Warning: This story contains distressing details. If you require emotional support, please contact the 24-hour Residential School Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419.
I don’t like black bags.
I don’t like the sound of a baby crying.
They put the dead baby in a black bag.
These words, spoken in Cree, are the only ones in Caroline Monnet’s short film The Black Case, a fictionalized account of a residential school survivor’s story, a grandmother Monnet knows intimately.
It’s a story that was told to Monnet years before the film was made and it stuck with her, she says, like a haunting.
That haunting plays out in the narrative of the film, which uses tropes of horror and noir: long tracking shots, an ominous and engrossing score, and a nightmarish claustrophobia packed within a 13-minute run time.
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The only relief emerging from a black screen is when the survivor speaks Cree seconds before the film ends.
Monnet — who is of mixed Algonquin and French ancestry, originally from the Outaouais region — made the film in 2014, a year before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's final report was published, seven years before the finding of an unmarked grave with the remains of 215 Indigenous children in Kamloops, B.C., and eight years before the Pope came to Canada to apologize for the Catholic Church's role in residential schools.
Now, the film is showing as part of the Ottawa-based Digital Arts Resource Centre’s (DARC) exhibition, Tending Land, which runs until Aug. 12. The Black Case is also available on the Criterion Collection’s streaming service.
“These are stories we told around the kitchen table,” Monnet told Canada’s National Observer. “It was part of the upbringing, and to have these stories be validated by facts, media and the public, it’s mixed feelings, obviously.
“It brings back trauma and it’s very emotional, but at the same time, it validates all these stories told by the Elders and family members.”
The use of the horror genre was deliberate. It tells the story of a horrific era, Monnet says. A nightmare that Indigenous children of this land had to live through.
Audiences had to know these stories about residential schools, and a narrative form, rather than a documentary approach, provided a deeper engagement through familiar tropes, Monnet says.
The exhibition, curated by Amin Alsaden, emerged from his thinking around land and how colonized peoples were torn, often forcefully, from that land physically and ideologically.
“All of these crises have to do (with land), and you can boil them down to this question: Who has the right to land? Who controls the land?” Alsadan told Canada’s National Observer.
“Much of the crises of the world revolve around access and the right to the land.”
Tending Land marks the 40th anniversary of DARC, a not-for-profit, artist-run media art centre based out of Ottawa. It was a way for Alsadan to deepen an engagement with land acknowledgments — to honour the peoples, cultures and worldviews that suffered under the brutalities of imperialism and colonization.
The exhibition is global in scope and tells stories emerging from the land, specifically of colonized peoples rising to reinstate their rights to a land that have been severed for generations. It concludes with Monnet’s The Black Case — a story known to the First Peoples of the lands for decades and only now emerging into mainstream Canada.
“After many years, the film is having a second life now somehow,” Monnet says. “People are finally listening.”
Residential schools were an institution Canada created in an attempt to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children. From the 1870s to the late 1990s, more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children attended the schools. Institutions like these, Alsadan says, were created to erase any semblance of resistance or worldviews of the land that challenge the colonizing force.
“All of these institutions and policies are invented, are constructed by the settler-colonial state in order to control land and resources,” he says.
Yet, despite the attempt at erasure, at the end of the film, the survivor of this horror has the last word — and she speaks it in Cree.
Caroline Monnet will give an artist talk in Ottawa on Friday, Aug. 12 from 4 to 5 p.m. ET at the Art Court Courtroom on 2 Daly Avenue.
Matteo Cimellaro / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer