Mainewhile: Film shines light on a dark time in Maine

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Spring is here, at least in theory, and with it thoughts of fresh starts and new beginnings.

In that vein, I am recommending everyone go see “Dawnland,” a movie that is coming out this month. This isn’t an easy movie, to watch or to find, but it is well worth the effort.

“Dawnland” will be released in cinemas, and at festivals. It just premiered at the Cleveland International Film Festival, and Camden International Film Festival (CIFF) is talking about it a great deal. You can find play times and locations through social media. As I say though, it won’t be easy to watch.

“Dawnland” is a documentary that tells the story of some powerful and painful wrongs. The movie follows the work of the Maine-Wabanaki Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

In Maine, we are not that familiar with truth commissions. Chances are, the thing that comes to mind when you hear that phrase is South Africa. That was where the first major truth commission was held, to unravel the wrongs of apartheid. Since then, the structure has been used in other nations, as well as here in the U.S.

The difference is that usually a truth commission comes in after a major upheaval and civil unrest. The people involved all know what has happened, and why the commission is necessary. That is not the case in Maine.

Maine’s TRC was established to investigate the illegal taking of native children by the state. The facts in the case are not being debated. The state confirms what happened and its role in it. Most people living here, however, do not know this dark chapter in our history, why it happened, how damaging it was, or how recently this happened. There is no ongoing conversation about the lasting effects if intergenerational trauma or systemic racism.

The goal of the TRC was to increase public awareness, give voice to those who were harmed, and work towards healing. The movie follows the people and communities involved, and begins to fully tell the story.

I would be remiss if I did not disclose that I have a vested interest in this project. I served on the TRC for the first year. Owning my role in this project is a double-edged issue. I am both enormously proud of the work, and also enormously ashamed. Here’s where it gets really tricky to talk about, because in talking about my work, I am replicating where I went wrong in the first place, like the Celtic snake eating its own tail.

It is difficult to examine and take apart one’s own privilege without accidentally making that the center of the conversation. Which it shouldn’t be. That’s sort of the point. So I disclose my relationship, and return to the topic.

“Dawnland” is powerful. The filmmakers worked closely with the tribal communities of Maine and with the TRC. They were in the room, cameras rolling, for a lot of painful conversations. They captured grief and agony, joy and celebration. Watching the film, you are witness to the grief of losing family and culture, of growing up being told that who you were was not allowed. The film also reveals the brave and visionary work being done to reclaim self and home.

All of us are called to pay attention and bear witness. We are all called to begin the hard and uncomfortable work of examining our own lives and assumptions. We are all called to engage in learning how to be better neighbors and repair the wrongs here at home. Chances are you will leave this movie with more questions than answers. Nothing about the issue is easy, or simple.

However, chances are you will also leave this movie wiser, more aware, and deeply inspired. I hope that we as a state, and as a nation, do what must be done and begin the hard work of righting these wrongs, within ourselves and our communities.

Brunswick resident Heather D. Martin wants to know what’s on your mind; email her at