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Emotionally Devastating Doc ‘Sugarcane’ Stuns Sundance With Story of Catholic Abuse, Native Trauma

There wasn’t a dry eye in the house at the Sundance Film Festival premiere of the new documentary “Sugarcane” on Saturday. As the lights came up when the screening at the Library theater ended, the audience’s thunderous applause erupted into a standing ovation while filmmakers Julian Brave NoiseCat and Emily Kassie took the stage and embraced through tears.

The documentary, screening in the U.S. Documentary Competition section at Sundance, explores the intergenerational trauma from the residential school system in Canada, in which Native children were removed from their families and overseen by Catholic priests and nuns to “get the Indian out.” What ensued was years of physical and sexual abuse, births due to rape and, multiple eyewitnesses attest in the documentary, babies who were burned in an incinerator to hide the overseers’ transgressions.

Charlene Belleau, an activist who devoted her life to investigating the residential school system and who appears in the film, thanked NoiseCat and Kassie through tears of her own during the Q&A after the screening.

“When you’re sworn to confidentiality with investigations and prosecutions, you can never talk about those things,” she said. “For us to be able to allow people into our lives, to share our truth, is very special. I knew this day would come and now it’s here.”

Bell continued by paying tribute to those who lost their lives due to the abuse. “I think of the many children that were lost to the residential school, the many that have committed suicide,” she continued. “At the same time, I balance that with my little grandbaby.”

The story is a personal one for NoiseCat, who appears in the documentary alongside his father Ed Archie NoiseCat, who was born and abandoned at the school and whose background haunts him and his mother. Julian Brave NoiseCat works to find peace for his father by clarifying what happened after his birth, and it builds to a shattering emotional climax.

What sets “Sugarcane” apart is it’s not a procedural or a mystery, but very much told through a lens of empathy. The film chronicles the horrendous crimes, but is largely focused on the traumatic impact they had on the lives of those at the school and generations after.

Julian Brave NoiseCat revealed during the Q&A that Deb Holland, the U.S.’s first Native American Cabinet Secretary and Secretary of the Interior, was in the audience and is leading an inquiry into Native American boarding schools in the United States.

“This is not just a Canadian story, it is also an American story. There were twice as many schools in the United States that twice as many children were taken away to,” NoiseCat said. “And we really hope that this film is part of a broader conversation not just in Canada, but also in America about the enduring power of the indigenous communities but also the horrifying legacy of the Native American boarding schools.”

Bell, through tears, left the audience with a counter to the decades of silence that have been imposed upon the survivors and indigenous community.

“The message I want to leave with each and every one of you that’s in the audience, so that this resonates across the country, is that tonight, you tell your loved ones what you saw today. You tell them the truth, the whole truth.”

“Sugarcane” is a sales title seeking distribution.

For all of TheWrap’s Sundance 2024 coverage, click here.

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