When Hugh Brody embarked on an experiment to interview aboriginal youth in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley in 2005, spending three years in prison was the last thing he expected to do. But that all changed when he met Angela George, a member of the Chehalis First Nation near Chilliwack, who was working at the time as a cultural liaison between her community and Kwìkwèxwelhp, a prison unlike any other on the planet.
In Kwìkwèxwelhp, anthropologist and filmmaker Brody found a minimum security prison with more than 50 percent native inmates, where local native ceremony and community involvement were being applied as a rehabilitation tool. As he learned more, Brody realized that this federal prison was the ideal venue to explore his underlying research interest: using film to communicate and affirm the stories and rights of aboriginal people.
“My goal was to understand this institution and what part aboriginal culture played in it,” says Brody, who holds a Canada Research Chair in Aboriginal Studies at the University of the Fraser Valley and has explored Canadian aboriginal culture and communities for 40 years. “Then I used film to capture this understanding.”
For nearly three years, Brody was given free access to roam the grounds of the prison with a cameraman in tow — an arrangement unprecedented in Canada, and perhaps the world. The result is The Meaning of Life, an 82-minute feature documentary that was released in October 2009 and continues to be shown in Canada and around the world. In turns funny, touching and heartbreaking, the film records the life stories of inmates both before and after their crimes and documents how their exposure to First Nations spirituality is offering a last chance for healing and, ultimately, freedom.
Brody’s research focus expanded as the interviews and filming progressed. The Meaning of Life shines a spotlight on the disproportionate number of aboriginal men languishing today in Canadian prisons and serves as a cautionary tale for all youth and an advocacy tool for more effective ways to rehabilitate native and non-native prisoners in Canadian jails.
During the film, the audience meets 43-year-old Rico, a journeyman woodcarver who has been behind bars since he was 16, with only brief breaks of freedom. Another man details how family and residential-school abuse devastated his life long before he turned to crime. And another, Darcy, is an articulate Metis triple murderer who emerges as a strangely sympathetic character, tortured by guilt for his crimes and desperate for redemption.
Central to the film is how aboriginal ceremony is applied as a healing tool. The Chehalis “welcome ceremony,” for example, which historically honoured the birth of a child, has been adapted to include the inmates (native and non-native alike) in a powerful symbol of rebirth. The inmates are each wrapped in a blanket in the Chehalis longhouse amid drumming, singing and the supportive presence of the local community.
Through Brody’s lens, we see that the active participation of the wider Chehalis community is a huge factor in what makes Kwìkwèxwelhp so unique and successful — the rates of recidivism seem to be markedly lower with inmates here than with those in other minimum security prisons.
Kwìkwèxwelhp program manager Angela George, who was responsible for bringing Brody into the prison, says the film is important because it introduces to a wide audience the idea that direct community involvement plays a key role in criminal rehabilitation.
“The film shows how effective corrections can actually work,” she says. “Every last one of these guys will be eligible to get out, and they’ll be my neighbour and your neighbour, so I think we’re safer if the community has something to contribute to that.”
“We hope the film raises the awareness of the people working in the prison system,” says Betsy Carson, who produced the film and has worked with Brody for 20 years. “Usually, social impact takes many years to percolate through a system, so it’s a little early to tell whether it has had an impact or not.”
Since its release, at least 500 copies of the film have been distributed around the globe, including to classrooms in British Columbia. Brody has appeared at many of the film’s showings, which are typically followed by discussions about creating a more effective corrections system. “It’s a remarkable thing what aboriginal culture can do because it is so welcoming and generous,” says Brody.
The inmates are gradually invited into the community, helping elders cut wood and process salmon and participating in the rich spiritual life of the Chehalis people.
“They are given a sense of identity, a sense of community,” says Brody, “and, for the first time for many of them, respect.”