Director hopes Minnesota-made movie leads to healing

Rae in the hospital
"Older than America" tells the story of Rae (Georgina Lightning) who begins seeing visions of spirit children.
Image courtesy of Tribal Alliance Productions

"Older than America" tells the story of Rae, an Indian woman living on a Minnesota reservation.

She crashes her truck one day, trying to avoid a group of children standing in the road. When she comes to in the emergency room her boyfriend tells her there were no children. Then she makes a surprising admission.

Georgina Lightning
Georgina Lightning wrote, directed and stars in "Older than America." The film was shot on and around the Fond du Lac Community in northern Minnesota
MPR image/Euan Kerr

"You want to talk about crazy?" she asks. "Fine, I'll tell you about crazy. I'm seeing things Johnny, just like my mom did. They started out as nightmares, but now they are real."

In the film it turns out that the children are spirits of boys and girls who died years before at the Indian boarding school on the reservation. Rae has to unravel the mystery of what happened, and how it affected her mother.

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Rae is played by Georgina Lightning. She also wrote and directed "Older than America."

For her, the story is immensely personal.

She is a Cree woman who grew up on the Hobima reserve in Canada. She said her father was an abusive alcoholic, but she never thought about why.

Spirit child
One of the spirit children who appears to Rae in "Older than America."
Image courtesy of Tribal Alliance Productions

"When I turned 18, my dad hung himself," she said. "And that's when I was like, 'Oh. Wow! That's pretty extreme,' because I never think that my Dad would do something like that."

Lightning wrestled with her own demons, and even attempted suicide. She began therapy, and tried to break her family's silence about her father. It led to a dramatic confrontation with her uncle.

"That's the first time I heard about the boarding school, that my Dad was raised in a boarding school," she said. "He was institutionalized from six to 18. It was extremely abusive there."

Indian boarding schools first appeared in the 1870's as a way to force assimilation of Indian children. Eventually there were hundreds of the schools in the U.S. and Canada. Many were run by religious orders.

Taking the children from their parents, the teachers forced them to speak English instead of their native languages. They banned traditional practices. Over the years an estimated 100,000 children passed through the schools.

The last of the schools closed decades ago, but Georgina Lightning said the trauma they caused remains strong.

"Because I really believe that the boarding school experience is a direct result of a lot of the dysfunction we have in Indian country. A lot of the alcohol abuse, drug abuse, suicide is outrageous," Lightning said.

Little Irene
A scene from "Older than America"
Image courtesy Tribal Alliance Productions

"Older than America" is the first feature from Tribal Alliance Productions. Lightning created the company after years of working in Hollywood. She was frustrated by the lack of jobs for Indians either in front of, or behind, the camera, except in what she calls "leather and feather" productions.

She considered making the film in South Dakota, until Minneapolis-based producer Christine Walker convinced her to come to Minnesota to take a look. Lightning said the Fond du Lac community welcomed the project with open arms. She was even more amazed when they put out the call for extras.

"Eight hundred and fifty people showed up in Cloquet from everywhere. I don't even know how they found out about it," she said.

American Indian Movement activist Dennis Banks is in the film, as is storyteller Jim Northrup. The cast also includes actors from Hollywood and Twin Cities theaters.

Lightning acknowledges the film will upset some people. A central character is an abusive priest. She also includes scenes from a sundance, a sacred ceremony which some in the native community believe should not be shown. Lightning said they are necessary for telling her story.

Lightning said she wants to get people talking about what happened at the schools. She got her wish even as the crew shot the film at Fond du Lac.

"And people were constantly coming up to me, extras, needing to share their story. And it was like 'This is the very first time I've talked about it,' " she said.

She also wants to raise awareness amongst non-Indians about the boarding schools and their impact.

"I think that we are going to need support from non-natives. We really do need that help, we need that understanding from non-natives," she said. "And they are not going to understand until they know what our history is."

The screening of "Older than America" at the Walker is sold out. It's official world premier is next week at the South by Southwest festival in Texas. Lightning will screen the film at Fond du Lac in early April.