"During the 19th and 20th centuries, American Indian and Alaska Native children were forcibly abducted from their homes to attend Christian boarding schools as a matter of government policy. Sexual, physical, and emotional violence was rampant in many of these schools." -- Boarding School Healing Project.
If you became aware of ongoing violence and abuse against children, how would you deal with that knowledge? Tommy Davis' One Minute to Nine, which also premiered at SXSW this week, tackles that issue from a documentary perspective, while Georgina Lightning's Older Than America dramatizes the issue. The specific abuses are similar in that they have devastating effects upon more than one generation, but otherwise are quite different. One Minute to Nine examines how a woman responded to abuse heaped upon her and her children by her husband over many years, keeping its focus on one family. Older Than America looks at systemic abuse, telling its story through a crisis faced by one woman.
Director and co-writer Lightning also plays Rain, the lead role in Older Than America. Rain lives with her police officer boyfriend Johnny (Adam Beach) in snowy, rural Minnesota. One night Rain begins to have disturbing visions in her sleep. They're not exactly nightmares, but they seem more than random mental particles colliding in her dreams. Very soon after, she sees a man from her visions during the daytime, which disturbs her even more. Rain keeps her disquieting visions to herself. She fears to tell Johnny because her mother Irene (Rose Berens) ended up confined in a mental institution, and she's afraid that will happen to her as well. More pressure is brought to bear when Johnny proposes marriage. Auntie Apple (Tantoo Cardinal), who raised Rain, leans heavily upon local Catholic priest Father Bartoli (Steve Yoakum). The two of them shake their heads disapprovingly when Rain and Johnny do not immediately agree to having a Catholic marriage ceremony.
Two outsiders further stir things up. Luke (Bradley Cooper) is a government geologist investigating reports of a recent earthquake on his own time; Steve Klamath (Glen Gould) has returned home to run for mayor on an anti-development platform, opposing the incumbent, developer Paul Gunderson (Chris Mulkey). Two other characters thicken the stew: Richard Two Rivers (Wes Studi) is a radio talk show host who worked for Gunderson in the past; Pete Goodfeather (Dennis Banks) is Johnny's wise father.
Rain's visions become increasingly invasive, even as Luke encounters resistance while trying to do research at the epicenter of the reported earthquake at a long-abandoned Catholic boarding school. The boarding school lies on land that Mayor Gunderson wants to develop, and is also the scene of past mysterious misdeeds that Father Bartoli wants to remain covered up. Eventually all the story threads arrive at the same destination, and we learn the horrifying truth about the boarding school.
In the post-screening Q&A attended by upwards of 20 members of the cast and crew, Georgina Lightning explained that the film is based upon stories she heard first-hand from Native Americans who had suffered terrible abuse in boarding schools. The witnesses included her own father, so obviously Older Than America comes from a very deep place in her heart. Unfortunately, the very strong and sincere passion that drove the project may also have been its undoing as a dramatic vehicle.
I first learned about the abuse suffered by Native Americans through a mystery novel written by Tony Hillerman, so the idea of raising the issue cloaked in a mystery is a good one that could potentially attract a wider audience than a more straightforward "message movie." As a mystery, though, Older Than America is poorly constructed; we can guess that something bad happened at the boarding school very early in the narrative, and all the political and personal machinations simply feel like devices to extend the story. The editing feels slack; for all the tension that the characters are supposed to be feeling, the pace dawdles. Even the lighting is distracting; with most scenes lit to eliminate all shadows, the possibility of a mysterious atmosphere is drained away.
The stories that inspired Older Than America need to be told, but the film never draws in the viewer, instead requiring a pre-existing desire to see the stories dramatized and a willingness to overlook the narrative shortcomings. I'm afraid the filmmakers were so passionate that they lost objectivity if their desire was to reach a wider audience.
On the positive side, the film did move me to seek out more information on the subject, so perhaps its existence and the resultant publicity will move others to do the same.