Across the world, people are asking themselves about the role they play in maintaining and perpetuating systemic racism. As worldwide protests persist in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the Black Lives Matter movement forces us all to reflect upon, and seek to rewrite, the standard narrative we have all been a part of. Learning to understand and accept what it means to have white privilege on a global scale has meant confronting and condemning the echoes of colonialism everywhere, and listening to stories about the disenfranchised in both our past and present is a necessary step in the path to change. Today’s short, Gas Can, is of a piece with this project—an attempt to reconcile the past with the attitudes of the present, as its filmmaker draws upon his personal family history in order to thoughtfully deal with its legacy, and his privilege.
Mattias Graham’s short film, Gas Can, addresses racism head-on through its nuanced depiction of tensions between the Indigenous people of Saskatchewan, Canada and its white settlers in the 1970s. It is a strikingly relevant film for the moment, as its distillation of racial discrimination is artfully depicted through a series of slights that build up to a crescendo. As Graham reflects in his narrative, it’s oftentimes the seemingly unimportant or small life moments that stick with us the most and are easier to examine later. When a Native American man runs out of gas while moving his family to the city, he asks an old farmer for help, only to confront racial hostility. Graham’s story is more profound than its surface-level conflict though, and perhaps you will watch this film and reevaluate your past exchanges with a new lens.
“I’m no racist, but I’d never hire a Native man again. Let me tell you why.”
To look inward and reflect on things that make us feel uncomfortable can be as defining as they are damning. The descendant of settlers to Treaty 4 (Saskatchewan) in Canada, Graham recalled a story that his grandfather told him, which started with “I’m no racist, but I’d never hire a Native man again. Let me tell you why.” Struck by the implications of his contradictory words, he wondered how the other person would tell their side of the story. This empathy led Graham on a quest to make a film from the perspective of a Native and proved more challenging than he ever thought possible.
In early test screenings of the film, audiences were very sympathetic to the white farmer. “In trying to make a film about racism, I’d inadvertently made a racist film! That was a major (if not obvious) lesson in point of view and that spending more time with characters creates empathy.” In light of this feedback, Graham re-structured the film to make Anthem (the Indigenous man) the main character and had Simon Moccasin and Candy Fox, who play Anthem and his wife, Janie, record additional voice-over dialogue to bookend the film. Graham’s own reckoning with privilege is quite commendable, displaying two undisputed truths in his film—the explicit story of Gas Can is, on the white side, how racism alienates us from human decency and hurts us by making the other antagonists, while, on the non-white side, the film’s tragedy is how racist conduct forces people into behaviors that are self-fulfilling of the negative stereotype. But ultimately, Gas Can illustrates the unapologetic need for survival. After all, the fight to exist within a shared space and fend for your family is hardly evil, as Graham so beautifully displays throughout the film.
The Saskatchewan prairies have a complicated history of exploitation: land theft, broken treaties, residential schools, and starvation policies are all injustices that control Indigenous people to this day. Many settlers struggle to confront their role in perpetuating inequity and it was Graham’s intention, in part, to set the film in the past to help people let their guard down and absorb the story in a more subtle way. Upon its first screening of the film in Saskatchewan, an audience member rightfully pointed out that its period-setting felt unnecessary—the same story is still happening.
“No one should feel unsafe in their own homelands.”
There exists a feeling that these retrograde attitudes are a thing of the past, but, despite 70’s backdrop of the story, Canadian audiences were well aware of the threat of violence that Anthem could face when he stepped onto a landowner’s property for gas to fill his truck. Graham recalls how the death of Colten Boushie in 2016 and the unjust verdict from its subsequent 2018 trial was a flashpoint for many Canadians. When a young Cree man from Red Pheasant First Nation in Saskatchewan, Boushie was shot and killed by settler land owner Gerald Stanley after he and his friends drove onto Stanley’s land with a flat tire. Stanley was acquitted. “No one should feel unsafe in their own homelands, and my hope is that the ending to this film ultimately provides an optimistic and hopeful note as Anthem and Janie continue their journey,” Graham tells Short of the Week.
Most non-white people face what feels like a mountain of micro-aggressions like those depicted in Gas Can and we must recognize those instances and combat them with a keener perspective. Made as a collaboration between Graham’s Montreal-based creative community and a crew back in Graham’s home in Saskatchewan, Gas Can’s insightful and nuanced portrayal of race relations won Best of Saskatchewan (Ruth Shaw Award) at Yorkton Film Festival 2017, Best Short Film and Audience Choice at Saskatchewan Independent Film Awards 2017, and Best Canadian Film and Best Director at Festival of Time 2018. Graham is currently working on a short drama called Bleach about a teenage swimmer trying to connect with his teammates and brother following sexual abuse from his coach.
Making its online debut today, Gas Can is an incredibly poignant film during a time when all eyes are on racial injustice and the system that enables white privilege. We hope it will open your eyes as much as it did our’s.