"It's annoying," Andrée Cazabon says as she screws up her pretty face. "It happened almost 25 years ago. Isn't someone allowed to move on?"
Her new, heart-wrenching film, Third World Canada, tells the story of eight children who are orphaned when three parents commit suicide in the fly-in native community of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, or K.I. for short, in Northern Ontario. Such is the disturbing portrayal of the social and psychological fabric in the community that all the Canadian broadcasters Ms. Cazabon has approached have turned it down. One of the boys in the film regularly acts out his father's hanging because he was locked in the room with him when he committed suicide. But she refuses to consider changing it.
Despite her fierce commitment to bringing awareness to the plight of aboriginal children – the film was screened at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa last week as a fundraising event that coincided with a meeting of the Assembly of First Nations – her own story as a former street kid is the one she is often asked about.
The dramatic arc of her early life is always part of her narrative – even if the descent was brief, just two years, starting at 13. At the age of 12, she had been sexually assaulted while volunteering on a farm and didn't tell her parents. She left her Ottawa home to live on the streets of Montreal and Toronto, addicted to drugs, glue-sniffing and alcohol, a nightmarish journey she documented in Letters to a Street Child, her first film in 1999, based on the notes her father sent when she was in rehab. She was evidence of how a parent's efforts can sometimes not be enough. Her parents worked as teachers. The family was comfortable, intact.
But the irony of her comment about wishing others wouldn't dwell on her troubled past now that she's an accomplished, Gemini-nominated, 36-year-old documentary filmmaker ( Third World Canada is her fifth film) is that the experience hasn't left her. "It's always with you because your journey has so abruptly changed," she acknowledges. The independent filmmaker exudes a calm determination. She doesn't preach about her causes. She doesn't amplify or glorify the drama of her past. "I didn't want to live past 18," she says softly of her 13-year-old self-destructive self.
The stories enter the conversation easily, gently, with a laugh sometimes, a shake of the head, a shrug, as though they're part of her everyday life, just as her 10-year-old daughter is and her parents, who live near her in Ottawa. A single mother who has never been married, she runs her production company out of the kitchen in her apartment. After rehabilitation for her addictions, years of therapy and some tough years switching high schools, Ms. Cazabon landed at Ryerson University (then Ryerson Polytechnical Institute) in Toronto to study film, where she thrived. "Oh, I was a nerd!" she exclaims with a laugh. "I took out every book in the library!"
But if she was actively distancing herself from her early teenage years – she didn't tell anyone about her stint on the streets – she soon found that the experience would define her as a filmmaker. Letters to a Street Child began as fiction until she realized the story had more impact if told as truth.
Now empathy is her access point when she talks to subjects about their own traumas and challenges.
"If you meet me today and you know nothing about me, I would probably have to work hard to convince you that it was really, really true that I lived on the streets and I had a rat on my shoulder and I peed in my pants," she says, seated in a café in Ottawa, dressed smartly in black pants and a leopard-print blouse, her long hair down her back. "So I can walk into a community like K.I. and I can see the other side."
Listening to her talk about her life, it's hard not to think that part of the way the mind rebounds from despair is to find engagement in the hidden promise of others. It's atonement, perhaps, but also healing. Her worst moment on the streets taught her "how we can become objects," she says slowly. "I learned that if we don't acknowledge that spirit of being human, it can be easily glossed over as not having any worth."
Her hope for Third World Canada is that viewers see beyond the stereotypes of first nations people, because that's what happened to her during the three years she spent on the film project.
"My own personal biggest myth that I bought into was that somehow first nations people can't look after themselves … I was baffled by just how many solutions and resilience they have … I think if we collectively stopped believing ourselves to be higher and started being equal and having this notion of mutual respect, that would be a game changer."
Documentaries on aboriginal communities have been done before, but "cameras have gone as though it's a drive-by zoo. Cameras have gone in to show issues. Cameras have gone in to show poverty. But have cameras gone in to connect? Have they gone in with understanding?" she asks in her plainspoken manner.
She is currently taking a break from other projects to concentrate on promoting Third World Canada, which will go to film festivals in Australia and South Africa in the coming year. She also plans to approach broadcasters abroad. "The purpose is to get everyday Canadians involved in reconciliation projects with first nations people," she says in a business-like voice, adding that she has developed additional multimedia resources and fund-raising initiatives.
In the aftermath of Letters to a Street Child, she raised close to $400,000 for youth at risk. For the event at the NAC, she secured funding to bring several aboriginal children from K.I. to talk about their community and the benefit of reconciliation projects. Many of them stayed in her small apartment.
She could do other films, she says: easier ones, funny ones. At Ryerson, she wrote comedy. But she cannot escape what she describes as her calling to help others. To her, it's simple: "I do as much advocacy as I do films, but I choose films that I can do advocacy on."