Exclusive – Stephen Capanelli’s Indian Horse

There are atrocities in the world that go undetected and buried. Victims are silenced by their own humility and loss of dignity. The shame and abuse are sometimes too difficult to bear, resulting in a marred existence that can lead to alcoholism or suicide. Without accountability or justice for their abuse and suffering, there can be no healing or reconciliation. Authorities assigned to protect you are the very ones committing the crimes. Imagine the despair and feeling of hopelessness. I’m not talking about victims in another country half way round the world.  I’m talking about our own back yard, the residential schools.

Some 150,000 Indigenous children were removed and separated from their families and communities to attend residential schools. While most of the 139 Indian Residential Schools ceased to operate by the mid-1970s, the last federally-run school closed in the late 1990s. On June 11, 2008 the Harper government offered an apology and asked for forgiveness from the Aboriginal people of Canada. Recently, the Trudeau government has offered compensation to the victims in the form of money. Can you put a price on physical and sexual abuse? The damage is irreversible but the human spirit is capable of great things even in our darkest moments. Canadian government must never forget the tragic consequences of their reckless behavior. Their victims will never have that privilege.

Stephen Capanelli directed the feature film, Indian Horse. He had read a novel about the residential school system written by the late Ojibwa author, Richard Wagamese. It opened his eyes and changed his life. I was fortunate enough to watch a screener for the film and then speak with Stephen afterwards.


“Considering this story is based on a novel written by Richard Wagamese, was it difficult to adapt into a script?”

“Richard is an amazing writer that has such a poetic and cinematic style.  Dennis Moon did an incredible job of capturing that in the adaptation. The film is slightly toned down when portraying the abuse outlined in the book.  Although the abuse is a large part of the story, it was necessary to strike the right balance to propel the story forward instead of focusing too much on the pain and getting on with Saul’s journey.”


Saul Indian Horse is the focus of the film.  In this adaptation, Stephen Campanelli condemns Canada’s most deplorable transgression while celebrating our national game’s power of influence. Deteriorating in a residential school, Saul Indian Horse finds salvation on a sheet of ice. His hockey career blossoms but he is unable to escape the ramifications of past abuse. It is Saul’s inner strength that stands as a testament to the Indigenous peoples’ invincible spirit. 

Stephen Capanelli has been Clint Eastwood’s cameraman for 23 years. This story unfolds organically while creating empathy for the abused victims portrayed in the film. Stephen style of filmmaking is reminiscent of Eastwood. He’s familiar with his style and wanted to adopt it.


“How long did it take to shoot this film and where was the location?”

“We shot for 32 days starting in November and finished in December of 2016.  It was physically draining for the actors and crew. In some scenes it required the grandmother Naomi, played by Edna Manitowabi to swim through the water in the wintertime. We had a hot tub standing by and warm blankets on the ready to keep the actors comfortable and warm in between takes. It’s really important to take care of your actors. We filmed in Sudbury and Peterborough. Sudbury is a great period town and had a lot of old architecture. In Peterborough we transformed an old nuttery into the school The building is maintained by a non- profit organization and open to the public.”


Grandmother Naomi in the film was actually a victim of the residential schools. She was snatched from her parents at the age of six. She wanted to be part of this film to leave a legacy for her grandchildren and says,

“along with other survivors that its so important that these story’s are not forgotten and we keep talking about them.”


Stephen anticipates this film could be used as an education tool and hopes that in ten or twenty yrs. from now, people will still studying the meaning and the movement of film. It’s a real compliment for Stephen knowing that he is playing a part in helping to tell the survivor stories, generate conversion and continue the dialogue. This film is part of the TRUE NORTH series showing at VIFF.

His last film he directed was Momentum. It was an action thriller with explosions. This film was a big departure for him. He wanted to show that he could tell a story with interesting characters played by good actors. As a director, he also wanted to show that he could bring out the actors best performance. I believe he proved that.


“What was the casting procedure like?”

“We scoured all across Canada and the US. We wanted to find actors that weren’t well known. He wanted their faces to look believable, rather than a well-known actor. It was a lengthy process but it all worked out. We got lucky. The young actor, Sladen Peltier plays the six yr. old Saul. He was a phenomenal hockey player before being in the film. The two older Saul’s were average players but had body doubles that made them look much more skilled.”


“What was the best part about making this film?”

“The best part of making the film was about the story I learnt. It was the knowledge I got from reading the book and making the movie about what happened to these beautiful people. It changed my life.  Being able to meet a lot of indigenous people and learn about the culture and their ways, it was enlightening for me. That was the biggest gift I got out of this whole thing. If I was offered to do another Richard Wagamese novel, I’d jump at in a heart beat. It would be a real honor. Any kind of real life story is just so powerful.”


Forrest Goodluck, Ajuawak Kapashesit and Sladen Peltier portray Saul throughout various stages of his life. I was very fortunate to be able to meet and speak with Forrest and Ajuawak at Sutton Place. They were very welcoming. I asked Ajuawak a few questions first.


“How did you get involved in this film?”

“I had first heard about the film in Feb. of 2016 through my aunt. Screen Siren Pictures were producing it and had an open casting call on their website looking for actors. My aunt had seen it and sent it tome. They asked me for a tape stating who I was and where I came from. Once I sent the tape in it started the journey. They got back to me with some sides for different characters. We began sending tapes back and forth. I showed up on the set in November.”


Ajuawak lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Incidentally, his aunt claims she was his first agent. As soon as she heard he was getting into acting, she’d seek stuff out and send it to him. He’s been acting in theatre for 1 ½ years. Although living in the US, he was born in Moose Factory in northern Ontario. It was founded in 1673 and is the oldest English speaking community in Ontario.


“How familiar were you with the stories of residential schools?”

“Members of my family had gone to residential schools including my grandfather.  In the US, they have a similar system known as boarding schools. It’s effectively the same school system in place by the government. The story is not new to me and my family are familiar with them, and we all have some connection to them. When I read the book I thought it sounded very accurate to the same stories I’d heard from relatives. It really rang true.  When Dennis Foon adapted it into a screenplay and I read that, I found it very refreshing that he was so faithful to the book. Usually you need to change some things to accommodate the film.”


Ajuawak was on set for about six weeks.

When Forrest got involved as the younger teen Saul, he was friends with the casting agent, Renee Haynes. She has a keen eye for native stories that speak powerful truths.  Once he read the script he was floored. He read it a second time and knew he wanted to be part of it, even if it was for 5 minutes.


“How was your hockey skills before the film?”

“When I had auditioned I said I had hockey experience. Although I didn’t, after the audition I immediately started practicing. After a little more than a month I was playing pick up games.”


Coincidentally enough, Forrest had a stunt double too. Kyran Peltier, the brother of Bo Peltier that plays Ajuawak’s double. They’re also related to the younger Sladen Peltier. They come from a hockey family.


“How has the feedback been from some of the former victims of residential schools?”

“There has been a lot of good feedback from victims of residential schools and everywhere else the film has screened. Even if you haven’t been familiar with the history, audiences will have empathy for the characters and the story, due to how the writers, actors and director have collaborated their efforts. They’ve opened the audience up to a world of appreciating what the characters have gone through.”


At the end of the story, there is no big Hollywood ending wrapped up in a giant bow. In life, acceptance is messy and the film is consistent with real life endings.

Saul returns to his community to be reunited with old friends. Home at last.

The film has Canadian distribution by Elevation Pictures and they are still hoping to get into Sundance to tell this story in the US.

Yvis Bélanger was the DOP. He’s better known for The Dallas Buyers Club, Wild and Big Little Lies.

Stephen Capanelli is currently looking for his next project/film.

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