Review: “WaaPaKe (Tomorrow)” uses traditions to overcome trauma

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      By Raynee Novak

      Attawapiskat First Nation member Dr. Jules Arita Koostachin’s personal documentary, WaaPake (Tomorrow), marries trauma with healing and laughter as it recounts the horrors of Canada’s residential school system.

      From the opening scenes, where fire seeps through the ground, up into the air, moving into a pan of downtown Vancouver, the viewer is instantly thrown into an emotional response. The 80-minute documentary, which has its world premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival, takes a behind-the-scenes style of interviewing, where Koostachin is directly involved with each discussion. 

      Those interviewed for the documentary include Koostachin’s mother, Rita, a Cree warrior and also part of the Attawapiskat First Nation. Rita shares her memories of life before she was taken to residential school. She recounts life with both her parents and grandparents: how happy she was, her life steeped in tradition and full of laughter. This is a theme revisited throughout the documentary. Homes were filled with laughter before residential school—and it is found again after, through healing of the traumas that were endured.

      Kootsachin’s son, Asivak, is also interviewed, giving his perspective on being the grandson of a residential school survivor and how he connects with his traditions. After his grandmother sighs that she wishes she had “wild meat,” Asivak goes on a journey to take up hunting so that he can fulfill her desire. It is through traditional teachings that he connects with his grandmother. 

      Joseph, of the Kwantlen First Nation, speaks of his mother being five when she was loaded up on a train and taken to a residential school in Mission. Her hair was cut off and she was shamed by nuns at every chance. He relates how the intergenerational trauma affected him and his experience going to a Catholic school. He ends his story on a high note, though, speaking about being a proud dad.

      Maisie, of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, is a child and sister of survivors of the residential school system. She explains that she can feel the ancestors in her traditional area, and that it grounds her when she has a connection to the land. She tells her story of having a father who starved and worked like a slave to keep his residential school warm in the winter. Her legacy is to work as a counsellor, helping heal the harm of intergenerational trauma as well as the lateral violence of people within the community who are stuck in a cycle of abuse. 

      The fire in the air is revisited in the final moments of the documentary, as interviewees and Kootsachin leave the building, and triumphant music mixed with the sound of children laughing takes over the soundtrack. It is a powerful scene to end an equally powerful documentary. 

      WaaPaKe (Tomorrow) at the Vancouver International Film Festival

      October 1, 6:30pm, SFU Woodwards

      October 4, 3:45pm, International Village