Our People Will Be Healed

Our People Will Be Healed is about the Cree First Nation reservation school at Norway House, Manitoba, Canada. It begins its story there and then spirals out to encompass the entire community, showing how change ripples out. This film is so uplifting, full of hope.

So many stories told about indigenous peoples focuses on the violence perpetuated against them and intergenerational effects of that trauma. Our People Will Be Healed is a different kind of story, showing a community rebuilding, recovering, blossoming. It is hopeful in a sense that is not simply speculative about the future, but evidenced in the here and now, being made by many hands and tangible.

The Helen Betty Osborne Ininiw School is reversing the long-perpetuated practice of using education as a vehicle for violence against indigenous people, as a means to remove and acculturate children. And that is where the film starts, with all the successes. It has increased student retention, academic achievement, is decolonising their curriculum, ensuring Native Studies subjects are part of every student’s schedule, and teaching the Cree language. The pride and self-esteem of the students are self-evident. Even kids who have dropped out say they intend on returning, that they can see the worth of what is being taught. And the teachers are a really motivated bunch, determined that this generation will not be another generation lost to the failures of a racist education system which was never intended for Cree children to reach their full potential.

It really is moving. And I say this as someone who hated school, and has a deep cynicism of teachers tooting their own horn. But watching the music teacher teach huge classes on the fiddle old Cree hymns and traditional folk songs, it is really moving. The whole music department are just so enthusiastic, it had me wanting to learn the fiddle!

Gordon Walker is the school’s Cree language and culture adviser, and he takes students out on canoeing expeditions, showing them how to fish, hunt and trap. And you follow the thread from the school out into the community, as you see students not just learning something practical away from a classroom setting, but spend time with a male role model, someone knowledgeable and caring. Kids open up about the social problems of alcohol, drugs, gangs, criminality, early pregnancy, poverty, and challenging or absent family relationships. All of which are usually treated as ‘outside school’ problems, but which have a massive impact on their ability to stay in school and pursue their education. For some of them, Gordon is the only father figure they know, and the only one to take the time to teach them with kindness and patience. Even other community members who come along to help him on school trips speak to the influence Gordon has had on them, getting them out of gang life, taking their mind off substance abuse and putting them to work, focusing on making a better start for the kids. This film is about hope, but it’s the hope you make.

What I love about this film is it, start to finish, focuses on the successes. Rejecting centring the narrative on the violence of the oppressor, but on the celebration, love, and rekindling community who are solving their problems themselves. While some explanation is required of the previous school system, the widespread violence against indigenous women, and the outlawing of Cree traditional practices, in order to give context to the current achievements, it is always given second place to Cree action and agency in how they fought to overcome, and continue to fight, to ensure their people have what they need physically, ecologically, emotionally, spiritually, educationally and socially.

A feel-good movie that is really nourishing for the soul.

The Fever

I’ve been watching these films as part of the Take One Action Film Festival, and the recurring theme is colonialism is a living force in the world. People talk about the legacy of colonialism, as though that process of domination, cultural eradication, and extraction of wealth stopped, and we now live in a time after that, where we are dealing with the consequences of that time. But what we are labelling as the consequences are the ongoing effects of a power dynamic that never stopped.

I highly recommend you see this film, The Fever, because it is an education. As someone who reads a lot about history, has a degree in it, and is not unfamiliar with how things got be the way they are around the world, I am constantly still finding out things about the British Empire and the way it conducted itself. It is a giant lacuna in British cultural consciousness and education.

The Fever focuses on the fight against malaria. Now, malaria has kinda dropped off the attention of health reporting, in favour of the bigger, more acute epidemics like ebola, zika, and now coronavirus. The dull grind of persistent but treatable diseases don’t make for such sexy stories, even if they do kill half a million people a year. And the last time I can remember anyone talking about malaria, was in my Modern Studies class at secondary school, where it was taught as part of the reason African countries were having trouble paying back debt as part of Structural Adjustment Programs. We were taught that their malaria was a problem, their family sizes were a problem, their geography was a problem. Never was colonisation the problem.

Malaria boomed in Africa because imperialist policies completely changed the geography, turning forest into brickfields and rice paddies, to make products to be sold abroad for profit. Mosquitoes lay their eggs in shallow bodies of stagnant water, which rice paddies are ideal for, as are the puddles of water need to mix soil into mud for bricks. Thus there is an explosion in mosquitoes carrying malaria, and the infection of the surrounding populations of people put to work in these new industries. The prevalence of this disease is a man-made catastrophe.

Another thing I did not know was how early there was treatment for malaria. During the Vietnam war, the Vietnamese asked China for aid in their war with the Americans. As the Vietnamese soldiers were getting sick with malaria, the Chinese used their medicinal expertise to come up with artemisia annua, which when prepared as a herbal tea, effectively treats malaria, and can prevent it with regular consumption. It’s close to a cure. And it is possible to say that Vietnam may not have won the war, were it not for its protection of its soldiers against the disease, being able to put men in the field and keep them there without them falling ill or dying.

So how could we have discovered a cure in the 1970s, but half a million people are still dying of this every year? Good question, and basically what this film’s about. Official treatments for malaria include chloroquine for prevention and Coartem for treatment, both of which are seeing their efficacy drop due to drug-resistance malaria. Even the insecticide put on mosquito nets is seeing a drop in efficacy as mosquitoes grow accustomed to it.

The film focuses on local scientists and doctors in Uganda and Kenya as they try to distribute cheap, locally sourced solutions to this problem affecting their own people. Coartem is a Swiss-produced drug that uses artemisia – 40 years after the Chinese discovered its use – but it is only licensed for treatment after malaria has occurred. Local scientists want to use artemisia tea to prevent malaria in the first place.

And this is where the power dynamic comes in. Coz it’s profitable to make an expensive processed chemical treatment for a recurring condition, and not so profitable to cure people by telling to make a tea once a week from a particular herb they can grow in their garden.

Even if NGOs such as the Gates Foundation were to provide a vaccine, that also would be purchased directly from GlaksoSmithKline, and have to be imported to African nations. And the Ugandan or Kenyan government could tax the imports, make itself a little income, get a cut of the action. Nobody profits if African people are self-sufficient. Except the millions of people who wouldn’t die.

Current treatments are out of reach financially for most people, and many people go into debt trying to pay for their medicine. Nationally it is an enormous piece of expenditure for the government to import huge quantities of this drug from abroad every year. So you would think they would support local scientific efforts to reduce these problems. But no. Because it is much more important to keep friendly with rich and powerful entities such as the Gates Foundation, Novartis, and the WHO. Uganda and Kenyan doctors try to get government licenses to produce artemisian suppositories, or BTI tablets, here in the effected countries, but they are continuously denied.

To some extent, I guess it’s just about what science looks like. White people mixing artemisia in a stainless steel drum in an automated machine spinning on its axis looks like science. Mixing artemisia in a plastic bucket by hand doesn’t look like science. Logically, the same ingredient is coming out the side of the process, but the optics don’t carry the same legitimacy.

And that racism pervades every step in this process.

In My Blood It Runs

In My Blood It Runs is a documentary following Dujuan as he turns 10 and 11. Aboriginal Australian, of Arrente and Gurrwa heritage, he speaks 3 languages, can drive a car, and practices traditional healing. But at school, he is seen as being on the bottom rung, academically underachieving, truanting, and having behavioural issues.

It’s important to note that none of these things actually involve hurting anyone. In fact, they are simply attempts to move out of engagement with a racist school system, one which has been used for generations to deculturate indigenous people. Dujuan gets constant letters home, suspended, and eventually expelled, and all for bullshit like “being rude” and annoying the teacher by throwing her car keys on the school roof. The consequences however, are very high stakes. His mother constantly warns him that, now he’s 10, if he gets in trouble at school, they can take him away to juvenile detention, where kids get starved, beaten, and tortured.

Juvenile detention’s population is 100% Aboriginal. Just in case anyone was unclear on how racist this system is. As I’ve said, the mistreatment that goes on there is appalling, but the aspect Dujuan most fears is the separation from his family, and inability to go back to his land.

As someone who also had “behavioural issues” in school, right around the same age as Dujuan, and not bullshit mischief, but biting and being a total shit to other kids, actually hurting people, at no point as a white lassie did I think I might be sent to juvenile detention where I might be beaten and starved. Because that would seem like obviously ludicrous overkill. The difference in our respective behaviour and respective punishments really brought home how little value is being placed on this kid’s life by society.

And that’s something he feels, and recognises in the way his teachers talk about him and his culture. While European-Australian history is taught with serious regard (and significant omissions), Aboriginal history, if it’s taught at all, is done with patronising mockery. While English lessons are long and detailed, lessons in Aboriginal languages are maximum 30 minutes long, if they are even offered by the school at all. Dujuan’s disengagement with school is the only way he has as a child of resisting the insidious indoctrination that he is less-than, and his culture is a joke.

He’s clearly bright, he’s clearly motivated, because whenever he’s taken out to the bush, he comes alive again. He asks to know more of his language. He wants to learn more to improve his traditional healing skills. He is eager to participate in life on his land.

And his family struggles to balance that. To pass on his history, his language, and the traditions that will keep him sane, while at the same time preparing him for living in an Australia dominated by white systems and society.

Another film that demonstrates all too clearly that colonialism isn’t something that happened a hundred years ago, but something that continues to happen to this day. The history of removing indigenous children from their families in order to destroy them as a people continues to this day, and the use of education systems as a tool to do that persists.

Radio Silence

Radio Silence is a documentary following Carmen Aristegui, a Mexican journalist and living folk hero, as she tries to get back on the air to report on government corruption after state censorship caused her to be fired.

This is a documentary which wears its viewpoint on its sleeve. The filmmaker states openly that since she was a teenager, Carmen has been her hero. And it’s not hard to understand why. In a world of crime and corruption, which goes largely ignored by the media who know which side their bread is buttered on, Carmen is one of the few voices who does actual investigative journalism to expose those behind these injustices. As a result, she loses her job, is put under government surveillance, has death threats made against her, and has to send her child abroad for his own safety. That would break most people, but Carmen sinks her life savings into building her own radio station, one that can’t be taken off the air because it is hers, and continues to do her reporting on the internet, exposing even more of crimes of the powerful. It is hard not to see that as heroic. And everywhere she goes, people come up to her in the street to thank her for her work. They want to take pictures with her and thank her for risking her life to bring them the truth.

Mexico tends to get portrayed to the outside world as a clusterfuck of horrors, anarchy in all but name, a monolithic crime state. Which has two effects. First it blinds us to the actual complex reality of real people’s lives, and denies the constant struggle for justice made by the people. And secondly, it acts as propaganda to keep the Mexican people feeling like their situation is hopeless, that their problems are insurmountable. Where to start, in a world run by drug lords, corrupt police, and even more corrupt politicians?

This film is good at giving that complex contextual reality as part of Carmen’s story, necessary to be understood for Carmen’s story to make sense. The opening part of the film is a whistle-stop tour of Mexican political history. It may be fair to say Mexico has had democracy in name only, with the same party holding power for 70 years, as power became entrenched around a few powerful figures and the corrupt mechanisms that kept them in place. The first time this monopoly of power is broken, it results in a spiral of violence and chaos, as the disruption to established criminal power spews into wholesale horror on the streets. And there is a rush to return to the old establishment, who, even for all their crimes, can at least provide a predictable kleptocracy over this anarchy. Led by golden boy, President Pena, their promises for a safer Mexico are immediately dashed when 43 innocent students are disappeared by police and drug cartels. The outrage that follows is met with a government cover-up, and waves of popular frustration at the impunity of those in power. Into this steps Carmen.

Carmen exposes a scandal involving Pena and Chinese contracts. Unlike quiet domestic scandals, which politicians have made themselves consequence-proof to, this involved Pena having to cancel the contract, pay back six hundred million dollars to China, and publicly apologise to them. And from that moment, Carmen’s card was stamped. She was drummed out her job and the rest is history.

The film follows what happens next. It shows the hunger among the Mexican people for free press and genuine democracy. It shows the trials and strain it puts on Carmen as she tries to meet the same standards she has for her work under impossible conditions. And it shows Mexico is not a monolithic crime state, that there are diverse forms of resistance, that Mexicans don’t just take oppression lying down.

Coded Bias

Coded Bias is one of those shit-yourself-with-fear documentaries. It’s about the propagation of artificial intelligence algorithms and facial recognition technology in a million unseen ways throughout our society right now, and how the racist and sexist biases existent in our societies are being replicated and compounded by those technologies.

Almost nothing in the documentary is about future technology. It is about what is happening right now, and in some cases, has been happening for years under our noses. Things we have a vague sense of, without feeling like there’s any explicit intrusion, have been designed with exactly that effect in mind. To become ubiquitous, convenient, and unseen, while holding a massive amount of power, to be sold to the highest bidder or the state.

First things first, facial recognition technology. The artificial intelligence that recognises what a face is, and whether it matches another face, is only as good as the data set it learns from. And unsurprisingly the white men who created the code to sell to the white men who’d buy the software, mostly entered white men into the data set. Women and people of colour were widely underrepresented, and thus the software failed to recognise them, or correctly match their faces a disproportionate amount of the time. Oh, and gender minorities? Those don’t exist. You are either a woman or man, light-skinned or dark-skinned. The cissexist, mono-genderist model erases trans non-binary folks entirely.

So what does that mean if facial recognition technology doesn’t work on you? Well, for one you are going to be massively more likely to be mismatched, possibly by police looking for wanted criminals, possibly by airport security looking for no-fly-list terror suspects. In short, harassment happening wholesale against populations of people of colour will now be automated, built into the codes that control our lives, and depicted as the neutral, infallible judgement of an emotionally-detached system.

And it’s not simply the lack of diversity in data sets. If you have a program that is designed to replicate what is already there, it will replicate all the injustices that are already there. A company that hires mainly white men finds that the AI that sorts through the CVs at HR is excluding almost all women and people of colour. Why? Because it is designed to find matches that replicate the existing outcome. So a computer program meant to take human partiality out of the equation finds it only entrenches prejudice.

And there is no accountability for this technology. Because the artificial intelligence is designed to learn on its own, beyond its original programming, sometimes its own developers don’t know how exactly it is making its calculations and judgements.

So gone are the days you could boycott a bus company for not hiring ‘coloured’ workers. Gone are the days you could protest a sheriff’s department for its discriminatory policing. In the current era of civil rights, neither the bus company nor the sheriff’s office will have any control over who is selected for hire or frisking, it will be determined by an algorithm designed by an entirely different company, maybe one that isn’t even in the country, and even they themselves won’t full understand why it’s happening.

Scary, no?

So how do you resist? Luckily this documentary gives us a number of activists and human rights groups to root for. Predominantly led by women of colour, the charge is driving for more regulation of this technology, of raising awareness of its prevalence, and ways to undermine its usage. The film follows Big Brother Watch and Algorithmic Justice League as they try to make legal challenges against the unregulated use of untested software on powerless, poor, and predominantly black communities. The fight for equality, privacy, and human rights goes on, now in new technological frontiers.

If you like this …

The Last Ice

The Last Ice is a documentary about the Inuit people of the Pikialsasorsuaq region of the Arctic, a place that straddles Canada and Greenland. They fight to protect their communities and way of life against climate change and those who would profit from its effects.

The most important thing to take away from this film is that colonisation is not a process that happened hundreds of years ago, but an ongoing process that is happening today. Community activist Maatalii Okalik talks about how her grandparents were the first generation to have their way of life disrupted by white intrusion, and we speak to a woman my mother’s age who tells us her generation were the first generation to be removed from their land for forced schooling in abusive, deculturating institutions. This is a process that started within living memory.

And it is not over. As massive companies profit from the practices that cause climate change, they also then exploit its results. The ice is melting between Canada and Greenland. A once cohesive Inuit culture with shared language and interrelationships is being separated by a border not of their own making. And this border of melted sea water, which to them represents the loss of land, of ecosystems, of food, and of travel paths, represent to others an opportunity for quicker trade routes, for oil extraction, for industrial-scale environmentally-damaging fishing. As these tentative new rivulets appear in the ice, they send through icebreakers, to smash open the remaining ice, to cut time off their journeys, and increase their profit margins.

The destruction of the Inuit’s land is not a process that stopped. You see footage of mining companies dynamiting the snow in the 1950s, and you see mining companies doing the exact same thing today. There is an ongoing state of violence against Inuit culture and the systems necessary to sustain Inuit life.

The source of hope opposing this horror is the Inuit people themselves. Especially the young people, many of whom have grown up as Inuit minorities in European-Canadian communities, and are returning home to Inuit land and Inuit ways. While many countries are facing an aging population, Inuit population is predominantly young and booming. And they bring with them a fierce love for their culture, and determination to defend their land. They have first-hand experience of growing up without it, and are resolved to reverse that loss.

Easier said than done. Because even as important knowledge and hunting techniques are being passed down from the older to the younger generation, the landscape on which they were founded is changing. Timeless patterns of animal migration is altering as ice shelves simply disappear.

So this story becomes about the forces of international profit descending on the home of people whose survival is diametrically opposed to their aims. But this generation of Inuit people have years of practice of surviving attempts at their destruction, and they will use every means to protect what remains to them. And even if parliamentary resolutions fail, even if trade negotiations fail, they will still remain. Keeping their culture alive in their bodies, to be reborn again. Whatever happens, they will last.

A Voice Above Nature

A Voice Above Nature is a short film being shown as part of the Take One Action Film Festival. It explains the issue of oceanic noise pollution by expressing whale song and dolphin echolocation visually, filming in black and white the vibrations of water. And then it introduces man-made oceanic noise such as ship engines to show how the prevalence of this has come to blind sea creatures. Content warning, there are images of beached whales in this. The shocking thing is that oceanic noise pollution could be cleared with a mere 18 hour cessation of human activity in the oceans. Something that small, would take less than a day. But the welfare of others will always be matched against the money to be made. Our problems are not unsolvable, just not profitable to solve.

If you like this…

Pier Kids

Pier Kids is a documentary about the queer kids of colour whose only real home, place of safety, place of acceptance, is the Christopher Street Pier. Instantly that places it in the same lineage of films as Paris Is Burning and Kiki, which does 2 things: It shows up the progress with this film being stories about queer people of colour being made by queer people of colour, and it shows up how little progress is being made in the bread and butter experience of the lives of people facing multiple layers of oppression and hostility.

Pier Kids deliberately shies away from focusing on the pageantry and spectacle within black queer culture, not because it in any way denies the creativity and joy of the community, but because that is what everyone wants to stand and take a picture in front of. You will see white people down at the pier, marching on Pride day. You won’t see them there at 3am on a Tuesday night when all the homeless kids are trying to stay warm.

This film is less about that, and more about the day-to-day reality of what it’s like to be homeless as a teen, or what it’s like to engage in sex work in order to feed yourself. How do you spend your days, where do you go? Practicalities of how to steal food, and how to market yourself as a non-passing trans girl in different porn categories.

I feel that to some degree, there is an attempt in Pier Kids to defetishise queer culture, which seems to be so marketable, and humanise queer people, which seems to draw decidedly less attention and money. One guy wonders aloud whether or not he should try to get HIV, because there are programs to house HIV positive people, and it might help get him off the streets. As appalling as that is to hear, the film makes you understand how that is not a crazy idea, how the dangers of surviving on the streets mean that contracting a treatable, but still incredibly serious, condition might actually be the safer option. And these should not be your only options. Without ever having to state it explicitly, the entire film speaks as a plea that we value the lives of these young people, that we give them better options.

It is amazing that this film, while focusing on the hard realities people face, never feels grim. The situation these kids are in is not an invitation for pity and hand-wringing, but a stated fact of injustice, which the viewer is invited to confront. The young people themselves rise to their life’s challenges, the film highlighting their creativity and agency in developing strategies for survival. It shows the support, love and acceptance they show each other in a world where their existence is rejected.

To some extent, you can’t help coming away from this movie with anger, which is right. Watching cops hassle a woman out with her kid sleeping in a pram at night, because cops never bring solutions, only trouble, and they can’t conceive that a black woman out late at night with a kid might not be doing it because she’s just an inherently bad mother, but because she’s homeless and it might be safer for them to keep moving during the nighttime. Vans of dozens of white cops show up to arrest two teenage kids for play-fighting and rassling in the street. Congrats, criminal record for having a go at your pal. Cops hassling a deaf black guy during the Parade. It makes you wonder if anything has changed since Stonewall. This movie could be about Marsha and Sylvia hooking to keep a roof over their head half a century ago. Somehow queer people of colour kicked off a movement that seems to only have benefitted white cis folk. And when there’s a rainbow sticker slapped on everything, and queer culture can be marketed for prime time tv, trans and gay kids of colour will still be sleeping on the Christopher Street Pier, thinking of ways to survive their next 24 hours.