It’s been a month of reflection for Canadians following the discovery of the remains of 215 children buried on the grounds of the Kamloops residential school, another discovery near Brandon residential school, and the possibility of more to come. The role of the church in residential schools is in the foreground.
It’s the beginning of summer, a National Indigenous Peoples Day like no other.
Indigenous Canadians might retort that no, this is the same as usual. It might be different for us, the descendants of immigrant cultures. I’m scrutinizing everything right now, seeing traces of colonist discourses.
I noticed with a shudder that The Mission (1986), Roland Joffé’s award-winning film that I have long admired for its score by Ennio Morricone, isn’t quite as enlightened as I thought. I was first drawn to the film for the fascinating multi-cultural mashup we get from the composer.
The additional syncopation & counter-themes first emerging in the second minute of the trailer seem to signify something native, in contrast to the square churchy music, a utopian mixture of something Christian and seemingly native.
But now I’m looking closer.
This is fiction. We see Jesuit missionaries encounter a remote tribe in South America, building the mission of the film’s title, natives seemingly becoming Christians, then caught in a political conflict with elements in the church leading to a battle, a massacre and martyrdom for the Jesuits & the natives.
No it’s not as extreme as the images in our minds from Canada, best imagined in the paintings of Kent Monkman, of children dragged forcibly from their parents by priests & Mounties.
I had for a long time been content to think of The Mission as good guys vs bad guys, idealistic Jesuits bringing something to the natives, and killed by men with guns. Meanwhile, I should have been questioning more deeply. We don’t ever see that the indigenous populations who encounter the Europeans have their own culture, their own beliefs. The words they speak are not translated for us so they remain remote from us, virtually opaque. For all one can tell of the film, they are merely blank slates ready & willing to adopt the faith of the Jesuits, build a mission, sing Ave Maria in the choir, and then die defending the mission.
Except that’s part of the fictitious creation, masquerading as something genuine. The image we see on the film’s poster and in the film’s trailer (above) —of a missionary tied to a cross & set adrift in a river –is a wonderfully ironic image, but shouldn’t be mistaken for an actual event.
I used to teach a course on film music that would inevitably include some of Morricone’s magical score to The Mission. My main focus was the music and how it worked in the film. I also included Max Steiner’s Gone with the Wind, a film whose inaccurate representation of slavery & the Civil War does not negate the good work of the composer. I now realize I must slot Morricone’s work into a similar place in my mind, the compartment where I reconcile work that might in some sense be tainted.
We’re looking at the world differently in 2021. Not only have we had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, encouraging us to learn from the past, but many brilliant works of art to help us learn. I recall that I was a bit puzzled, that when Royal Winnipeg Ballet presented Going Home Star in 2016, the theatre had personnel on hand to help persons who might be overcome with the emotions raised by the work. I didn’t understand.
I recall feeling dizzy, overwhelmed by Monkman’s Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience show at University College in Toronto in 2017, feeling as though the ground had opened up beneath my feet with the recognition of the scope of the genocide. You can still download the program for the show here. What I experienced surely couldn’t have been more than a fraction of what a survivor of a residential school or or one of their descendants might feel.
Last year I saw two huge works from Kent Monkman at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY in person. Monkman’s imagery, making ironic reference to other art one might see at the Met, feels gentler than what we encounter in the “Shame and Preludice” show.
In 2021 Canadians are asking more questions. Perhaps one of these days we will have some answers.