This Sask First Nations spelling bee doc earns its buzz

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Bee Nation
August 3–6

RPL Film Theatre

Bee Nation is about an event with tension, drama and personal achievement ingrained in its DNA: the First Nations Provincial Spelling Bee competition, the first ever for Saskatchewan’s Indigenous communities.

Director Lana Slezic picks a handful of kids from the Kahkewistahaw reserve and shows their lives and their preparation for the event. The spelling bee pool consists of 4,000 words and there’s no standard training, and the level of parental support fluctuates wildly. Her approach lets distressing information slip through the fun message, like the fact schools on reserves receive considerable less money per student, forcing administrators to make hard decisions.

The children Slezic picks as main subjects are all overachievers, with strong personalities: Mikayla is your traditional good student, William thinks failure is devastating and the bullied Savannah is a model of personal drive. In each case, their parental figures see education as a way out, a chance to see a world beyond the reserve.

Heartbreak is unavoidable for the scrappy underdogs (the winners of the provincial chapter get to travel to Toronto to compete against private school kids with tutors), but it makes for great cinema. It’s hard not to root for these kids or share the excitement of their first flight.

At a tidy 78 minutes, Bee Nation feels a bit stately (it’s presented under the CBC Docs banner, and the public broadcaster vibe shows), but the story’s power transcends the formula. ❧