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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


December 28, 2002 - Issue 77


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"Bearwalker" Wins Prizes and Hearts at NAFATA Fest

by Deanna Brady


Photo 1: Shirley Cheechoo -- Image Film Festival 2000;
Photo 4: Shirley Cheechoo
Photo 2: Rinae Morriseau in Bearwalker - photo by Sophie Giraud
Photo 5; Scene from Bearwalker
Photo 3: Scene from Bearwalker
Photo 6: Shirley Cheechoo

The second annual NAFATA Film Fest opened this year with the Los Angeles premiere of "Bearwalker." By the time the festival closed, "Bearwalker" had won the Audience Award as the favorite entry overall, and its central performer (Rinae Morriseau) had garnered the Best Acting prize.

"Bearwalker" is a motion picture from the prolific James Bay Cree filmmaker/actress/artist/playwright Shirley Cheechoo, the first Canadian First Nations woman ever to write, produce, direct, and star in a full-length dramatic feature (this one). It is a film about power - the power of spirit, of authority, of family, of womanhood, of fate, of fear, of hate, and of love - and it is powerfully rendered through Cheechoo's masterful direction and the superb performances of an ensemble of Native women actors, as well as several excellent men. Although it thoroughly explores the ongoing violence, oppression, injustice, suffering, and desperation that persist in Indian Country, its overriding emotional impact is hopeful and positive and engenders feelings of admiration and pride in the Indigenous viewer.

The bearwalker of the title is a traditional malevolent spirit that can invade lives and wreak utter destruction. It feeds on fear and anger and the desire for revenge. In this case, it may have been invoked in an earlier generation by children whose parents wasted much of their lives drinking and brawling. While the action of the film takes place in the seventies, this spirit is represented by an unseen presence in a shiny, black Model-T Ford. It cruises the fictional backwater Cree reserve on Manitoulin Island like a dark wraith, imposing its mirage-like warping of vision as it invades the community with malicious energy represented by streaking balls of red fire.

Rinae Morriseau in Bearwalker - photo by Sophie GiraudThe central character around which the action revolves is Ella Lee, potently realized by the hauntingly beautiful Rinae Morrisseau. Ella awakens one morning, peacefully tucked into her husband's side, to discover that they are both covered in blood and he is dead. She staggers out of bed and through a trail of red down the hall to the kitchen. Shocked and confused, she phones her eldest sister, Ruby (memorably well-played by Shirley Cheechoo herself), who leaves work to rush to her aid after giving out instructions to waylay Ella Lee's children on their way back home.

Just after Ruby dashes to the rescue (on her motorcycle, in black leathers), another sister, Tammy (Greta Cheechoo), follows. Ruby is the pro tempore head of this Cree family of sisters, as their mother has been in prison for many years, assumedly an earlier victim of the bear-walking. As Ella Lee sits in stunned silence, her siblings begin to ponder (partly in English and partly in Cree and a bit of French, with subtitles) what needs to be done about the situation, punctuating the discussion with habitual offhand jokes and commodity snacks. With no better ideas in sight, they phone the police to report that there has been a death and then pragmatically set about the homely domestic task of scrubbing down the messy crime scene - including a bloody handprint plastered on the dilapidated refrigerator just above eerily similar schoolroom art made by Ella’s children.

Scene from Bearwalker Before they can finish, their younger half-sister arrives. Grace (the consistently estimable Sheila Tousey) is a tough city lawyer who has beaten the odds that her siblings inherited but in the process has grown away from her roots. She has reached adulthood struggling between two worlds and feeling estranged from her Cree heritage, but her devotion to her family is as apparent as that of her sisters, in spite of their constant teasing and underlying resentments. In the aftermath of the murder, both Ella and Ruby are arrested and thrown in jail by a sadistic white community cop, and a determined Grace sets out to find some measure of equity at the end of a long history of inequities.

Shirley CheechooWhat transpires is a spiraling whirlpool of disaster that heads down the psychological drainpipe to hell ... but on its way, it also resounds with gurgles of laughter and ultimately provides the cleansing renewal of a rushing stream. The film presents in flashback the action that preceded Ella’s husband's death, showing us how and why the murder occurred. It is a tale of ongoing abuse, sexual and racial terrorism, and the usual lies and manipulations that angry and hurt men sometimes enlist to control women and that dominators often inflict to control the vulnerable. It is finally the end of a cycle of violence that has dogged this family and their community for generations, a story that has been repeated all around Indian Country over many lifetimes.

Throughout the action, there is a sense of resignation about things going badly by their very nature and context, but under that is the fierce determination of the sisters to make the best of relentlessly bad circumstances and ultimately to defeat the spiritual and human forces of destruction that hold the family in a death-grip. These are women who have seen the worst life has to offer but remain undaunted to the end. Although the healing is not without cost, the essential impression is of the unceasing loyalty, humor, and resilience of these women and the irrepressible Indigenous spirit and will to survive.

ShirleyCheechooAlthough it may be unlikely that a motion picture by a Native woman filmmaker will receive full commercial distribution in the near future, "Bearwalker" has been appearing at film festivals around the continent and the world and making an indelible mark as an impressive and moving work of art and social comment. Its many awards attest to its artistic merit, and its audiences take it dearly to heart. It can only be hoped that many more will have the opportunity to experience its power and vision.

"BEARWALKER" CAST: Rinae Morriseau, Sheila Tousey, Shirley Cheechoo, Greta Cheechoo, Max Martini, John Tench, Tim Sampson

(An earlier version of this film was entitled "Backroads")

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