By Thom Ernst
I met Roz Owen at Cinefest 2018 in Sudbury where she was premiering her film Trouble in the Garden, a movie on the theme of the “Sixties Scoop” - aboriginal children adopted by white families as part of a policy to erase their culture.
I was on hand to introduce the film and to moderate the Q&A that followed (as I have done, over the years with many films). Because of festivals like Cinefest and the upcoming Kingston Canadian Festival, I’ve met many great filmmakers, and have seen many fine films.
Some stand out more than others, and so it is with Trouble in the Garden. The film became personal in ways I could not have imagined. And I was not the only one in the audience who felt the same.
Trouble in the Garden– which opens in Toronto and Calgary Feb. 15 - marks Roz Owen’s debut as a feature filmmaker. Her direction is bold, the performances are brave and the result is a film no one is likely to forget.
Trouble in the Garden plants the seeds of a family drama, but what sprouts from those seeds is something entirely original and unexpected. The film focuses on Raven, a young Indigenous woman, recently bailed out of jail by her adoptive brother after being incarcerated for disrupting the peace.
Raven, known to her family as Pippa, is an activist, a protestor and, to her family, a troublemaker.
I’m happy for the opportunity to reconnect with Roz, even if only by phone.
THOM ERNST: Welcome Roz. I really don’t think we can begin talking about your latest film without first touching on some of your earlier works. There seems to be a line of social and political interest in your work leading up to this latest film, Trouble in the Garden.
ROZ OWEN:“I’m certainly driven to tell stories that are about something important. That drives me. Though—God—I’d love to direct a comedy sometime. But clearly, I couldn’t be the one who wrote it.
“I made a film about (activist artists) Carole Condé and Karl Beveridge with my partner, Jim Miller. It was a documentary. I’ve known them for years and I thought their work really looked like film stills and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to make a film where people could step out of their work and speak?’
“Because they’re incredibly political – their work. They had a show at the AGO in 1976 and they haven’t been shown there since because there was an uproar. Somebody on the board decided they were Communists. Turned into this huge thing.
“And I just thought, people have got to know about these artists because they’re extraordinary. Their work is extraordinary, their passion for social justice, they’re trying to make the world a better place. They’ve been doing this for years, and yet they’re not that well known.”
ERNST: Did your film, Community Matters: The Art of Carole Condé and Karl Beveridge bring them that needed recognition?
OWEN:“I think so. I wish it brought more than it did. If you start with a famous person, it works a bit better. But we’ve shown it in universities all over the country. We had a lot of screenings and a lot of students were really moved by it, and Carole and Karl were their heroes. So, yeah, a lot more people know about them now because of this film.”
ERNST: That must be satisfying knowing your film draws attention to these artists and their cause, which, I think moves us nicely into discussing Trouble in the Garden. Trouble in the Garden has, I think, its roots firmly planted in the family drama narrative. But it’s so much more, dealing with Indigenous land issues, and the unsettling facts about the “Sixties Scoop.” What can you tell us about the film without giving away the ending… an ending that left some audience members gasping.
OWEN: “Yeah. I was hoping it would do that. Because I really like to make work that can shift somebody’s thinking; or can flip somebody’s thinking. I think that’s one of the things I think drama can be so powerful.
“I learned about the Sixties Scoop from my sister-in-law. And when I met her in the ‘90s and over the years heard more and more of her story—she was taken and put into a foster family—I began to understand that this was a Canadian government policy that happened after the residential schools.
“They place indigenous children into white families, extensively, to make them white. That’s what the residential schools were about, but it’s been a secret in Canada. That’s one of the things that compelled me. Not that my sister-in-law is the character Raven in the film, because it’s a drama so they’re made-up characters.
“There’s that, but there are a few (other) things that inspired me. We had family friends when we were growing up whose father was very much a my-way-or-the-highway kind of guy. He treated one of his children as a success and the other as a total failure. It was excruciating to be around it. I never forgot that.
“And at a certain point it hit me that, that’s what Canada’s been doing to Indigenous People. I see this film metaphorically. The ‘family’ is a metaphor for Canada and Raven is a metaphor for the land.”
ERNST: Very strong and likely accurate, metaphors that are sure to illicit strong responses. How have people been responding to the film…again without revealing the final moment?
OWEN:“I think with shock. And certainly, people want to talk about it. It’s a film people need to speak about. They want to ask questions. They want to understand it.
“I can metaphorically speak as a writer. They become very real characters to me. I love them all. I didn’t want to make simple characters that were evil. They’re characters who are trying not to see something that is right in front of them. They didn’t want to see it. They are not evilin that way. I know people are surprised that they are as nice as they are.
“I think Canadians are nice. But we’ve also done some incredibly awful things. It’s the denial that I’m interested in. There’s that quote from George Orwell which is, ‘If you want to keep a secret, you must first hide it from yourself.’
“I think we can know things but not want to fully know it. (The family) likes to smooth things over and make things go away. To me, the root of the problem in that family is the father who is so sure that he knows the truth. He’s difficult.”
ERNST: Yes, the father can be frustratingly arrogant, much of that is credited to Frank Moore’s performance. But I also found Lillie, the mother, as played by Fiona Reid, also at fault. Perhaps it was her complacency?
OWEN:“I think it was because she can’t stand up to him. She can’t. She tries, and kind of teases him about things.
“She wants to have a lovely family. She wants it all to be fine. That’s quite human. We all do that sometime. ‘Can we just move on, and not talk about the bad stuff? Let’s talk about the great stuff.’ Sometimes it’s not really the right thing to do. I think she’s shattered by the end.”
ERNST: We’ve brought up Raven who is an essential, if not the essential, character in the film. Chances are that audiences are going to walk away from the film more empowered because Raven is more empowered. But for Raven to get to her truth she must first disrupt the family when they are celebrating something wonderful. Some might question Raven’s timing.
OWEN: “It wasn’t her plan to have been in the family at all. Colin (Jon Cor), who decided he was going to bail her out for his own guilt. And he’s a slippery character. He’s like his mom, in a way: ‘Let’s not talk about that. Let’s move on.’”
ERNST: I’m finding it difficult to talk about this film without revealing too much. So much of the film’s strength is in the looking back at everything you’ve shown us once the film is over.
OWEN:“I was hoping to leave enough bread crumbs so that you would think back and it would play on your mind. You would see something and think, “Well, that was a bit odd,” and then later think, ‘Oh, I see…’”
ERNST: I suspect many people are going to assume they know the ending before they reach it, and they’ll be wrong. Are you purposefully playing with story and character archetypes to jolt the audience in the final reel?
OWEN: “I did do that. I wanted it to be enough of a surprise at the end that it would haunt you. I don’t know if you know the film Celebration, Thom…”
ERNST: One of my top ten…
OWEN: “Oh my God. Well, when I called Raven Sinclair (a U of Regina professor who is a survivor of the “’Sixties Scoop”) to collaborate with me - I’d love to talk about Raven at some point in this interview because she is so integral to this film - she said, ‘(Celebration) was one of my favourite films, I have to watch it every six months.’ And I knew then that I found the person to work with.
“Not that (Trouble in the Garden) is like (Celebration) but it is inspired by Celebration, for sure. I just thought that that film never left me. It was like, ‘People have to keep saying the same thing over and over and over again and it keeps being ignored until finally it’s revealed and nobody can deny it anymore.’
“I did something different with (Trouble in the Garden) because I knew what I wanted to do was make Raven, herself, somebody who was really difficult. She’s a protestor. She’s angry. I wanted to make it so that in the beginning you thought, ‘This poor family. They’re being so kind and she’s complaining about the bath soap,’ and then to flip it so that you’d understand why. That was intentional. I didn’t want to make her this perfect character. I didn’t want her to be simple.
“Cara Gee is an extraordinary actor. Her star is rising. An extraordinary actor.”
ERNST: The film focuses a great deal on Raven, an Indigenous character played, as you mentioned, remarkably well by Cara Gee. The film raises a lot of Indigenous concerns and issues. Are you anticipating any push-back from communities that might be apprehensive to embrace your film because you, the director and writer, are not Indigenous?
OWEN: “I think the timing of this is extraordinary in that way, because I think we’re right up against it in terms of voice. I understand it. I really hope this film will inspire a lot of other filmmakers and Indigenous people who’ve been scooped to tell their story. There are extraordinary stories. This is not one of the worst. There are really tough stories to be told and need to be told.
“But I did work very closely with Raven Sinclair because one of the things I didn’t want to do was to end up….
“I know the white story. I lived it. I’m white. I’ve always been white. I get it. But I wanted to make Raven the lead, for sure. And that was really important to me, because it’s a woman’s story. Very much.
“I knew that was a problem Cara knew. I spoke about it a lot with her. I think it just exploded – the whole issue of voice has exploded in the last while. I think it’s hard for her to be a spokesperson for the film at this point. And I can understand that.
“I probably shouldn’t speak for her, that’s not fair.”
“I have to say I’m so proud about this film. I’ve had people who’ve been ‘scoop survivors’ who are so moved by this story. And I say that not as my words…that’s Raven Sinclair’s. That’s somebody who stood by me the whole film, through all the editing and all the different parts of making this film and kept bringing that perspective into the film.
“I’ve had my own experience with four or five scoop survivors who are profoundly affected by (the film). I know I would have been dead in the water without Raven Sinclair. That’s the piece for me that’s so important.
“I don’t think white people should be telling Indigenous stories unless they’re working with somebody who is with them on the film, who is part of the creative process.”