Preserving the Reserve: Sugarcane’s award-winning directors on intergenerational art-making and the definition of evil

Julian Brave NoiseCat and Emily Kassie with their U.S. Documentary directing awards at Sundance 2024. — Photographer… Stephen Lovekin/​Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival
Julian Brave NoiseCat and Emily Kassie with their U.S. Documentary directing awards at Sundance 2024. Photographer… Stephen Lovekin/​Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival

Indigenous Editor Leo Koziol talks with Sundance award-winning Sugarcane filmmakers Julian Brave NoiseCat and Emily Kassie about calling on ancestors, intergenerational art-making and the definition of evil.

a note for readers: this interview includes discussion of child abuse. 

What was so special about this project was the opportunity to make art together, to create something that spoke not just to the journalistic truth of what happened, but to speak to the emotional truth; to lean into the poetry to be in conversation with Native cinema, which Julian [Brave NoiseCat] had shown me and taught me so much about.

—⁠Emily Kassie

We picked Sugarcane as an Indigenous documentary to watch out for in our Sundance 2024 preview, an instinct that paid off as the film’s intrepid investigation into Indian residential schools finished the festival with the coveted Directing Award: U.S. Documentary. An excerpt from the jury’s citation: “Benefiting from sensitive cinematography, careful producing, and editing that interweaves multiple narratives, these directors helped illuminate the urgency of history and the interconnected, multi-generational crimes experienced by a community.”

The winners at the helm are Julian Brave NoiseCat—an established Indigenous writer and activist who has written for The New York Times and National Geographic—and Emily Kassie, an Emmy and Peabody-nominated investigative journalist and filmmaker. Almost a decade ago, they were working together at the Huffington Post. Now, they’ve re-teamed to expose the history of abuse and assimilation at a Canadian Indian residential school used for colonizing the Williams Lake First Nations (Secwépemc, or Shuswap Nation) people, who live on reserve in Sugarcane.

Sugarcane offers a deeper look at these sinister schools’ reverberating effects upon generations of children taken away from their Indigenous communities and homes, robbed of their culture and language, traumatized by sexual and physical abuse and subjected to neglect and malnutrition. It all becomes intrinsically personal as NoiseCat turns the lens on himself, his father and his family to tell their story, along with that of former Williams Lake chief Rick Gilbert, who passed away in September 2023. The film is as much for those who did not survive as those who have.

Letterboxd member Lisa writes about how Sugarcane “paints a holistic and tender picture of the suffering, the perseverance and even the humor of the Williams Lake First Nations. With NoiseCat as both the director and a primary character in the film, the story makes space for [a] profoundly personal narrative.” Meanwhile, Jacob Oller reflects that “the documentary gives faces, names and histories to those affected by the residential schools—and looks, bracingly, towards a future where healing is possible.”

When I spoke with NoiseCat and Kassie just as their film was resonating with Sundance audiences, I sensed a singular bond between them—one forged from their journey to reveal the hushed history of the Sugarcane Reserve.

The Catholic Church, in all its ambiguities, looms large in Sugarcane.
The Catholic Church, in all its ambiguities, looms large in Sugarcane.

Hi, Julian. Hi, Emily. It’s so great to meet you. We’re so excited to see the success of your film at Sundance. Why don’t we kick off by talking about how the film came about?
Julian Brave NoiseCat: In May of 2021, hundreds of potential unmarked graves were discovered at Indian residential schools across Canada, including at the Kamloops Indian residential school, which actually was one of the schools that my family was sent to. After that big international headline, Emily reached out to me about potentially collaborating on a documentary. [At the start] I didn’t tell her that my own family’s connection and story with respect to the residential schools was a very deep and painful one. I was very hesitant to go there, really.

[Meanwhile,] Emily found a First Nation who were opening an investigation at a nearby residential school. She called the chief there and secured exclusive access to follow that search and was moving full speed ahead. About two weeks later, I got back to Emily, and I told her that I would be potentially open to collaborating on a project. That was when she told me that the residential school that she had chosen to focus on was St. Joseph’s mission.

After she said that, there was a long pause. I said, “Wow, that’s really crazy. Did you know that’s where my family was sent, and where my father was born?” From that moment, I think we were meant to come together and work on it. I think [there are] sort of greater forces at work in the way that this has come together and been made.

Emily Kassie: Julian and I, we worked our first reporting jobs together, almost a decade ago. Julian sat at the desk next to me when he was coming in, and we became fast friends. Ever since then, we’ve been trying to work together on something, but the timing hadn’t been quite right. When I had heard about the unmarked graves and the horrors that my own country perpetrated, I knew that I had to do this.

I’m an investigative reporter and filmmaker who has covered atrocities around the world—genocide and human rights abuses in Afghanistan and Syria and Rwanda and Turkey—[but] I’d never done anything about my own country, Canada. I knew that the best person I could possibly do it with is Julian, who’s an incredible storyteller. He’s an incredible writer. He’s an important voice; he knows and understands history. I knew that those skill sets would really complement each other. It’s been the journey of a lifetime ever since.

Julian, you and your family are at the center of the film’s story. Was the decision to make it so deeply personal something that happened organically? Were you a bit wary going in?
JBN: That’s a great question. Some of my initial hesitation on working on the documentary was because of my family’s personal connection to it. It was definitely something that I needed to grow into emotionally, spiritually. In my collaboration with Emily, there was a real potential I wouldn’t have been a subject at all. There was no intention of me being a participant.

[Then,] Aunt Charlene Baillieu performed what I think could accurately be described as a ceremony. She wrapped me in a blanket, handed me some sweetgrass, sang a song and told me that she was calling upon me and calling upon the ancestors to help tell this really important story. Charlene and others [in particular Rick Gilbert] really called me to rise to the occasion and to be willing to open up and be vulnerable about my own story. The other side of that is that Emily was incredibly caring and patient. She really understood throughout what it was that I was considering taking on, and what I ultimately chose to do.

EK: From my perspective, I really wanted Julian as a collaborator, first and foremost. It really didn’t occur to me when I reached out to him that he would be in it at all. I think that the moment that Julian described in the barn was a huge moment for all of us, because spiritually there was an energy in that room when Charlene called upon Julian. It felt like the world broke open, like time stopped, like a vortex, like they were calling on the ancestors. There was something so clearly special about Julian and his ability to lead and to help tell the story. We knew that if Julian ultimately decided to go there, it would take the entire [film] to another level. We’re so glad he did, because it’s quite extraordinary.

NoiseCat’s father, Ed, in Sugarcane.
NoiseCat’s father, Ed, in Sugarcane.

Emily, you’ve covered atrocities and genocide all around the world and made some important documentaries. How does the story told in this film compare?
EK: I come from the news world. I’ve been at newspapers and news magazines for my whole career. Working at those places and telling stories in that context, there are certain boundaries and parameters that you have to respect. It’s a fact-finding mission. It’s about having a lot of balance, about presenting information. There’s artistry within it, but it’s not about an emotional truth. It’s about providing people with the information they need to understand whatever issue it is, or whatever conflict it is.

What was so special about this project was the opportunity to make art together, and to create something that spoke not just to the journalistic truth of what happened, but the emotional truth; to lean into the poetry to be in conversation with Native cinema, which Julian had shown me and taught me so much about.

To be in conversation with Indigenous oral history, to think about this film as artists, was a transformation. For me in my career, and where I come from, and where I want to head and the intimacy at which we were able to operate, how close we were able to be to people would not have been allowed in the newsrooms that I came from.

The impact we were able to make by being that close to people, by holding space for them for showing love and compassion towards them. For me, intimately documenting their internal lives was the greatest gift. I am so thrilled that I get to operate with Julian in this particular space as an artist and as a documentary filmmaker, outside the parameters of journalism.

Julian, you are a journalist and writer and have written about Native cinema and the Indigenous gaze. Tell me, what are your four favorite Indigenous films of all time?
JBN: I would start with Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. I’m not alone in saying this is not just one of the best Indigenous films of all time but also maybe the best Canadian film of all time. I would add Smoke Signals onto that list. Maybe controversially, I would also say Dead Man, even though it’s by [non-Native] Jim Jarmusch. Powwow Highway is definitely on my list, although also not by a Native filmmaker.

Then the last one, that actually was part of the core of how [Emily and I] knew that we were on the same page in terms of our creative tastes and sensibilities, is Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is one of my favorite films of all time.

NoiseCat cites Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) as an all-time favorite film.
NoiseCat cites Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) as an all-time favorite film.

Julian, how do you see yourself as an Indigenous filmmaker within the world of Indigenous filmmaking? In particular, the importance of Indigenous filmmakers speaking their truth?
JBN: That’s a really great question. For the making of this documentary, maybe you can get a sense from it in the camaraderie between me and my father. I actually moved in with my dad for the better part of two years while I was making it. He is an artist, a carver, a sculptor; he has a really remarkable career of his own. In the time that I was with him, and in the time that I was making this and also working on a book, I started to really think about those intergenerational transfers of tradition and the arts. We really do want to be in conversation and are in conversation with these Indigenous artistic and narrative traditions.

For example, my and my father’s narrative, the core of it is a road trip, right? And some of the classic Native films—Powwow Highway, Smoke Signals, you know—they are also road trip films. In Reservation Dogs, the kids also take a road trip, so that is such a staple in Native cinema and cinema more broadly.

Then there are also ways in which the style and sensibility and some of the symbols that we gesture towards throughout the film are also in conversation with a narrative tradition that stretches all the way back to our stories of the Trickster Coyote, for example. [He] was this figure who helped the Creator make the world and who did so through a combination of incredible feats and also failures, and who was a bit mischievous.

Before the Catholic Church showed up, our people took Coyote to be one of our first ancestors. When my dad enters the plot of the film, he’s got a little bit of mischief in him: he’s smoking a joint and he’s got his cap low. He’s also got all these moments on the road trip. So that is definitely something that [we] are playing with and thinking about; taking it seriously as part of the tradition that we’re in conversation with and trying to carry forward.

I learned a lot about the residential schools tragedy. One of the things that I kept thinking about was, how come Indigenous filmmakers or storytellers shy away from using a particular word, a word which I would describe the story as: “evil”?
JBN: Yeah, that’s a totally fair point. The residential schools were obviously evil; there were many evil people in them. They were very evil, evil institutions—there’s no doubt in my mind about that. The thing that we wanted to do in the film was to convey some of these things without having to literally say them, because sometimes that flattens it out. We wanted to study some of the ambiguities that persist in our own communities with respect to people’s attachments to the Catholic faith and the Catholic Church.

Then also, really, to look in the face of some of the complexity of things like, yes, this is a film set in a Western town where there are cowboys and Indians, but also, there’s a lot of Indian cowboys. There’s a funeral for one in our actual film. We wanted to really linger in those contradictions, because those are the contradictions which we’re in. I think life really does linger for people. There’s a whole lot of awfulness, and then a whole lot of ways in which we get intertwined into that awfulness. At the end of the day, there’s no real ability to fully disentangle all those parts of the things that make us us.

EK: I think that this story has been talked about in Canada. This rape and abuse, it’s been called a cultural genocide. What is shown in this film, for the first time, is that the Catholic Church and its priests and nuns were raping girls who had babies and those babies were burned alive in an incinerator. We’re talking about infanticide, which is breathtaking, and a breathtaking discovery through the investigation that we followed and through the folks that we spoke to. It’s important that people know that a genocide was perpetrated, one that goes well beyond the usual sexual abuse we hear about in the Catholic Church. So I think “evil” is a good word to use for it.

Sugarcane’ premiered at Sundance 2024 and is currently seeking distribution.

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