Thursday, 23 April 2015

HOT DOCS 2015: SURVIVORS ROWE - Review By Greg Klymkiw *****

This is one of purportedly hundreds of children
viciously & mercilessly sexually assaulted by
former Anglican priest & Boy Scout leader Ralph Rowe.
Survivors Rowe (2015)
Dir. Daniel Roher
Prd. Peter O'Brian

Review By Greg Klymkiw

I doubt you're going to see a better short film at Hot Docs 2015 than Survivors Rowe. In fact, I doubt you're going to see a better short film all year than Survivors Rowe. There's something heroic about this picture - it's terrific filmmaking to be sure, but its subjects, all grown men who share their most deeply personal reminiscences of childhood are to be exalted to the highest degree imaginable.

The other heroic element, which cannot be ignored, is the commitment of the short's Producer Peter O'Brian to have offered his expertise, passion and artistry to director Daniel Roher's fine work. O'Brian is a legend. He's a genuinely heroic figure for having produced so many of Canada's greatest motion pictures including, but not limited to The Grey Fox with the late-greats Richard Farnsworth and Jackie Burroughs in one of the great westerns of all time - period - and One Magic Christmas with the astonishing Harry Dean Stanton as one of the most evocative (and dark) guardian angels in film history in (yes) one of the great films about Christmas - period!

What is not heroic is Canada itself and the country's insidiously grotesque and hateful history with respect to our aboriginal nations, a horrifying element of which is so artfully and powerfully exposed in Roher's short film. It is one of a multitude of inhuman(e) assaults upon Canada's Native People, one that began with colonialism and frankly, continues to this very day, especially in light of the hatred and disregard expressed by Canada's Chancellor (or is it Prime Minister?) Steven Harper, the leader of our country's Nazi party (or is it, the Conservative party?).

This is Canada's Prime Minister.
He and his government of intolerance
refuse to acknowledge the ever-prolonged
exploitation of Canada's Native People and the
heinous crimes perpetrated against them.
Colonialism, Hatred,
Human Rights Violations
and Apartheid
will continue under this
government's "leadership".
What's reflected in Survivors Rowe is at once, infuriating and on another level, infused with a sense of both healing and forgiveness - indicative of the fearlessness of its subjects and the skill with which Roher renders his film. Skillfully blending archival footage with knock-you-flat-on-your-back interviews, we're introduced to several young men - notably Joshua Frog, John Fox and Ralph Winter of Northern Ontario's Anishinaabe nation. They tell us their stories of living on isolated reservations, a strange combination of genuinely idyllic surroundings, but within the trappings of Canada's own system of apartheid. There are fond, memories, to be sure: living in the wilderness, a special bond with the natural world, skating on icy waterways, genuine play not rooted in the mind-destroying contemporary world of digital gaming and, at least initially, the dashingly dramatic arrival of Ralph Rowe, the rugged man's man who serves as a pilot, Boy Scout leader and Anglican priest.

Rowe is not only a charismatic, almost mythic figure, but he's actually taken the time to learn Native languages and dialects to converse with elders, adults his own age and kids. What nobody knows, what nobody could ever imagine, is that Ralph Rowe is a pedophile. The on-camera testaments delivered by the film's key subjects reveal some of the most harrowing, horrific and just plain malevolent acts perpetrated by this man of the wilderness, this man of God, this monster.

One of the most extraordinary things director Daniel Roher achieves here as a filmmaker is how he fashions any great narrative's need for an antagonist. On the surface, this figure is clearly Ralph Rowe, but as the film progresses, Rowe's external position as a villain, or rather, as an antagonistic force flows into the pain, sorrow, self-loathing and self-harm faced by the victims of his crimes. Then, even more extraordinarily, the antagonistic force of Rowe, his victims' suffering and the metamorphosis of this into the aforementioned process of healing, gives way to an even greater antagonist - a seemingly perpetual cycle of abuse which, is ultimately societal and must be actively addressed far more vigorously and openly than it is.

Ralph Rowe most likely sexually assaulted over 500 Native children and was, no doubt, responsible for a huge swath of suicides amongst both children and adults (not to mention residual effects upon subsequent generations). Unfortunately, the Canadian judicial system has only tried and convicted him for what amounts to a mere handful of sex crimes. He served a meagre five years in jail, was essentially handed a deal by the Crown to leave him be no matter how many accusations continue to surface and he lives a quiet, peaceful life in Surrey, British Columbia. Neither the Anglican Church nor the Boy Scouts have ever officially apologized to the victims and yet, those victims who did not commit suicide have endured decades and, if truth be told, lifetimes of living Hell.

On a purely aesthetic level, what Roher achieves here is a film that serves as a document of the suffering, torment and misery Ralph Rowe caused, but there is a strangely magical and poetic structure to the work which takes us from idyll to horror and finally and astoundingly, but perhaps necessarily, to forgiveness.

It's impossible to shake the impact this short film has. In fact, it has the sickening shock of a merciless cold-cock, blended with an elegiac, profoundly moving sense of loss and leavened with a kind of grace that not only reflects the deep humanity of the film's subjects, but shines a light of clemency upon a monster.

What the film cannot forgive, nor can any of us (I hope and pray), is the deep-seeded hatred and racism of colonialism which continues in Canada to this very day. If an Anglican priest and Boy Scout leader viciously sexually assaulted over 500 white children, would he still be living freely in society with the legal implication that he'll never serve more incarceration for his crimes, no matter how many continue to surface?

The answer is obvious.

Here's what convicted pedophile Ralph Rowe
looks like now in his comfy Surrey, B.C. environs.
It'd sure be nice to have a few more recent photos
out there for the safety of all children and families.
One final note about the heroism of the film's producer Peter O'Brian: Read his moving article in the Toronto Globe and Mail about the sexual assaults he suffered as a child and eventually came to terms with as an adult. Read it HERE.

And whatever you do, don't miss Survivors Rowe.

The Film Corner Rating: ***** Five Stars

Survivors Rowe is making its World Premiere at the 2015 edition of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. Visit the Hot Docs website for dates, showtimes and tickets by clicking HERE.