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VIFF 2015 Interview: THE PASS SYSTEM director Alex Williams

by Jason Whyte

"For over 60 years, many First Nations in Western Canada were not allowed off reserve without a pass. The system was illegal and the government knew it. The film is an investigation of the system through the eyes of those whose families experienced it, narrated by esteemed actor and activist Tantoo Cardinal." Director Alex Williams on THE PASS SYSTEM which screens at the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival.

Tell me a bit about yourself, your background and how you got to this point!

I grew up in Saskatchewan, where one could hardly think that racial segregation should be possible: the prairie stretches out forever in every direction in the world's second biggest country. When I started researching the film, I was interested in possible links between Canada and South Africa. The particularities of this connection rapidly fell away when I realized how little was known about the pass system. Many historians I talked to said this was a very interesting topic, and conceded that there were many remaining questions about the system. It also appeared that there was very little research with Elders about their families' experience of the system, and how it tied in with residential schools, and another system of restrictions; people weren't allowed to buy or sell anything without permission from the Indian Agent. The agents themselves were very powerful men. They had judicial powers in Western Canada and could summon the RCMP. The passes themselves were very rare as well and few historians had actually seen one. The historical record, I found out, largely concluded that the system wasn't effective, but this was based on a lack of evidence and a lack of passes. When I found three passbooks from three different eras that were virtually unknown to historians, I knew the system may have been more widespread than previously known. When a letter turned up in research from the head of Indian Affairs stating that all passbooks be sent to Ottawa to be destroyed, it was clear this needed investigation. But the real information was to be found in the stories of how this system affected people; the First Nations who had to ask for passes to go hunting on their traditional territory, to sell their grain, to get married, or to visit their children taken from them to residential schools, the effects of which require no explanation. It was their stories that mattered most.

There were many moments that strengthened my resolve to work on this film. One would be when I sat down with the official government Historian for Indian Affairs, there's only one, said he thought I had more documents than they did. I didn't know how on earth that could be possible, but there was no turning back.

Interesting back story. So from that, how did THE PASS SYSTEM eventually get turned into a movie?

This film began in 2010 as the result of a conversation between myself and Nlaka'pamux playwright Tara Beagan. It evolved into this film over five years of consultations with Elders, archival research, and conversations with historians, but in 2010, I borrowed money and drove from Toronto and all across the prairies looking to speak to Elders, do archival research, and basically find anything I could about the system. It was the 125th anniversary of the events of 1885 (The Northwest Resistance), which gave John A. Macdonald the dubious pretext to institute a system he knew had no basis in law. I covered 17,000 km, and shot everything myself. On the way back, I was in an accident that totaled the car I had travelled so many roads on. Everyone walked away, thankfully, although it was in Northern Ontario and I had to get back. Due to a bizarre coincidence, the mayor of the Town of Schrieber happened to be a family friend. It was like this though throughout the film. I stayed with people who gave me leads to pursue the next question.

When I came back there was a lot of ground to cover at the National Archives in Ottawa, although what didn't turn up there is almost as interesting as what did. I was able to find an admission from the head of Indian Affairs admitting the system had no basis in law, but that he thought it was in the interest of the First Nations to stay on their reserves. He also went so far as to instruct the Indian Agents in the field to keep the system's illegality from First Nations people, presumably to use the unknown as a coercive measure to enforce compliance of the pass system. The most damming quote from him is in my opinion "All we can do is keep the true position from the Indians (sic) as long as possible."

What was shocking though was that there weren't any passbooks at the National Archives, nor any instructions to Indian Agents on how to enforce the policy. They are simply not there. There are only two passes in the system's over 56 year history. I later learned that there is a system of triage that happens before documents make their way to the National Archives; they are selected for historical value by each branch of the government. So they choose what is sent to the Archives. In fact, during the time of the pass system's enforcement, the National Archives was not obliged to house ALL government documents. The Archives act said it only MAY hold documents from each branch of government.

About two years later, Executive Producer James Cullingham came on board the project. His production company Tamarack had done similar work, and he suggested we work with Igal Hecht as editor. When the Canada Council, Ontario Arts Council and Toronto Arts Council all came through with some funds for the film, we could then finish the filming, and move to post production. I am very honoured that both Tantoo Cardinal (Narration) and Cris Derksen (Music) joined the project. Working with several of the country's top indigenous and settler historians allowed me to feel confident that material in the film would be historically accurate, and hopefully strike a chord of and be something meaningful.

While you were making THE PASS SYSTEM, what was the drive that kept you going while making it?

Pretty simply, the soul of the film, the question it asks. To me, nothing else matters.

Was there any major challenges with making the movie? It sounds pretty compelling to work on it.

I think one of the biggest challenges, apart from missing documents, and perennial funding challenges accorded to any independent filmmaking, was and still is for many non-Aboriginal people to feel connected to the story of what happened here. Many I've encountered still think this is a First Nations story, and rarely think it's a Canadian one. The history of colonization of this land, and how it continues, is a story that all Canadians, in my view, need to accept and ultimately embrace as our own, in order to make stories that are rooted in our real identity, not one predicated on the falsehood that this country was somehow benignly settled. There have been many questions over the years about what makes us "Canadian". The thing that's most obvious, the thing that is overlooked, is the thing that is right in front of us; it's colonization, and it hasn't stopped, it has just changed. It's more bureaucratic now, more polite, more framed by rules and legislation. It is good that at least the courts are beginning to officially recognize the legitimacy of treaties and oral history as examples. But as a filmmaker, I see my job as a much more emotional one. I hope people will better understand the basic assault on dignity that this system represents, above and beyond its more tangible impacts of poverty and rates of incarceration, as primary examples.

If you had to pick a single favourite moment out of the entire production, what would it be?

Playing a rough cut of the film for people in the film. The fear that they wouldn't like it. Thankfully, that wasn't the case. The story was too emotionally intense for me to feel possessive about it that way. I more felt like there was no turning back; that Elders had trusted me with their stories, and it was my job to live up to that trust.

When I realized also just how much documentation had apparently been lost or destroyed, I knew there was an investigation that needed to happen. There still is. Many communities may still not know to what lengths the government went to keep the story from First Nations and a lot of people still mistakenly think it was incorporated into the Indian Act. Many passes may still be yet to be found. And there's another system that has emerged: the travel warrant. The system appears to stop in 1941, although Elders' reports say the system went much further than that, in some cases as late as the sixties. There's one of these stories in the film.

Talk to me about how you achieved the look and design of the movie for all the tech-crazy people who read our site.

I shot this myself entirely on a Canon 5D mkii, with a Zoom h4n and h6, using a couple Lav mics I bought on a payment plan at Long & McQuade. I had an old camera tripod and bought a small fluid head. I used available light, and occasionally rented lights and other gear from the many artist-run centres across the prairies. They're covered under a mutual agreement, so I could rent them cheaply.

Sounds like you are excited to bring this to VIFF audiences! What are you looking forward to the most?

The reactions of the audience. I made this film to provoke reflection and discussion. I hope it does that.

Where is this movie going to show next? Any theatrical release?

At the Yellowknife International Film Festival, right after this one. We're planning a cross country tour and have over ten different venues. We're also planning on bringing it to First Nations communities, particularly in Saskatchewan and Alberta.

There are many aspiring filmmakers reading us for our articles and reviews on If you could offer a nugget of advice to them on how to get their start, what would you say to them?

Think with your heart about what you love. Make a movie about that. In my case, it's dignity. Start arbitrarily, and follow your nose. Get the best people you can around you, and learn from them. Don't choose a small subject as it won't sustain you. Choose something you don't understand, and may not be understandable. Document the un-understandable. Learn more about sound than about camera. And talk to a lawyer early. Real early.

And finally, what is the best movie you have ever seen at a film festival, and why?

Very hard to say. The one that comes to mind, although there are many, is Rithy Panh's THE MISSING PICTURE, a heartbreaking account of his family during the Khmer Rouge, told through clay figurines, archival footage and video. Totally unique and completely moving.

Be sure to follow the progress of THE PASS SYSTEM online on Twitter at @ThePassSystem or on Facebook!

This is one of the many films screening at the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival taking place in beautiful Vancouver from Septembe 24th to October 9th. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to or use the VIFF app for Android and iOS.

Jason Whyte,
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte

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originally posted: 09/22/15 05:14:42
last updated: 09/22/15 13:49:39
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