Film Reviews

Review: ‘Holy Angels’

New NFB short doc opens imagineNATIVE

Photo by Rosamud Norbury / NFB


Holy Angels
(Canada, 14 min.)
Dir. Jay Cardinal Villeneuve

Number 34. That is the name that Lena Wandering Spirit recalls receiving upon arriving at Holy Angels Residential School. Not an Anglicized name or a colonial name, but a number. A cold two-digit label that defined her in the eyes of her teachers, like something they could organize and track, but she defies her teachers and abusers in Holy Angels by finally speaking about the traumas of the past.

Lena Wandering Spirit spent a half dozen years of her childhood at the Holy Angels in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, but her story tells of an experience that lasts for a lifetime. Director Jay Cardinal Villeneuve chronicles her tale in powerful interviews motivated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission where he first met Wandering Spirit while recording her testimony.

Villeneuve gives Wandering Spirit a life of cinematic wonder that sets her voice free. Snippets of interviews with Wander Spirit find a visual counterpart in vibrant dramatic interpretations featuring young actress Phoenix Sawan as the subject’s younger self. Instead of giving audiences an image of a dark and unforgiving setting, Holy Angels sees the young Sawan dancing in ethereal natural light. The contradictions of the school are unsettling, while the spirits of the children persevere in the harsh environment.

There is much dancing in the film as Villeneuve gives Wandering Spirit the childhood of which she was robbed. The elder speaks in voiceover about surviving life in “the prison” and her struggles to escape. As the images show the remains of the site on which Holy Angels formerly sat, Villeneuve cuts to images of Sawan dancing in traditional gear throughout the empty halls of a school. The images of the residential school still haunt, but there’s a strong sense of catharsis, of healing, as Wandering Spirit puts on record a story once lost. Her story is one of many compelling tales worth giving pause to in the ongoing efforts for reconciliation.

Holy Angels screens with the feature film Waru as part of the opening night gala of imagineNATIVE on Wed, Oct. 18 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.

imagineNATIVE runs Oct. 18-22. Please visit imagineNATIVE.org for more information on this year’s festival.