With aboriginal rights being a common theme of this film festival, it was only a matter of time before one film discussed the disappearances/murders of indigenous women. This year, we have two films focusing on this national disgrace. These films couldn’t be more different. This River is a documentary short focusing on the Red River, a site of many disappearances. On the Farm is a fictional retelling of the crimes of Robert Pickton, one of Canada’s most infamous serial killer. Whatever the difference, each one presents their heartbreaking story with great compassion.
Opening for the feature, This River looks at the work of Drag the Red, a volunteer organization dedicated to searching for missing indigenous persons along the Red River of Winnipeg. Since August 2014, volunteers drop nets and hooks into the river, trying to find any bodies. Over the course of a twenty minute run, directors Erika Macpherson & Katherena Vermette focuses on the work of Kyle Kematch, a volunteer whose sister went missing five years ago. Vermette also uses this time to discuss her brother’s disappearance.
On the Farm looks at the infamous serial killer who brought attention to the disappearance of aboriginal victims. Based on the book by Stevie Cameron, this film is a fictional retelling of the Robert Pickton murders. Welcome to Downtown Eastside, the seedy side of Vancouver. It’s a crime ridden section where drug dealers thrive and prostitutes try to survive. This is the home of Nikki Taylor (Elle-Maija Tailfeathers), a woman who works the street to feed her addiction. Watching from a rusty old pickup is a psychotic farmer, who’s responsible for the recent disappearances of prostitutes.
The chief contrasts between these films are the perspectives each film presents. This River takes the point of view of family members of the missing. It’s a testament of how the disappearance of a loved one affects those closest to him/her. Vermette recalled the sense of distance and incredible silence her family felt when her brother went missing. Hearing stories like this reinstates the humanity behind the missing persons poster.
While This River looks at the perspective of the victim’s families, On the Farm looks at the most targeted victims of these disappearances/murders; aboriginal women and prostitutes. Nikki serves as the surrogate for the aforementioned demographic. Nikki is a lost soul who longs for to turn her life around for the sake of her child. Too bad this world offers little options for her. The one time social worker offers a helping hand, he tries to force himself on her.
It would have been easy to go for full sentimentality, but writer Dennis Foon and director Rachel Talalay make the bold move of making Nikki a difficult person to sympathize with. She’s so self-destructive that she steals cop car and crashes it within seconds. She’s had so many altercations with the police they know her by name. One of the only people to show her any sympathy is Officer McLeod (Sara Canning), which wanes when hers is the car stolen. It’s no wonder she barred from seeing her child.
For a character like Nikki, you need an actress who can make the audience care about the character despite her shortcomings. Tailfeathers meets this challenge head on with an unflinching performance. She brings a lot of empathy into her role, allowing us to feel Nikki’s love for her child and her connection to fellow prostitutes. She also never backs away from the ugly side of Nikki’s from her bruised limbs to her drugged stupors. Her behaviour can make you cringe at times, but when she’s abducted by the killer, you fear for her life.
A common theme between these films is lack of action from the police. Both films condemn the police for their indifference to these disappearances. Loved ones are always told to wait. But some people cannot wait, so organizations like Drag the Red are created to shame the police for their inaction around the search for missing members of her community. Prostitutes have it the worst. The stigma they receive leads many to blame them for their crimes. And they fear going to the police due to fear of persecution. Of course, many people will say it’s their fault, that they should expect this from their line of work. The police have taken advantage of this stigma to label missing women including Kyle’s sister. On the Farm serves as a reminder that even the most screwed up prostitute deserves the same protections as everyone else. They are still human beings with the right to live without abuse.