Sackville Film Society: a retrospective

Kicking off another great year of social screenings for Sackville’s longest running society

“Really, the way cinema should be experienced is in a collective, in a group,” said Thaddeus Holownia. “On a big screen, surrounded by the sound, so it really takes you emotionally, in a physical kind of way, into another place.” The Sackville Film Society, a group in which Holownia is a major operating force, kicked off their season this past Thursday, Sept. 13. Their first film was Stephen Campanelli’s Indian Horse.

The Sackville Film Society has been a staple of Sackville’s cultural landscape for a long time. “It’s the longest running society in town,” Holownia said. Originally, when Holownia arrived in Sackville in the 1970s, the society was an infrequent, informal event. Trying to make it more formal, he and a Mount Allison student, Gordon Monaghan, revamped the society to have weekly showings. However, since they had no pull with film distributors, they were limited to showing older films on somewhat antiquated 16mm reels.

The sackville film society showed their first film of the year, indian horse, last thursday at the vogue theatre. Emma Biberdorf/argosy

This all changed with the advent of the Atlantic Independent Cinema Exhibitors, a group which included the Sackville Film Society. Together, they had enough clout to get current, relevant films. This allowed the society to adopt the programming style it still uses today: modern films widely varying in topic and style.

Holownia’s hope to encourage conversation at these screenings is evident in his process of choosing films: “It’s a combination of things that I know I can get, things that people want that would be good, and things like Indian Horse, which I feel is a really important film that should be shown in the community and won’t come otherwise,” Holownia said.

Despite their ability to get topical films today, six years ago things weren’t great for the Sackville Film Society. “People weren’t coming out.… You could buy a membership for eight bucks. And you could get into all the films for five bucks. I was giving it away,” Holownia said. He announced that the society would end – the numbers were so small that it was unsustainable.

Holownia, and many theatre owners, partly attribute declining movie theatre attendance to the ease of film streaming, online video, and other technological distractions. “I always make a big deal about people socializing, coming early,” Holownia said. “People often stay afterwards to talk about the movie.” This experience has become unusual in the age of watching movies on your laptop – movies are for distraction, not discussion. The Sackville Film Society believes the opposite is true: The only time you shouldn’t talk about a movie is when it’s playing.

Ironically, the announcement that the society would be ending generated a lot of interest from the community outside of Mount Allison, which helped to fill out the Vogue for screenings, allowing it to continue. Even today, Holownia explained, the crowds are 25 per cent students and 75 per cent townspeople, when they used to be 70 per cent students and 30 per cent townspeople. The students don’t seem interested, but the general audience size is slowly increasing. “People are starting to understand that going to the movies, and a big screen, is actually a really good thing. We’re so lucky to have that little theatre, in Sackville,” Holownia said. “You’ve got to support it.”

Unfortunately, the turnout for Indian Horse is only fine, marking a subdued start to the season. The crowd size is good but not great; there is enough space for everyone to comfortably sprawl themselves out. The makeup of the crowd is as Holownia described: not many students, mostly people from town eagerly anticipating the film.

Despite the limited crowd size, familiar, happy chattering fills the auditorium before the show starts. People wave at each other across the auditorium and as they walk down the aisles. They quickly exchange greetings while searching for the best seats. Holownia briefly welcomes everyone to the screening, and as the lights dim and the previews begin, people shut up. It feels quieter than a regular theatre – people barely move and are totally committed to experiencing this film as they follow it wherever it takes them. Holownia is right on the money: When a crowd is into a movie, it’s electric. The tension is higher, the laughter is more intense, the sensations are amplified.

Regardless of the unfortunately subdued attendance, this season for the Sackville Film Society is off to an excellent start.

Indian Horse is an exceptional, vital, deeply Canadian film. Based on Richard Wagamese’s novel of the same name, it follows Saul Indian Horse’s life. The man himself is played by three brilliant actors at various stages of life: Sladen Peltier at six, Forrest Goodluck at 15 and Ajuawak Kapashesit at 22.

The audience sees his years spent at St. Jerome’s residential school: miserable and unsettling. Watching it is profound but never gratuitous. His time as a semi-professional hockey player is triumphant and tragic, as his deepest passion is poisoned by frequent, isolating encounters with racism.

The whole narrative plays in a fragmented, episodic way that attempts to show Saul sorting through his own trauma. This structure works, painting a clear emotional portrait of a man who internalized endless toxicity. It’s all captured beautifully by Yves Bélanger’s cinematography, which portrays an authentic-feeling Canada of the 1980s with infrequent moments of natural beauty and excellent, emotive close-ups.

When the movie ended there was a palpable daze in the theatre, like an emotional bomb had gone off. The entire audience seemed to be wrestling with Indian Horse and its message. One thing was clear, though: This challenging, enriching and rewarding experience wouldn’t happen without the Sackville Film Society.

Screenings are every Thursday of the year, a different movie each time. Check out their exciting programming on Facebook.

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