Why every Canadian should watch Rhymes for Young Ghouls

This film might be difficult to watch, but it's "potentially transformational", says Chelsea Vowel. The revenge tale set in the 70s residential schools era is a work of fiction, but every single event portrayed has happened in Canada's indigenous communities.

Critically acclaimed film plays Wednesday in Ottawa at the Asinabka Festival

Devery Jacobs plays Alia in Rhymes for Young Ghouls, a revenge tale set in the 70's residential schools era. (Jan Thijs)

Rhymes for Young Ghouls plays Wednesday, at the Asinabka Festival in Ottawa. 

I do not think I would have gone to see this film if I had dug a little deeper into the plotline; it hurt too much. It still hurts too much. Still, I regret nothing.

All I knew of it before I bought the tickets was that people whose opinions I respect were raving about it, and Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs looked completely badass in all the post-apocaplyptic seeming movie-posters.

I strongly believe that every adult living in Canada should watch this film (though there are more trigger warnings for this film than I can count, so please take care). I think that this film is potentially transformational. Most indigenous people are at least somewhat aware of the subject matter, but I’ve taught enough native youth to know that isn’t necessarily the case — and much of this will be completely new to most non-indigenous Canadians.

Rhymes makes history accessible

The format, the beautiful cinematography, the amazing script and a stellar cast makes this part of our collective history accessible in a way that no Royal Commission or official report can hope to match.

Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs plays the lead role of Aila, in Rhymes for Young Ghouls. (Prospector Film Productions)
More importantly it utterly rips apart the notion that by beginning to gather an account of the residential school system we are in any way done the last bit of truth telling we need to undergo in this country.

From the first scene to the very last, this film is absolutely unrelenting in its brutality. Each scene was like a blow to the body, even the more light-hearted exchanges which nonetheless all managed to evoke the horror of experiences the characters were deflecting with humour.

For me, the familiarity of the events: alcoholism leading to accidental death, suicide, incarceration, poverty, the vulnerability of having only illegal means to keep oneself and one’s family safe, the brooding presence of the residential school; all of it evoked a litany of statistics that are all too real in too many indigenous communities.

Even though it is a work of fiction, and some facts were blended for dramatic reasons, every single event portrayed has happened, and is happening in our communities. And this should be what haunts all Canadians.

Real villain is the Indian agent

In this film, the residential school is merely a terrible side concern. The real villain is the Indian agent, and though not explicitly mentioned, the Conservative and Liberal governments that gave these bureaucrats such wide-sweeping powers for so many generations.

Here we are given a glimpse into social dysfunction that is directly linked to the way in which every aspect of life on reserve is in some way governed by the Indian Act. The connection between legislation and daily life is thrown into stark relief, and though things have changed somewhat since then, this film may provide viewers with their first understanding of the tangible cause and effect of ongoing colonialism.

The fact that this film was set in the 70's, when my parents were young adults on their way to starting our family, affected me in a way I could have never expected. It was too close for comfort. I was born in that decade. This is far from being ancient history.

The absolute power of the Indian agent highlighted in this film at first seems implausible. That is, until you learn about the history of the Indian Act. The power of the Indian agent to withhold rations and blankets, resulting in the deaths of indigenous people in the late 1800's, was not lessened, but merely changed form with every Indian Act amendment, well into the late 20th century.

Was there ever an Indian agent this corrupt, this vile, this abusive? Perhaps not in exactly the same way as portrayed in this film, but based on the stories that exist in indigenous communities, this character is not wholly unbelievable. The system created to give power to Indian agents created the perfect opportunity for abuse of that power.

A glimpse of what we must face

I remember when the abuses of residential schools were something very few people talked about. It took a long time for the wider Canadian society to hear those stories and to believe them. Some even suggested that these stories be taken with a grain of salt because they were too horrific to believe.

A National Benchmark Survey in 2008 indicated that only half of Canadians had ever read or seen something about residential schools compared to 80% of indigenous peoples. It will take decades until this information becomes universal knowledge in Canada.

… it is my hope that this new form of a very old way of telling stories will reach a wide audience and have us looking for truths that have been ignored for far too long.- Chelsea Vowel

I also remember when people talking about murdered and missing indigenous women were scoffed at. They were “exaggerating” with accounts of up to 600. Those numbers are no longer so easily dismissed. Even the RCMP have confirmed at least 1,186 indigenous women have gone missing or been murdered over the past three decades.

There are so many stories that have still not entered the national consciousness, even when scholarship and proof exists.

Rhymes for Young Ghouls is not just a film. It is a glimpse into something none of us really want to see but must face.

Indigenous film-making is certainly on the rise, and it is my hope that this new form of a very old way of telling stories will reach a wide audience and have us looking for truths that have been ignored for far too long.

And just maybe, after we dry our eyes, we can sit down and talk about it.

This article was initially published on Chelsea Vowel's blog, âpihtawikosisâ It has been edited for length and republished with permission.


Chelsea Vowel (BEd, LLB) is a Métis writer and educator from Lac Ste. Anne, Alta., currently doing her graduate studies in Edmonton. Mother to six girls, she co-hosts the Indigenous feminist sci-fi podcast Métis in Space and is the author of Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis & Inuit Issues in Canada.


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