starring Julian Black-Antelope, Samuel Marty, Sera-Lys McArthur, Madison Walsh
written by Rueben Martell & Gerald Wexler
directed by Rueben Martell
by Walter Chaw Colonialism is the monster in Saskatchewan (and Cree) filmmaker Rueben Martell's Don't Say Its Name, the "that which must not be mentioned" in a story set among Indigenous Peoples, battling the loss of its people to an inexorable malignancy. The Great Evil manifests as two things: white energy employee Donny (Tom Carey), representing European skullduggery through the fetishizing of Aboriginal women and the committing of all manner of atrocity upon the land and its people in the name of manifest right; and an invisible golem that announces itself with the cry of a crow and a vile stench before disembowelling the isolated residents of a remote Canadian backwood. The victims both bad guys claim are the people in this place--the one because he's a representative murderous asshole, the other because its sense of outrage over Indigenous Peoples who have if not fully participated in the annexation of their land, are at least sympathetic to a policy of appeasement rather than resistance. Powerful, timely stuff in this age of the Keystone Pipeline and the discovery of scores of dead Indigenous children buried in Catholic schoolyards, made even more powerful by its centring of police officer Betty (Madison Walsh) and her new deputy, a former game warden and army vet named Stacey (Sera-Lys McArthur). Don't Say Its Name isn't fucking around.
Betty and Stacey are on the trail of the hit-and-run driver who killed and dragged poor Kharis (Sheena Kaine) as she walked home alone in the frigid night to her mother Mary Lynne (Carla Fox). Betty is raising a headstrong teen, Ben (Samuel Marty), on her own and Stacey has shown her mettle by breaking some idiot's nose with the butt of her pistol after his advances went a little too far. There's an early scene where Betty sees something amiss off a trail and tosses a rock to disarm a spring-loaded animal trap that establishes the pristine landscapes of Don't Say Its Name as beset by hazards more man-made now than natural. For our female heroes, their peril is exacerbated by the constant threat of sexual assault and the hard reality that women from imperilled communities are the most at risk for assault and the least likely beneficiaries of justice and protection. That makes the monster of this picture poignant in that it has a female originator and is itself a wronged woman. The title suggests secrets too terrible to tell and things made powerful by the naming of them; I think what's really dangerous about naming certain things is the awakening of our collective guilt. We own the sins of our fathers. We should never forget that the ground we sit on is drenched in blood.
Betty, Stacey, and the community they protect can't forget, because violent exploitation is still happening to them. The treatment of environmental protestors and the feckless disregard for an epidemic of missing women in Indigenous communities are obvious and painful real-world analogues to the rage roiling around in Martell's picture. I love how he doesn't reserve his outrage for the interlopers, and how whatever hope he has for the future lies in the actions of the next generation, the ones who don't listen to their mothers and instead go out at night to make some noise. But Don't Say Its Name isn't just an activism film--it's a pretty effective supernatural procedural, featuring a three-dimensional pair of law-women finding a way through a hostile universe. The twin bogeys each have compelling motivations (one to possess, the other to punish), and both make sense as cultural metaphors that speak truth to power while managing for the most part to stay on this side of didactic. Best, I love how the Aboriginal characters aren't portrayed as "children of the Earth"--neither idealized nor diminished, just people with lives doing their best when forces more powerful than they are encroach upon their independence. If it succumbs now and then to the pat resolution, the bulk of it that works works with a righteousness that's pure and invigorating.