Shadow of Dumont
(Canada, 88 min.)
Dir. Trevor Cameron
The challenge of connecting personal history and collective history can be tricky. Director Trevor Cameron offers a feature documentary about his great-great uncle, Gabriel Dumont, a Métis leader in the 1885 uprising. Cameron says that he knows little about his ancestor and that Canadians more broadly know even less. When it comes to Métis culture, the history books are scant, so Cameron embarks on a road trip from Toronto to the prairies to learn more about Gabriel Dumont and, in turn, his family legacy and himself. What ensues is a comedic journey through Canada’s settler history, which might be an acquired taste for audiences.
Cameron’s film somewhat misrepresents Dumont’s reputation from the outset. Although Louis Riel occupies the overwhelming majority of history shared about Métis culture, Gabriel Dumont isn’t absent. There are monuments dedicated to his memory, which Cameron visits, as well as modest archives and a centre for Native studies that bears his name.
The point about Dumont’s account in history isn’t to slight the merits of Cameron’s inquiry, but rather his approach. Cameron plays the role of the bumbling tourist. He fuels his investigation with a comedic touch. One interview, for example, sees a plump cat thrilled by Cameron’s friendly demeanour. Rather than finding oneself informed by the interviewee with whom Cameron converses, one becomes distracted by the feline that nuzzles the director and interrupts, or overwhelms, the discussion. Other moments see the director knocking back whisky in teacup while reflecting on Canada’s colonial past. The tone undermines the seriousness of the inquiry, and the director often comes off as uninformed. He even dresses much like Dumont might have, which proves more silly than effective as a stroke of inserting the past into the present. A goofy home movie might not be the best record for Dumont’s story.
Shadow of Dumont sees Cameron trace his family history through archives, site visits, drives across the prairies, and jaunts to North Dakota. Each stop in his road trip conveys the relatively scattershot record of Métis life, which is an obvious product of Canada’s ongoing settler history. A genealogist who aids Cameron observes that it’s common for records of Métis families to be relatively sparse. Considering Cameron’s great-great-uncle is a war hero, the light footprint speaks volumes: if the records of Gabriel Dumont’s life are brief, the larger recorded history of Métis people are negligible.
This fact gives Shadow of Dumont intermittent power. Cameron’s journey is as much about providing a record of a culture as a personal quest. During the course of his travels, one interviewee remarks that it was only in 2013 that the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Manitoba failed to provide adequate land provisions to the Métis, which makes the case one of the latest, or slowest, acknowledgements of systemic racism and prejudice in Canada. Furthermore, the film uses animation to compensate for the absence of archival materials and photographs. Rather than draw upon images framed by settler lenses to convey his great-great-uncle’s story, Cameron employs comic book-style vignettes. The animation is admittedly crude and adds to the lightness of Cameron’s delivery, which may be an acquired taste on both fronts given the severity of the material.
Cameron’s folksy and bumbling persona might not be the most compelling figure to lead a case study of a people’s legacy, but his humble charm also makes for a relatable guide. He isn’t angry or stuck in the past. He uses humour to draw people into comfortable conversations about who they are and where they come from. The silliness of Shadow of Dumont might limit its audience, but it seems to have provided a cathartic experience for Cameron and the people he encountered along the journey.
Shadow of Dumont screens at Toronto’s imagineNATIVE Festival until 10am on Oct. 23.