A young Indigenous boy named William lives on the Tsilhqot’in plateau in Canada with his older sister Shayl. They may live in relative poverty, but their childhood is rich with freedom, nature and connection, and the two spend hours exploring the area.
But then Shayl is forced to attend a residential school away from her family and culture. When she returns for the summer, she is different: she speaks primarily English instead of Tsilhqot’in, and she is withdrawn and silent. Despite William’s entreaties, their bond is ruptured, breaking the spell of childhood enchantment and innocence forever.
As part of a policy of “aggressive assimilation” that began in the 19th century, the Canadian government removed — many times forcibly — about 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and other aboriginal children from their families to federally run boarding schools, where they were taught English and inculcated in Christianity, with the idea of passing these onto their children and families eventually.
Many of these schools had substandard conditions and abuse was rampant, and many isolated their wards from their families in both overt and insidious ways. Writing and directing team Trevor Mack and Matthew Taylor Blais’s dramatic short focuses on the quietly devastating effects that these forced residential schools has on the children of the First Nations, both with each other and with their own heritage.
Set in the 1970s and structured like a series of poetic vignettes, the film is notable for its ravishing natural imagery, particularly in the extended opening sequence, which captures the rich natural surroundings that frame the siblings’ world.
But the stunning evocation of sensuous textiles, sights and sounds isn’t just beauty for beauty’s sake; they form the spine of William’s subjective experience of the world. Remarkably unadorned in terms of dialogue, the precision of the images and the gentle pacing of the editing are shaped both by the rhythms of nature and the delicate, poignant drift of childhood memory. William and Shayl are remarkably attuned and connected to the natural world around them, and the first part of the film conjoins both together in a memorable, even hypnotic way.
But when Shayl leaves, that connection to nature — as well as between brother and sister — is broken. The film shifts into a more somber register, visually and tonally, capturing both how forced residential schooling of First Nations children affected their sense of self, and the ripple effect into families, communities and even the spiritual fabric of Indigenous people. The rupture isn’t dramatic, but we understand how it can be so devastating to a young child with a limited but richly textured understanding of the world, and the filmmaking is so intimate that we understand it as the deep-reaching, cataclysmic turning point that it is.
“Clouds of Autumn” has the look and feel of reverie and memory, and a sensitivity to how time and place can be elastic to a child. The film may be slower in tempo and quiet in tone, but those who can give it patience will be captivated by its remarkable craft. It also captures the reach of a shameful chapter in Canadian history into the emotional experience of the most vulnerable people affected by it. The film does important work in chronicling what happened, but with its sheer artistry and emotional acuity, it also etches it into viewers’ memories.