DIANE URBANI DE LA PAZ: Can’t turn away from ‘unbearable’ movie

OH NO, NO. Of all the movies at the Women and Film festival, I cannot watch that one.

This was my thought when I saw the subject matter of “Dawnland,” the fest’s opening feature. It’s about adoption, which I have a certain kind of experience with.

The documentary is also about taking children in the United States of America away from their parents and putting them into households where their birthright is erased.

When I go to the cinema, I want to learn something hopeful about the human condition.

Call me shallow, but I tend to veer toward upliftment and away from excruciating pain on the screen.

Women and Film, the Port Townsend Film Festival’s April 12-14 program of short and feature-length pictures, offers plenty of triumphant tales: “The Heat: A Kitchen (R)evolution,” “From Seed to Seed,” “Daughters of the Sexual Revolution” and “Singing for Our Lives” with Holly Near in person at Fort Worden’s Wheeler Theater are among them.

The whole story on tickets and venues unspools at PTFilm Fest.com, or call 360-379-1333.

But wise people encourage me to movie-go outside my comfort zone.

It’s a little like hot yoga: See the film that is the hardest to take, and you might expand a little. You can burn stubborn toxins out of the body.

“Dawnland” confronts the U.S. government practice of removing Native American children from their families — without provocation — and placing them with strangers.

In these adoptive households, the innocents are supposed to “learn how to be white,” as the film’s trailer puts it.

The kids are cut off from their mothers, fathers, culture and history.

The film tracks the journey of a truth and reconciliation commission, a TRC like the one in the aftermath of South Africa’s apartheid.

Commissioners both native and non-native travel across Maine, listening to testimony from families in the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamoquoddy and Penobscot tribes.

Together these are the Wabanaki people.

“Dawnland” shows the TRC finding out how the government continues to break up Wabanaki parents and children, threatening their very survival.

Yet the Wabanaki people are still here. They are telling their stories.

It’s almost unbearable to watch just the trailer, much less the 86-minute movie. So I watched it twice. Not that I’m all that tough.

I believe in the statement, though, about how the truth will set us free. If we can’t listen to one another’s true stories, how can we hope for a better future, a future of justice for all?

Having seen a bit of the footage, I know now that “Dawnland” is about hope.

The Upstander Project (UpstanderProject.org), which aims to “turn bystanders into upstanders,” produced “Dawnland.” Seattle filmmaker Tracy Rector (Choctaw/Seminole) will represent the project by appearing at Women and Film. Her magnificent motion pictures were part of the “Double Exposure” exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum last year.

So Women and Filmgoers will have a chance to meet Rector — and many other filmmakers — during the question-and-answer sessions during the weekend festival.

For my money and time, there’s nothing better than talking face to face with the people intimately involved with the making of a documentary.

The description on “Dawnland’s” website wraps up with an explanation of the title.

“Living at the eastern edge of Turtle Island [also known as North America], the Wabanaki people are the first to see the new day’s light.

“If harmony and justice begin in the east, as some prophesies, surely the TRC is a sign of this beginning.”


Diane Urbani de la Paz, a freelance journalist and former PDN features editor, lives in Port Townsend.

Her column appears in the PDN the first and third Wednesday every month. Her next column will be April 17.

Reach her at [email protected]

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