In order to heal from the past, one must first face it with honesty.
S-yewyaw/Awaken tells the story of Ecko Aleck of the Nlaka’pamux Nation (Lytton, BC,), Alfonso Salinas of the shíshálh Nation (Sunshine Coast, BC) and impact producer Charlene SanJenko of Splatsin of the Secwépemc Nation (Shuswap, BC), as they delve into the horrifying realities of Canada’s Residential School system and the many ways that it impacted their culture and its teachings. For Salinas, that journey takes the shape of the establishment of a canoeing group for young people that will help them reconnect with their indigenous heritage. In the case of SanJenko, it involves hearing the truths that shaped (and rocked) her Elders as they speak to the traumas of the past.
Directed by Liz Marshall, s-yewyaw/Awaken is quiet in its tone, but ferocious in its heart. While the film’s pacing is slow, there’s a little doubt that this is intentional. This is a film that forces the viewer to quiet their heart and truly reflect on the power of the natural world. With its focus on renewal and healing, S-yewyawdraws the viewer into the connection that humanity has with the environment and asks them to reconnect with spiritual realm.
But by focusing on his quest to create a canoe club for the next generation, s-yewyaw also highlights Salinas’ passion to help these youth connect with (and heal from) their past. Although the film calls for strength and courage, their journey along the water becomes a metaphor for reclaiming their sense of identity from a culture that sought to strip it from them.
As they return down the river, so too must they journey through the damage done to their people at the hands of others as well.
For this reason, s-yewyaw should be seen by all, but will be difficult viewing for everyone. Although the film is far from graphic, it engages the traumas of the past head on. Conversations about residential schools and child abductions are told with candor. As such, although there are no re-creations or visuals, simply hearing the stories told by survivors leaves an indelible mark upon not only the film’s subjects but the viewer as well.
However, there’s also a certain inspirational quality about s-yewyaw that gives the film additional power. With each devastating story of the past, the viewer is brought into a conversation on pain and suffering that leaves a mark on the soul. Through their honesty and brokenness, these survivors want us as a nation to acknowledge the past and weep with them. However, at the same time, they to also want to lean into the future with them as they search for hope. In other words, s-yewyaw doesn’t abandon these people in their hurt but instead looks for meaning and healing in what lies ahead.
This is a film that inspires pride in a people, but also reveals their quest for healing at the same time.
S-yewyaw / Awaken is playing at Planet in Focus on October 13th, 2023.