Of the dozens of wrenching stories codirector Cody Graham witnessed while filming residential-school survivors returning to the sites of their trauma, one stands out at this moment. In the new documentary Picking Up the Pieces: The Making of the Witness Blanket, a woman stares out the window of her old dormitory, and remembers how she would stand there longingly as a child.
“It was heartbreaking,” he tells the Straight from the Victoria offices of his company, Media One. “I can still see her looking out there, to where her family lived 12 miles away—she could see it.”
There were many more heartbreaking moments on his five-year journey with his codirector, visual artist Carey Newman, a master carver of British, Kwagiulth, and Salish descent whose own father was a survivor. His old friend had approached him for help building a website chronicling his making of The Witness Blanket—a huge installation honouring the 150,000-odd children forced into Canada’s residential-school system. The artwork is meticulously constructed from wood and hundreds of artifacts—battered hockey skates, broken angel figurines, bricks, and books—scavenged from residential-school sites. “But when he described what he was going to do, travelling around the country and gathering pieces of residential schools, I said, ‘Gee, Carey, are you going to be recording that?’ ” Graham relates. “I felt we’d be remiss not recording the stories of the survivors.”
Travelling first to Whitehorse, then to other remote spots across the country, Graham, Newman, and their team didn’t quite know they were making a movie yet. But little by little they realized what they had on their hands and secured some funding.
“What hit me was how systematic this was, coast to coast to coast, and at the time the government was trying to mitigate the damage within the public’s perception of it,” reflects Graham, who says that off-camera, health workers joined the shoots at the schools to support the survivors returning to the sites. “Sometimes we would just turn the camera on and that would be the only time that they’ve ever told their story.”
Picking Up the Pieces also provides a rare look inside the monolithic schools that are still standing—some redeployed as thriving community centres, others fallen into haunting disrepair. “I have good memories of school—as vibrant places,” the lifelong Vancouver Islander explains. “These felt more like institutions.”
Those experiences, and the experience of weaving together the stories of the survivors and Newman’s arduous art project, have had an impact on this filmmaker that he’ll never shake.
“If anything, it taught me my lifetime’s dedicated to truth,” Graham says. “This film changed my perspective as a Canadian. I was always a prideful Canadian and I still am in a way, but I still recognize there’s a lot of work to be done. We need to get to a place where there are no second-class citizens.
“I want kids to be able to watch this and have hope when they leave.”