Movie Review Paper-We Were Children
The movie ‘We Were Children’ derives its outline from a true story. The story is about over 150,000 native Indian children living in Canada who were removed from their homes ad forced to attend Catholic Indian Residential Schools in the 1850s. The facilitators claimed that the act was to help assimilate the children into Canadian society.
Lyna Hart and Glen Anaquod are the main actors in this story. These children were forcefully separated from their parents and put in a residential catholic school. These residential schools were run mostly by nuns and priest. To ensure this undertaking’s success, the parents who did not comply and were reluctant to let their children go were arrested and jailed.
It later emerged that the children in these residential schools were physically and sexually abused, as Lyna and Greg narrate in the film. These children were radicalized and stripped of their cultural, spiritual beliefs and family love. The children lost their original identity and picked new identities where they were referred to using numbers.
Lyna revealed her number as 39, while Greg failed to share his new identity. Their cultural beliefs were altered, and they were taught and made to believe that they are savages, and that their ancestors were also savages and thus were in hell. The children were taught new languages, English and French, emphasizing English, which the nuns and priests referred to as “God’s language”.
In her synoptic review of the movie, Weldon (2012) notes that several scenes in the movie depict how traumatic experiences one goes through in childhood affect adulthood. These children were separated from their families at a tender age. They were not allowed to visit their families and had very minimal communication with their families. This had a considerable impact on their psychological state and caused a high-stress level, especially on the younger children.
What is more, the nuns took their personal property away from them, they cut their hair and gave them new number names. As Lyna narrated in the interview, she felt that “Lyna” stopped existing and that the nuns and priests had wholly stripped her of her identity. The most outstanding features are the scenes that portray abuse and violence. One such scene is when Lyna refused to eat and was taken to the infirmary. Our expectation, in this case, is that Lyna would be handed over to a very compassionate person to address her problems.
What we see is quite different. The nurse force-fed Lyna, and when she refuses to eat still yet, she receives quite a hot slap and insults. The nurse harshly comments that she did not care whether Lyna ate or not, and even if Lyna died, she still did not care. In the infirmary, Lyna witnessed a rape case of a male student. Unfortunately for her, between the ages of four to six, she also became a victim of rape, which was no different for other children in the schools.
Glen was also severely abused. He narrates an incident when he requested to visit his parents but instead received a thorough beating and went ahead to be locked in a dark room for over a week. Glen was put in the infirmary for over a week after receiving a beating for attempting to run away from the school. The traumatic events are still fresh in these children’s minds.
The movie scenes raise many concerns and questions regarding why the schools were allowed to continue abusing and neglecting children for over a hundred years. Why were the abuse reports from the children ignored? Another issue causing alarm is that when investigations were undertaken, and staff found guilty, they were only relocated to other schools where they continued with the abuse and the allegations were covered.
Another issue of major concern is the Canadian government’s reaction after learning of the unfair treatment of the children. Why did it issue just a general apology? It is our duty as a society to protect our children, and as such, what can we do to prevent further abuse of the children?
Some scenes in We Were Children, especially those that involved Lyna, require therapeutic consideration. In her narration, she recalls several incidences where she was forced to use imagination to protect herself from the emotional, physical and mental trauma that she was facing. She narrates how she used to focus her thoughts on her family land during times of significant stress. The movie portrays a scene where she could not speak English well and was forced to hold her tongue in the classroom for more than thirty minutes. Another scene identified in the movie is when the priest raped her.
Lyna explained that in her imagination, she felt safe as nobody could intrude into her imagination and know what was happening in there. This process is commonly referred to as dissociation, and it serves to avoid stress. From another perspective, dissociation is adaptive for adolescents and children who want to cope in situations involving violence (Shin, Goldstein & Pick 2019). Shin et al. (2019) further argue that dissociation brings about emotional numbness, which helps one cope in emotional torture situations. It, however, adversely affects the individual’s response to positive stimuli.
Focusing on Lyna’s rape incidence, the incident must have been the most traumatic in her life since she was incredibly young at the time. This, however, does not demean the scene of the classroom incident as it is equally traumatic. At that time, she could only resolve to dissociation to have emotional relief. As a therapist, I would employ several measures to aid in her recovery. I would use cultural competencies, acknowledging and respecting her culture during the therapy sessions.
This step ensures I build trust that was not present in the schools as the nuns and priests did not respect her culture. I would provide psychoeducation to Lyna and let her know the effects of the trauma she experienced as a child on her childhood and adulthood exerperiences. During her childhood, I would have administered a test to determine her trauma level using the UCLA Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Reaction Index.
I would also recommend Trauma-Focused Behavior Therapy (TF-CBT). Cohen, Deblinger and Mannarino (2018) contend that the main objective of TF-CBT is to disrupt the psychological development process. The therapy empowers youngsters and their families in overcoming and learning from traumatic experiences. TF-CBT helps teach relaxation and coping skills. A therapist would recognize and let Lyna know that her dissociation use was to ensure she copes with the trauma around her and go further to explain that additional skills are necessary to ensure long-term coping.
Using TF-CBT, I would let her know that the rape incidence was wrong, and most importantly, it was not her fault, and she had no control over it. I would be empathetic and emotionally supportive and provide a safer environment to enhance the therapeutic process. Effective management using psychological therapy could prove critical in ensuring Lyna copes effectively and overcomes the traumatic experiences.
When individuals are entrusted with children’s care and well-being, and they horrifically abuse them, I must admit as a clinician dealing with abused children it is difficult to watch it all go away. As Weldon (2012) reports, more than 150,000 children suffered traumatic experiences at an early age, some as early as two. Trauma has a vast effect on the development of a child. Furthermore, the children were not offered an environment where they could grow and learn effectively despite being taught in Catholic Residential Schools that offered catholic education.
Instead, the environment only brought chaos and trauma to these youngsters. The movie focused on the children, but we cannot demean that the parents must have also undergone a great deal of psychological trauma. As a parent, I would live with guilt, pain and anger of having to let my child be taken away from me at the expense of going to jail. It is traumatic to live knowing you gave away your four or 3-year-old child out of fear of going to prison.
We Were Children raises several concerns to me as a mental health practitioner. It is heartbreaking to know that there were no ethical guidelines that guided the treatment of mental health issues for many years. Additionally, caregivers, practitioners, teachers and others were allowed to harm children without facing any legal consequences. It is paramount that counsellors induce no pain or harm to study participants (Kaplan et al., 2017). The film depicts the importance of applying rules and regulations regarding the professional care of participants.
The film validates the idea that childhood abuse often goes unreported, unnoticed and many times overlooked. The instance of Glen, for example, shows that attempts to report abuse by the victims largely went unaddressed. Glen, at some point, ran away from the school to her aunt’s place.
The aunt called the school and returned him there, claiming that she did not want him to destroy his future. She did not know that the poor boy was ruthlessly punished and put in a dark room for attempting to escape the traumatic environment. Children who reported having been raped by the priests were shunned down and told that priests would not carry out such heinous acts. The parents blocked their attempt to get help.
My view as a clinician is in line with Wekerle and Kerig’s (2017) finding that reports from children, especially those involving sexual violence, should be received and treated as urgent. The traumatic experiences had implications on their adulthood. Lyna says she doubted God and the church for a long time while Glen resolved to alcohol and, at some point, contemplated suicide. The events remind us to be constantly mindful and kind to others, for we do not know what trauma they are going through. More so, people we encounter daily have hidden traumatic experiences that we know little about, and we should be cautious about how we treat them.
Watching We Were Children from a therapist’s point of view, there are a few scenes which I find palatable. Only in a few instances did the staff of the residential school properly conduct themselves. The writer discusses different instances, among them, when a young nun also tried to empathize with Lyna by consoling her. It was frightening for her to have someone, except her mother, touch her. Secondly, the scene where nun tried to show compassion to children by cuddling them, only for the priest to tell her that it was not beneficial.
When Glen was found locked in a dark room for one week, a nun helped him out, bathed him and tried to protect him. She also confronted the priest who had locked him. Yet we realize that the nun was sent away following her intervention. Towards the end, Lyna and another child are taken to the kitchen and fed by a nun who found Lyna trying to feed the baby. Taking care of children who have been through traumatic experiences helps build their trust.
In the film, the children were neither allowed to speak in their languages nor practice any of their beliefs, something that only amount to identity deprivation. The school staff also eradicated their original Indian beliefs. Furthermore, the children were ridiculed, and sexually and physically abused. Besides, they were deprived of Maslow’s basic biological and physiological needs, air, food, shelter and warmth (Hopper, 2019). It could be difficult for these children to do well in school and advance when their caretakers took no steps to meet these needs. It is vital to meet the basic needs of a child before considering anything else.
It is most likely that children who grow in residential schools carry into adulthood the scary experiences they encounter there. The effect of attempting to eliminate “the Indian child” amounted to violence, drove the victims to suicide and resulted in shattered families. The film does an excellent job in depicting the plight of children under the guardianship of Catholic Indian Residential Schools.
It offers a historic perspective of the traumatic events that characterized the lives of children during the said era, but one which is relatable to contemporary events regarding childcare and guardianship. From a psychologist’s point of view based on the film, it is essential to understand the clients past to provide compassion and empathy and work from a culturally sensitive perspective, especially when such a client has a past history of physical and sexual abuse as depicted in the film.
- Cohen, J. A., Deblinger, E., & Mannarino, A. P. (2018). Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy for children and families. Psychotherapy Research, 28(1), 47-57. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10503307.2016.1208375?casa_token=9jLpMewoaXwAAAAA:zx6RVi68fMDr0ihlt9qADXvDxn3QvzjJSGDnkTafYqK1OHL55cYYhJU8HJXz7WYIizF1RUY7OGU4CvmNUw
- Hopper, E. (2019). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs explained. Viitattu, 12, 2019. http://www.christianworldmedia.com/client/docs/603_1585079540_17.pdf
- Kaplan, D. M., Francis, P. C., Hermann, M. A., Baca, J. V., Goodnough, G. E., Hodges, S., … & Wade, M. E. (2017). New concepts in the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics. Journal of Counseling & Development, 95(1), 110-120. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/jcad.12122?casa_token=Q7NDUVu21zQAAAAA:-Y8V2x_Bf_H8zENpduqAE928SkB_KvUWADn6OzUndJWMHhFIw8j8koG8Ois2njdOcphowhPMDoQzd6TLgA
- Shin, G. I., Goldstein, L. H., & Pick, S. (2019). Evidence for subjective emotional numbing following induced acute dissociation. Behaviour Research And Therapy, 119, 103407. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0005796719300877
- Wekerle, C., & Kerig, P. K. (2017). Sexual and non-sexual violence against children and youth: Current issues in gender, trauma and resilience. Journal of Child & Adolescent Trauma, 10(1), 3-8. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%252Fs40653-017-0130-7
- Weldon, C. (2012). We Were Children: 2 Residential School Survivors Share Story in Powerful New Film. Accessed 3rd March 2021 From https://blog.nfb.ca/blog/2012/10/02/we-were-children/