center's Canada Now series, opening tonight and running through July 26.
Young Saul Indian Horse’s life is already in turmoil after he’s separated from his parents and his caretaking grandmother dies in 1959. He is taken to a Catholic residential school in Ontario, where First Nation children are forbidden to speak their languages. Obeying the school’s rule is a forced religious conversion, and staff are unforgiving of any reluctance or failure. But even for Canada’s clergy, hockey is like a religion, and it offers hope to Saul. Though he’s too young to play on his school’s team, he starts to master its skills with improvised gear and teaches himself to skate at night.
Eventually his skills take him into junior league competition, where some low-level teams play outdoors despite brutal winters. Success on the ice opens doors for Saul, but hockey is considered a white man’s game, and fans and opposing players never let him forget it, which reopens old wounds.
Based on Richard Wagamese’s award-winning 2012 novel of the same name, Indian Horse condenses Saul’s story from childhood to his struggles after hockey. It is clearly focused on his fight for his identity and the pernicious toll of racism. There is humor in his initial love of hockey and strong scenes such as when Saul is torn about leaving a team of all First Nation players to advance to the next level. At times, such as the budding hockey prodigy scenes, the narrative loses sight of the personal development the beginning of the film so painstakingly builds, and some things revealed in flashbacks are hard to jibe with earlier accounts of his life. The film also is bracketed by historic photos and sobering statistics about the residential school programs.
Indian Horse screens at 7 p.m. through May 24 (except 4 p.m. Monday). Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center, 1618 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., (504) 352-1150.