Don’t Say Its Name. 2021. Directed by Rueben Martell. Screenplay by Martell & Gerald Wexler.
Starring Madison Walsh, Sera-Lys McArthur, Carla Fox, Julian Black Antelope, Sheena Kharis, Hannah Duke, Catherine Gell, & Justin Lewis.
CHAOS a film company
Not Rated / 84 minutes
★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
The following essay contains SEVERAL SPOILERS!
Turn back, or be forever spoiled.
Cinema could use more diversity, across all genres. I’m personally most excited about the diversification of the horror genre. We keep seeing fresh perspectives in horror as more walls get broken down for BIPOC filmmakers and writers in the film industry. We’ve particularly started to see more Indigenous horror in Canada as of late with Jeff Barnaby’s new film Blood Quantum putting a unique spin on zombies, and now Rueben Martell’s Don’t Say Its Name, equal parts a sociopolitical horror and a tale of the supernatural.
Martell’s story takes place on an Indigenous reservation where WEC, a mining company, has secured rights from the local band council to drill on tribal land. A local activist, Kharis Redwater (Sheena Kaine), is headed home after a band council meeting one night when a truck runs her down on an isolated road. Soon, eerie events occur, and bloody bodies are piling up. Local peace officer Betty Stonechild (Madison Walsh) and park ranger Stacey Cole (Sera-Lys McArthur) start to wonder if this could be related to local Indigenous legends.
Don’t Say Its Name opens with a raw, disturbing, though thankfully non-graphic scene that gives way to the horrific racial truths of being an Indigenous woman in Canada. This scene resonates in haunting fashion with the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people in Canada—a social reality that haunts Indigenous communities and should haunt more white people, an institutional, systematic failing of Indigenous peoples on every level imaginable. Martell tackles this and many other colonialist realities for Indigenous communities, intertwining the violence against Indigenous women with how white Canadian society continues to disrespect and violate the land it stole.One of the earliest themes we see is the economic inequality in Canada for many Indigenous people. Ben (Samuel Marty) mentions being perceived as the “broke rez kid” with second-hand hockey gear, and we also later hear Betty’s sarcastic reply to Ben about using her “tribal DNA lab” to do forensics; these are two different sides of the exact same issue. These moments express an overall lack of investment in Indigenous communities on both the family and the provincial level, one of Canada’s continuous glaring errors in how it’s historically mistreated Indigenous peoples and communities. All those economic inequalities further play into racism. We see this in one nasty white character who’s doing public relations for the mining company, claiming they’re bringing “money to the squaws” and “their bucks“—a sentence overflowing with hideous racist speech, revealing how so many white people view Indigenous women, men, and their communities.
Along with the film depicting economic difficulties, and prejudice, Indigenous people face on reservations, Don’t Say Its Name also depicts Indigenous characters in various ways which help defy white stereotypes. The character of Carson (Julian Black Antelope) is great because he’s presented as an elder who isn’t totally against mining, so long as it gives back to the community and provides his people opportunity. This doesn’t make Indigenous people out to be a monolith; there are other Indigenous characters who actually work for the mining company, too. Then there’s Auntie Betty talking openly with Ben about domestic violence after one of the murders in town: “Tell me that when you‘re big and grown you‘re never going to hurt a woman.” We see the active way Betty’s teaching a young Indigenous man good values, something we don’t really ever see in white stories featuring Indigenous people. Another great scene features Stacey telling Betty she’s still waiting for her status and Betty replies they can leave “blood quantum” to the government. Many white Canadians are ignorant to the status system Indigenous people here have to deal with, and this bit of dialogue sheds a little light on how it’s viewed within Indigenous communities. Finally, Kharis’s story, albeit ultimately tragic, is partly positive, in that she’d overcome addiction and became a huge part of the community, engaging in local activist efforts pushing back against the mining company before her death. All these instances come through because of the Indigenous representation behind the camera, the input of Indigenous people in the screenplay, instead of Indigenous stories being told primarily by white settlers.
“She overcame so much, to be reduced to this.”
One of the best elements of the film is Kharis returning as a spirit, mixed in with the mining company destroying tribal land. Kharis is essentially a spirit taking vengeance for the land itself, as one character mentions the mining is “digging up the bones of our elders,” also referring to the earth in corporeal fashion, referencing the mutilation of the land. Kharis becomes an anthropomorphic spirit of the earth, getting revenge on anybody connected to WEC, even the Indigenous folk who work for the company. Stacey and Betty begin to figure out the mystery, realising that anyone who becomes an ally “on side with WEC” becomes a target of Kharis’s supernatural retribution. There’s a wonderful metaphor in here about performative allyship, in that even if you see yourself on the good side, if you align yourself with forces against that side you’re just as bad as those on the bad side; it’s symbolic of allies’ talk versus their actions, realised through ghostly horror.
There’s a thread in Don’t Say Its Name that’s intriguing but doesn’t fully play out, in my opinion, concerning the white lady from the diner who becomes a central part of the plot eventually. We see she’s appropriating Indigenous spirituality, specifically the Blackfeet Nation, wearing a Buffalo Stone. We also see an article in another scene about millennials doing the same thing with various aspects of Indigenous spiritualities. Maybe that plays into the white lady’s decision near the end of the film. It feels like something more could’ve been done with this, though there’s another case of whiteness in the film that’s far more serious.
Betty’s white cop buddy Andy does some ugly cherrypicking when he tries to dispel any talk of supernatural causes for the recent deaths. He mentions a couple violent incidents in history involving Indigenous people, specifically Swift Runner killing and cannibalising his family in 1879, as well as the murders on Belcher Island during the early 1940s and a supposed Inuit shaman behind them (though he forgets to add the influence of Christianity and missionaries, among other things, in this second case). Andy does this to discount the lived experiences of contemporary Indigenous people. Betty, Carson, Stacey have experienced Kharis’s supernatural presence, yet Andy feels it’s appropriate to bring up a couple troublesome events a hundred years ago—and calls them incidences of “mass hysteria“—as if they speak to Indigenous experience and knowledge as a whole or the current day circumstances. It’s a racist tactic as old as the hills, also illustrating how police and other state institutions disparage Indigenous spirituality as myth and folklore while white society blindly accepts Christianity.
Don’t Say Its Name is one hell of a film. A few loose ends could’ve gone somewhere and just never do, like Stacey’s clear PTSD from serving in Afghanistan, which never serves any real purpose for her character development. Also, the ending is slightly confusing and doesn’t do justice to the rest of such an excellent film, feeling like a fast, heavy-handed conclusion after a fantastic buildup. In spite of a few minor issues, Martell’s film is a powerful and, at times, fun bit of supernatural terror wrapped up in a story that brings out many different sociopolitical aspects of Indigenous life in Canada.
Indigenous filmmakers everywhere have not had enough exposure, by no fault of their own. Here in Canada we especially need to make sure their voices and stories are heard, seen, understood. Canada’s gotten by on good PR somehow, always deferring talk about racism and colonialism to our white American neighbours, yet our colonial history is as ugly as anywhere else, if not uglier. We see it every week as of late with staggering numbers of children’s corpses being dug up at former residential schools; schools is a nice word for genocidal camps. My point is that white Canadians, and the film industry in this country, need to lift up the Indigenous storytellers more than ever at this moment in history. Don’t Say Its Name is a genre film with so much to say, all while telling a compelling little supernatural story along the way, and its numerous, refreshing representations of Indigenous characters is something everybody needs to witness.