Though the story of alcohol and drug addiction among First Nations people is an old one, it’s one rarely told, and a telling of it with any real empathy or understanding is even rarer. To an extent, then, one can forgive Dennis Allen’s Crazywater for being a “message documentary,” considering how important and personal that story is to him: Allen (Inuvialuit Nation) grew up an alcoholic himself, among many others just like him. After he had traversed the road to recovery, he started looking for ways to help turn the tide for his community at large. When he discovered a book by Brian Maracle (which shares its title with this film), itself a document of addiction and recovery among Natives, he knew what he had to do. The film Crazywater is Allen’s attempt to continue the work that Maracle started, expounding on its core message with several firsthand stories about the pain of addiction and the power of recovery.
Alcoholism runs in Allen’s family, and his culture at large: in his hometown, he estimates that half the children come from alcohol/drug-abusing households. Poverty and depression run rampant on Canadian reservations, and controlled substances are never hard to find, making widespread addiction seem like a foregone conclusion.
The stories that Allen shows in his film are desperate and heartbreaking, and many of the people Allen speaks with share his concern for community: when one woman says that, by breaking the cycle of abuse with her children, she’s breaking the cycle within her nation, you can’t help but feel for her and all those in similar circumstances. The backdrop for this abuse is captured with wonderfully patient, austere camerawork; it’s a beautiful-looking film, desolate and cold yet sunny, making the most of mid-grade DV technology.
That said, the film’s skewed balance in favor of successful recovery stories, while understandable, is perhaps not ultimately effective towards Allen’s apparent goal of curtailing abuse. One can listen to people’s stories of past suffering and learn from them, but a picture speaks a thousand words. Seeing the suffering of addicts firsthand, while painful, would have yielded a more powerful film, one that speaks more directly to the difficulty of overcoming addiction. Nonetheless, Allen deserves credit for telling this little-discussed story with both hope and empathy.
[Screens 8/20 at Portland’s Northwest Film Center, with director Dennis Allen in attendance.]