The Watchman’s Canoe (2017). 1 hour, 43 minutes. Directed by Barri Chase. Featuring Kiri Goodson and Matthew Johnson.
The Watchman’s Canoe, written and directed by Bari Chase, is a film that tells several stories in one. The central story is of young Jett (Kiri Goodson), a precocious blonde girl suddenly uprooted from her life and transported to her mother’s birthplace on a Native American reservation on the coast of Washington. A peripheral story is that of the Washington landscape: it is shockingly beautiful, and The Watchman’s Canoe tells it brilliantly. Another peripheral story is of our society, or even perhaps of simple human nature, and the tendency for groups to form and siphon the creative energy of individuals, punishing those who dare to live brazenly in their own skin.
The story of Jett begins when her mother packs her and her older brother up and moves them far from their alcoholic father. When they arrive at the Tulalip Reservation, the community where Jett’s mother was born and raised, to rebuild their lives, Jett discovers she is the only child with light hair and skin. She finds herself in a place of rejection by the other children, and becomes the subject of bullying and taunts. This is where the story becomes troublesome in its depiction of Indigenous Americans in what is hard not to read as closed minded. The authenticity or believability of the story from the perspective of this character is not questionable (it is based on a real life experience), but is this the type of story that would spark positive change in a country whose white and most powerful demographic committed genocide and continues to perpetuate systemic racism against Indigenous Americans? The answer for me is no.
I have had a difficult time reviewing this film. Jett’s story is relatable, and as a woman who has had my own run-ins with bullies and gender discrimination as a child, I empathize deeply with her. This film is also based on true events, and judging someone’s real life experiences is difficult because it is very important to me to respect individual experiences. Additionally, this film is cinematically very beautiful, and it is clear that a lot of creative energy went into making it. I do not think this film comes from a place of hate or bigotry, and that is why I am struggling with the review.
It’s hard to get over the vexing issue of painting Indigenous people is such a negative light. However, there are many aspects of Jett’s plight that make her incredibly compelling. The story continues with Jett’s desire for acceptance, which leads to a life-threatening challenge by a gang of local children (the Fort Gang boys), made even more hurtful by the gang’s approval of Jett’s older brother. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Jett begins to spiritually evolve, finding a heightened ability to commune with nature. Her intuition carries her to remarkably dangerous places, most shockingly to a small island off the Pacific Coast, presumably in the Tulalip Bay. However, her cousin Peedie (Matthew Johnson) has come for an extended visit, and after finding himself squarely on the side of Jett in regards to the Fort Gang boys, he becomes her reluctant sidekick. With Peedie by her side, Jett is a force of nature that cannot and will not be stopped by mere threats to her life.
While following Jett’s adventures in emerging preternatural abilities, The Watchman’s Canoe takes the viewer on an astonishing ride through the various land- and sea-scapes that comprise the Pacific Northwest. Cinematographer AJ Young captures the deepest emeralds of the forests, mesmerizing grays and blues of the sea, and a steady conglomeration of natural texture created by both water and wind. The images in The Watchman’s Canoe are themselves worthy of cinematic acclaim, and gorgeously enhance the audience experience. The primary color of the region, and of this film, is green. The landscape is incredibly lush and wooded. Young’s repetitive use of upward facing moving shots create a fantastic representation of a young child seeing it all for the first time. Young’s style carries a sense of wonder, joy, and inescapable awe for the characters’ physical surroundings throughout the film. The cinematography is simply stunning.
As Jett is making her treacherous way through social groups and nature, a larger theme of the battle between human will and spiritual awakening unfolds. Jett is at an age where her innocent purity, which makes her more receptive to spirituality, is beginning to be marred by those around her. She is in that transition between childhood and adulthood where we start to become painfully aware of the judgment and criticism that exist in the people around us. Jett’s battle is a reminder that we each have a path to our true selves that is continuously clouded and distorted by our fear of criticism.
For Jett, her newly honed interconnection with the spiritual state of nature crashes and tumbles among the biting challenges of interconnecting with other humans. While some may prefer to consider the failure of certain social niceties as childish, The Watchman’s Canoe reminds us that we all participate in perpetuating cruelty far into adulthood. Fortunately, Jett’s youth, tenacity, and pureness of soul form the perfect storm of resistance against the cruelties of man.
Writer and Director Barri Chase is a storytelling conductor, interweaving plot, behaviorism, and startling imagery into a filmic symphony. Figurative and literal tension, darkness, respite, and light are all present on this journey. Regardless of background or age, The Watchman’s Canoe is a vessel of reflection and contemplation. Unfortunately, the film is also analogous to responding to assertions of racist behavior with anecdotes about “black on black violence” and stories about Africans assisting European and American kidnappers in capturing other Africans in the days of the American slave labor industry: “they’re racist against themselves.” It is not difficult to see this film being used to support bigotry in this type of argument.
I believe Bari Chase had pure intentions in making The Watchman’s Canoe. It is truly unfortunate that the perspective is so problematic because there are so many good aspects of this film. Jett and Peedie are wonderful characters, the story is informative regarding Indigenous life and culture, and the cinematography is incredible. Perhaps if Bari Chase had shared drafts of the script with the Tulalip tribe to get a different angle on the story, it could have been the positive and empowering feminist film I believe Bari Chase intended to make.