Thursday January 21, 2016
Gil Cardinal: Telling Stories of Pain and Hope
Gil Cardinal spent more than thirty years filming stories that exposed some of the most important challenges facing aboriginal Canadians: the child welfare system, residential schools, fetal alcohol syndrome, and loss of cultural icons.
Gil Cardinal died in late November 2015 at the age of 65. Rewind honours him with a selection of interviews that chronicle his journey to tell the stories of aboriginal people.
Gil developed a reputation early in his career for making sensitive documentary films. He made Shadow Puppets: Indian Myths and Legends, a series based on Cree and Blackfoot legends; another that looked at the effect of parental alcohol use on children called Children of Alcohol. But in 1987, he turned the lens on himself and told the story of being given up before the age of two to foster care by his birth mother. The film was called Foster Child. It was dramatic, honest, and challenging. During its production, Cardinal insisted that the camera never stop rolling, no matter how uncomfortable, revealing or raw the footage. He wanted viewers to watch him take every step of his personal journey. Later that year, when Cardinal appeared on CBC Radio's Prime Time with Ralph Benmergui to talk about it, he was still largely unknown. But that would soon change. Foster Child went on to win numerous awards, including a Gemini for best direction.
By 1991, Cardinal had a couple more films under his belt. Tikinigan looked at the country's first native-run child care agency based in Northern Ontario, and The Spirit Within examined programs for aboriginal people in prison. Peter Gzowski invited Gil to the Morningside studio to talk about Tikinagan, which was one of a five-part television series called As Long as the Rivers Flow. The series profiled native people across Canada in their struggle towards self determination. Cardinal was joined by the producer of the series James Cullingham, and fellow contributing documentary maker and friend, Loretta Todd.
In 1996 Gil had another story to tell, and his new film was about an equally difficult subject: fetal alcohol syndrome. David Vandenbrink and his brother were adopted as infants by a family in Edmonton. He and his brother had struggled their entire lives. Then when he was a young adult, David and his family found out he'd been born with fetal alcohol syndrome and had suffered permanent brain damage. Gil felt the only way to tell David's story in his true voice was to give him a second camera and let him portray whatever he needed for the film. Even for Cardinal, the results were surprising. David Vandenbrink and his mother Mary joined Gil and Peter Gzowski to talk about the new film called David With F.A.S.
"One thing that was important to me was that we not portray FAS as a native issue. This is a human story. One of the things that really touched me about David is the force of his human need to express what's going on in him. And it has nothing to do with him being an aboriginal person." - Gil Cardinal, Filmmaker
In 2006, Gil joined CBC Radio host Lydia Neufeld to tell the story of a very special totem pole that had finally made its way home after many years in Sweden. The story was the subject of his latest film called Totem: The Return of the G'psgolox Pole.
In the years to come Gil, made a feature that brought Rudy Wiebe's classic novel The Temptation of Big Bear to life. He produced a television miniseries about the Oka crisis and a biographical series called Chiefs. He also wrote the screenplay for a television series called Blackstone. But his health had deteriorated, and his friends worried that he wasn't taking care of himself. He withdrew from work and life, and in late November 2015 died of cirrhosis. Gil Cardinal leaves an important legacy of filmmaking in this country that blazed a trail for many younger aboriginal filmmakers and set the tone for a raw and compassionate style of documentary.