A David and Goliath story made in Manitoba

Biopic of Manitoba politician Elijah Harper is adventurous and inspiring

Billy Merasty stars as Aboriginal politician Elijah Harper in Elijah.

Generally, the term made-for-TV-movie evokes in my mind a parade of images of melodramatic narratives presented with only the most banal of filmic techniques. Thankfully, this is not the case with Elijah, the story of Native political leader Elijah Harper.

The film is a refreshingly visceral portrayal of one of the more controversial characters to appear on the Manitoban political scene in a long time.

The film, shot entirely on location in and around Winnipeg, is a highly stylized account of Harper’s life from his time spent in the notorious residential school system, through his arrival in Winnipeg, following his ultimate rise from band chief to MLA for the vast Rupertsland riding in Manitoba.

The crux of the film revolves around Harper’s opposition to the Meech Lake Accord, Brian Mulroney’s failed attempt (of sorts) at Canadian unification.

Although not a perfect film, I have to admire director Paul Urwin’s audacity and sense of adventure. This could have been the dullest of films, but Urwin’s stylistic flairs not only help to push his thematic ideas in intelligent and interesting ways, but he also manages to make something as tiresome as explaining a treaty fun to watch.

Of particular note are the two actors who play Harper and Assembly of First Nations vice-chief Phil Fontaine – Bill Merasty and Glen Gould, respectively. It’s not easy to play still living characters without devolving into caricature, a problem that occurs repeatedly throughout the film with other actors, but the pair pull off a daunting task and essentially carry the film on their shoulders.

Ultimately, the film is a David and Goliath story, an encouraging reminder that sometimes the little guy can make some difference no matter how much control those in power think they may have.

It’s a good message, especially given the current activity (or should I say inactivity) of another Harper.

Published in Volume 64, Number 17 of The Uniter (January 28, 2010)

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