Sundance 2024: SUGARCANE

A contemplative documentary on the lingering effects of Catholic residential schools on the Indigenous community

Ed NoiseCat in Sugarcane.

Co-directors Julian Brave NoiseCat and Emily Kassie use a layered storytelling style in their documentary, Sugarcane, which premiered at Sundance Film Festival. The main subject of their film is the discovery of unmarked graves at St. Joseph’s Mission, one of many former boarding schools for Indigenous children in Canada, and the impact this has on the community. The filmmakers follow storylines of a couple elders of the Williams Lake First Nation, Charlene Belleau, a survivor and investigator, and Rick Gilbert, survivor and former chief. It also happens that Ed NoiseCat, the director’s father, was born at the school “and thrown away,” in his own words.

Belleau and her team begin to uncover the depth of abuses and wrongs done by the Catholic Church at this school, a continuation of her decades of work for justice. Sugarcane includes heartbreaking descriptions of rape and physical violence perpetuated by the priests and staff, asking the viewer to be a witness. Segments included from a 1960’s-era CBC documentary about residential schools serve as additional proof of the unsettling environment the children were forced into. As one survivor comments, “I’ll never forget, and it’s pretty hard to forgive.”

Former chief Rick Gilbert is invited to the Vatican for a group visit with the Pope, alongside other leaders of tribes affected by Catholic residential schools and their aftermath. The scenes of Gilbert and his wife at home provide some levity to what can be an emotionally heavy film. But a couple quiet shots of Gilbert, alone and in a church and later pensive outside a press gaggle, make for the most memorable images in Sugarcane. He has a face of such character that it’s hard to look away from, and the filmmakers (director Kassie also served as cinematographer) realize that.

Sugarcane is a meditative indictment of the Church and a society (including our own) that would allow such schools to operate. Director NoiseCat and his father Ed allow an intimate look into their strained, recovering relationship, a personal example of the traumatic damage from these schools. A powerful work of investigative journalism, the film serves as a reminder that trauma can be generational.

Sugarcane won the Grand Jury Directing Award: U.S. Documentary at Sundance today and is available to stream online through Jan. 29.

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