I don’t remember taking part in a spelling bee during my Saskatchewan rural schooldays, or learning anything about the First Nations people of my province. Bringing the two together is the subject of the remarkable documentary Bee Nation (https://www.beenationfilm.com/) that opened Toronto’s HotDocs festival in April. It had its Ottawa premiere last month as part of the Asinabka Media and Arts Festival, a co-presentation with One World Arts (a non-profit organization of which I am president) and its One World Film Festival, the 28th edition of which starts tomorrow, Sept. 28 through Oct. 1 at St. Paul University: http://oneworldfilmfestival.ca/ .
Director and cinematographer Lana Slezic is a documentary photographer best known for her international work. An acclaimed book, Forsaken, focuses on the lives of women and girls in Afghanistan. Her attention turned to Saskatchewan when she became aware of the participation by First Nations reserves for the first time in the National Spelling Bee. Intrigued, she became a travelling one-person crew with the object of finding out more and getting to know the families of some of the 120 participants who in 2016 would compete in Canada’s first-ever First Nations provincial spelling bee.
As she says: “I just want to ask the questions, to learn, to make the subjects comfortable, for the story. There is a lot of hanging out to build trust before the camera gets turned on.” This low-key intimate approach, capturing life moments before, during and after competitions, is part of what makes the film so compelling.
Slezic focuses on a handful of students in the spelling bee’s three levels from primary to intermediate. The most charismatic is eight-year-old William Kaysaywaysemat III from the Kahkewistahaw First Nation, also a dynamic powwow dancer from the age of three. The whip-smart pint-sized “Treaty 4 warrior” is a real charmer. A finalist in the first category, he earns his first plane ride accompanied by doting parents to the national bee in Toronto.
Another finalist is the shy studious Makayla Cannepotato from the Onion Lake First Nation.
The oldest finalist is 13-year-old Xander Johansson from the Saulteaux Cree First Nation.
From different reserves (19 First Nations schools participated) other contestants we learn about are Thomas Isbister, one of seven children of a single mother; Savannah Nicks, who lost her mother at an early age, and best friend Josie Singer.
We get a real sense of what family life is like in these communities about which most of us know very little. The students take to spelling preparation like honey bees to nectar and the support they receive from attentive parents is equally striking under the circumstances. They all prioritize education despite knowing that will eventually mean their children moving off the reserve.
When it comes to competition — having to stand up and try not to make a mistake before an audience hanging on every word — the excitement and anxiety of the kids is palpable, matched by the nervous tension of the parents. Little William is especially competitive and has to be consoled after bowing out in Toronto. But he’s resilient too. The next day the tears are gone as the Saskatchewan entrants get to enjoy a Blue Jays game before returning home.
The word challenges are all English. This isn’t about learning indigenous languages. And some may criticize the endeavour as feel-good inspiration that belies the realities of chronic underfunding of First Nations education and conditions on many reserves from substandard housing to lack of clean running water or access to fresh fruits and vegetables, not to mention social ills, marginal economies, racist discrimination and other legacies of colonialism. Slezic’s film doesn’t ignore such problems. It does make a conscious choice to tell a good news story about what First Nations children and their parents can accomplish when they put their minds to it.
I think Bee Nation is also about the power of empathy to change minds. How often do we see positive depictions of learning in loving families on First Nations reserves? Interviewed by Judy Wolfe for the summer issue of Point of View magazine, Slezic put it this way:
Negativity, especially when persistent, can be fatiguing. It makes us tired to listen to bad news all the time. And so when there is a hopeful and more inspiring story, perhaps we will be more moved by it. It touches us differently, fills us up rather than deflating us. Which does not take away from the issues at all, as they are very real, but maybe, hopefully, a story like Bee Nation will connect us more as human beings. I want to get non-First Nations people to open their hearts and minds. There is no “us” and “them.”