I’ve seen two films recently that resurface when I have those spare moments late at night or out on the trail and the other clutter in my head briefly evaporates. They are totally different films but have a common theme: how to gather the strength and courage to survive poverty, abuse and marginalization.
The first film, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” is a small independent movie that became widely known after being nominated for four Academy Awards, including best picture. The second film, “The Lesser Blessed,” is an award-winning Canadian film not widely distributed outside of the festival circuit, but shown this week at the University of Montana.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild,” based on a play, is the tale of a young African-American girl growing up with her father in a Gulf Coast bayou that is flooded after a big storm (shades of Katrina). The father is alcoholic, sometimes abusive, sometimes loving; he’s also dying. Before he dies, he wants to help his little girl find the skills and resolve she will need to survive and face down the “beasts” who stalk her.
“The Lesser Blessed” is the story of a young First Nations man trying to survive the legacy of a sexually abusive father, and the drug and alcohol-dominated culture of a small, isolated town on the edge of the Canadian wilderness.
The film is based on a novel by acclaimed Canadian author and Native storyteller Richard Van Camp, who was present for its Missoula showing. Van Camp is a member of the Dogrib Dene tribal nation, and grew up in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, just over the northern boundary of Alberta.
Van Camp says every time his family had company, his mother would summon him and his siblings and tell them to “come listen.”
“Come listen to how the world really works, come listen to real stories,” said Van Camp. “Medicine power stories, gossip stories – you name it, it was at our supper table, and I was trained to listen at a very young age.”
Now Van Camp tells his own stories, many of which, including “The Lesser Blessed,” have fire as a central theme. Van Camp’s grandmother told him why fire is so important to their culture. Outbreaks of tuberculosis and influenza decimated many First Nations camps, and fire was a way to cleanse the camps of disease.
“And my grandmother said those who stopped to care for the dying, died. Those who stopped to bury the dead, died, ” Van Camp said. “You had to burn your camp every morning when you left, because you never wanted to leave sickness behind for someone who had come to use your fire pit. So fire is how the Dogrib clean.”
I won’t give away the film’s denouement except to say fire creates both pain and salvation for the lead character. The film never shrinks from the harshness of all the characters’ lives – sexual abuse, hunger, teen pregnancy and vicious beatings. Van Camp realizes some only want to see First Nations lives portrayed in a positive way, to avoid reinforcing stereotypes. But his central character overcomes the obstacles, and Van Camp says his story is, in the end, a positive one.
“Positive stories are good, but we really have to acknowledge the pain,” said Van Camp. “I mean, there have been so many policies of extinguishment sent our way, but the truth is those things that were meant to break us, have only made my generation stronger. … All my friends and me, we don’t drink, we don’t smoke, we don’t do drugs – you know why? Because we saw so much of it growing up. We don’t want that in our lives. We don’t want fear in our children’s eyes. We want to be strong, so I think this new generation, we want the best of both worlds. The best of the traditional world, and the best of the contemporary world. And yes there is pain in this world, but there’s also far more hope.”
What haunts me about “The Lesser Blessed” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is not the triumph of the lead characters, inspiring as that is. What resurfaces unbidden is the knowledge of all those who aren’t able to face down the beasts or the fire, and who get devoured.
Truthful storytellers want their stories to linger. These do.
Sally Mauk is news director at Montana Public Radio, KUFM, in Missoula. Her column appears biweekly in the Missoulian.