“Imagine you’re about to have a little one. The love that you have for that little one. Then imagine someone outside your family, someone you don’t even know, making claims on your little one. They don’t like the way you live, and they’re going to take your little one by force. Imagine what the loss is, when this is not just your family, but your entire community loses its children.”
That’s the opening narration to Boston filmmaker Adam Mazo’s short documentary “First Light,” which is screening on Sunday at SPACE Gallery in Portland. The 13-minute 2015 film examines the centuries-long policies of the U.S. government to remove Native American children from their families and their tribes, supposedly “for their own good,” and, specifically, Maine’s participation in this practice and how it led to the establishment of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2012.
The film, a wrenching yet lyrical mix of interviews with Maine native people and historical record, shows how the commission tracked down the now-adults who were separated from their families (something that happens five times more in native communities, even today), raised in often abusive foster care or group homes and, perhaps most damagingly, cut off from their own cultural traditions. In telling their stories, the commission’s goal is to recognize generations of untold accounts and also to label the systematic eradication of Native American culture as what many native people say it is: genocide.
“Genocide is a really charged term that brings up a lot of strong feelings,” said Mazo, whose previous documentary, “Coexist,” chronicled the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s.
“Americans have an easier time grappling with places that are ‘other,’ that are far away,” he continued. “Americans don’t like to acknowledge that this is a country built on genocide of native peoples. We don’t talk about it, it’s not taught, but a lot of people feel like it continues today, an eradication of a culture.”
The film’s Maine roots run deep, as the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission was the first such arrangement in any U.S. state, with leaders from five Maine tribes signing it with Gov. Paul LePage. For Mazo, then touring the country with “Coexist,” it was an opportunity to expand his mission, while bringing attention to the Maine native community.
“We felt like native people and people of color shouldn’t be the only ones doing the work,” Mazo said of him and his colleagues at Upstander Films. “For us, it’s really about being a bystander versus being an up-stander.”
Mazo’s mission continues with his next film, the feature-length “Dawnland,” which will expand on “First Light’s” subject matter.
Mazo will lead a post-film discussion alongside Upstander Project Learning Director Dr. Mishy Lesser and Penthea Burns, the co-director of Maine-Wabanaki REACH (which stands for reconciliation, engagement, advocacy, change and healing).
He said that, in taking “First Light” to film festivals, teacher conferences and venues like SPACE, his goal is to promote discussion and understanding, much like the commission does.
“We really want this to be a conversation where all views are heard and respected,” Mazo said. “We’re not interested in preaching to the choir, but about learning about hidden history that, not through fault of our own, many people don’t know.”
“First Light” will screen at SPACE Gallery in Portland on Sunday at 7 p.m. and will be followed by a discussion with director Adam Mazo and Maine-Wabanaki REACH Co-Director Penthea Burns and Upstander Project Learning Director Dr. Mishy Lesser. Admission is $8, $6 for SPACE members and students with ID. You can also watch the film here: upstanderproject.org/firstlight.
This story was updated at 12:05 p.m. on Nov. 17 to correct the time of the screening.
COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS
Friday: “Moonlight.” Oscar buzz abounds for director Barry Jenkins’ touching coming-of-age story about a young, gay black man and his complicated relationship with his family and his community.
Thursday-Sunday: “Equal Means Equal.” Director Kamala Lopez’s timely documentary examines the unequal treatment women in America continue to receive “from workplace matters to domestic violence, rape and sexual assault to the foster care system, the healthcare system and the legal system.”