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Heartland Film Festival: ‘Dawnland’ covers an important, interesting subject, but fails to deliver

Dawnland is a documentary that tackles an important subject  that is sadly not often discussed: the forcible removal of Native  American children from their parents by the American government in an  effort to assimilate them to white American society. In an effort to  distance Native American children from their culture, they were placed  in white households, some whom were extremely racist or abusive towards  their foster children. Schools specifically tailored to teach these  Native American children punished the use of Native languages and taught  them to be ashamed of their heritage. Effectively, these children lost a  massive part of their identity and were often subject to abuse by their  foster parents. Dawnland focuses on the first official truth  and reconciliation commission (TRC) in the United States as they travel  to the various Wabanaki tribes in Maine to collect testimonies and  conduct research on the impact of the peoples’ histories. 


The subject is certainly anger-inducing and deserves to be fully explored, but that’s the problem with Dawnland:  For such an interesting topic, the film doesn’t delve deep enough.  There is very little historical context, limited interview subjects, no  explanation on how the investigation impacted Native peoples, and far  too much similar footage scattered throughout that doesn’t convey enough  educational or new information.

The film is mostly comprised of interviews with Wabanaki Native  Americans in Maine who had been forcibly separated from their parents as  children, but the film is structured in a way that these interviews are  scattered all over the place in short bursts and the stories are not  fully explored. We don’t get to really know any of the subjects and the  stories are typically very short. What’s more problematic, however, is  how these interviews are incorporated into the film. Dawnland  would have benefitted from stringing these interviews closer together  instead of randomly throughout the film. It’s hard to feel the emotional  impact when there is a serious interview topic beginning, only to stop  after just scratching the surface and then transitioning to a new topic  unrelated to any interview.

An aspect of the film I genuinely did enjoy was how the film tackled and showcased white privilege within the TRC. Dawnland  shows the TRC, composed primarily of white individuals, has difficulty  understanding how to respectfully engage with the Wabanaki people. The  issue of white privilege is swiftly shut down and addressed within the  film, which was honestly the best part for me. I appreciate Dawnland‘s  honesty in showing that white people cannot fully understand the  struggles of minorities and that being an ally means actually listening  to the concerns of minorities. 

While I genuinely want to like the film, I don’t think it’s a very  effective documentary, which is a shame because the subject certainly  deserves an in-depth look and exposure. I found myself asking, “Why do I  not feel emotionally moved?” and it all comes down to film structure  and a lack of engaging, educational content. Dawnland left me wanting to know more about the topic, but sadly I don’t think I’ll be returning to Dawnland for a refresher.

Featured Image: Dawnland‘s Official Website

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