Complex issues surrounding the misty ‘truths’ of the documentary genre, specifically the westernized portrayal of other cultures in documentary format (in this case First Nations Canadians), the confrontation of uncomfortable national histories and more intimate family pasts are raised in Krista Belle Stewart’s current installation at Mercer Union.
The duo-channel video installation ‘Seraphine: Her Own Story’ (2014) is focused upon the artist’s mother, Seraphine Stewart, who became the first Aboriginal Public Health Nurse in British Columbia. The weighty subjects raised by the installation belie its simple formal presentation, in which two existing films, years apart but each focusing on her mother, have been subtly edited by the artist and are projected side by side. The earlier film shown on the left is a sort of ‘docu-drama’ commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) from 1967, while the adjacent projection displays an interview testimony of Seraphine recounting her experiences, commissioned by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) in 2012.
The CBC film charts Seraphine’s move to Victoria, BC to train as a nurse. Krista Belle Stewart’s edits aside, it is a truly strange film, awkwardly staged and as incoherent as the looping jazz soundtrack that accompanies it. Footage of Seraphine arriving from her rural home to the ‘big city’ are shot aerially, zooming in and out wildly from skyscrapers to Seraphine’s overwhelmed expression, looking down on her unsure movements with the voyeuristic air of a Hitchcock introduction, whilst also painting her, in an almost soap opera-esque way, as the archetypal naïve country girl attempting to get to grips with her new urban environment.
Questions surrounding the intentions of the director/filmmaker are immediately raised. Did he/she feel as awkward in making the documentary as the footage implies? Were they oblivious to the implications it puts across or fully complicit? The nostalgia generated by archive film, the 60’s fashions and laughable scenes, such as Seraphine’s awkward date with a suitor, who proudly tells her how much exotic variety she will be privy to as a city-dweller while a flaming alaska dessert sits in the foreground, cannot mask the uncomfortable subjects so obvious in seeing the film now.
The use of familiar filming styles to counter this awkwardness is evident in the romanticised footage of Seraphine in her home environment, which seems to emulate the classic ‘Western’ genre, none more than in the final shot of her and her young family walking into the scenic distance. How much of Seraphine’s movements and dialogue is staged or ‘directed’ remains a mystery.
By contrast the second, more recent film sees Seraphine tell her own story. A fixed, close-cropped headshot is backed by a stock image of a waterfall, something that presumably was chosen for its neutrality but is overwhelmingly odd – what would be appropriate for the subject matter discussed? This is carried through the awkward beginning to the interview, in which the interviewer is unsure whether to begin with questions or just allow Seraphine to talk – it speaks volumes about the uncomfortable nature of attempting to reconcile colonial pasts.
The content of the interview is distressing, as Seraphine recounts her experience of being sent to a residential school in Kamloops, the positivity of her expectations and the crushing reality of being separated from her brother, labeled as a number and treated as a second-class citizen. On the other hand the film shows the closeness of her family unit, her success against the odds of becoming a nurse, and the retaining of First Nation traditions in her current family life. The title of the installation ‘Her Own Story’ suggests that through her daughter’s installation, she is at least in part reclaiming ownership of her history.
Krista Belle Stewart’s edits play each film off the other. At times they both play together, the older film running silently in the background whilst Seraphine’s own testimony plays over the top, speaking perhaps of conceptions built around westernised viewpoints still acting as an undercurrent to actual voices being heard. Occasionally the scenery and fake backdrop match to create a great continual skyline in both films while at times one screen fades to black and allows the other full focus, a disjointed carousel that mimics the lost-in-translation effect of retelling histories from alternating viewpoints.
Despite the close proximity of the artist to the subject, she never overtly attempts to point out the ‘wrongs’ of the CBC film. Krista Belle Stewart allows each presentation to exist in its own right, coaxing the viewer to come to his or her own conclusions. It would seem that the manipulation of two documentaries would result in clear facts and dependable truths, yet this installation calls into question the reliability of the medium to understated, but fascinating effect.
 Residential Schools were compulsory educational facilities introduced by the Canadian Government and often run by the Catholic church, with a view to assimilating native children into western ideals, religions and ways of living. Kamloops was amongst the largest of these schools.