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'Older Than America' traces boarding school echoes

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DULUTH, Minn. - When it comes to movie-making, teaching audiences begins with entertaining them, says actor-director Georgina Lightning, whose directorial debut can be seen in the newly released ''Older Than America.''

''This is going to be an education, but I want first to be entertaining,'' Lightning, Cree, from Alberta, Canada, said of her new movie.

''Older Than America'' steps into the story of Rain (played by Lightning) who is haunted (or perhaps more rightly, enlightened) by visions of children dressed in old-fashioned school uniforms and of her own family's past.

Rain fears that she is developing the ''schizophrenia'' suffered by her mother, but comes to learn the truth about her mother's affliction along with other family and community secrets. Ultimately, the story reveals how the transgressions of the past at a boarding school echo into the here-and-now through the lives of former students and of the current generation, like Rain, who were never there.

Such echoes are familiar throughout Indian country in both the United States and Canada. Lightning wanted to express that experience of Indian people and also to educate non-Indians about what happened at boarding schools.

''I was trying to make it for a general audience,'' Lightning said of the film. However, she hopes that it will help with healing within her own and other Native communities.

Even during the filming, she knew the importance of telling this type of story about boarding schools. The local people used in the film let her know it.

''Extras just pulled me aside to tell me their stories and they couldn't tell them without crying.''

Lightning, who has been involved in the industry for about 17 years, was able to assemble a top-quality cast for her independent film that includes veteran actors Adam Beach, Saulteaux Ojibwe (''Flags of Our Fathers,'' ''Windtalkers''); Tantoo Cardinal, Cree (''Dances With Wolves,'' ''Smoke Signals,'' ''Legends of the Fall''); and Wes Studi, Cherokee (''Geronimo: An American Legend,'' ''Dances With Wolves,'' ''Mystery Men'').

Other familiar actors include Glen Gould, Membertou First Nation (''Into the West,'' ''One Dead Indian''); Dennis Banks, Ojibwe (''Last of the Mohicans,'' ''Thunderheart''); Gloria Eshkibok, Odawa/Mohawk (''Promise the Moon,'' ''DreamKeeper''); and Crystle Lightning, Plains Cree (''Tecumseh: The Last Warrior,'' ''American Pie 4: Band Camp''), as well as newcomers Dan Harrison, Muscogee, a competitive pow wow dancer from Oklahoma, and Rose Berens, Chippewa, who plays Rain's mother.

The non-Indian characters were also played by acting veterans: Bradley Cooper (''All About Steve,'' ''The Midnight Meat Train''), Steve Yoakum (''Sweet Land,'' ''Purple Haze'') and Chris Mulkey (''North Country,'' ''Dreamland,'' ''Behind Enemy Lines'').

''Because I've worked in the industry so long,'' Lightning said, ''they are friends of mine.''

The movie was produced by Tribal Alliance (www.Tribal, of which Lightning is a part with Audrey Martinez, who was executive producer with Adam Beach. Christine Walker, who co-wrote the film with Lightning, was producer.

While the film's location on and near the Fond du Lac reservation is obvious and Ojibwe is spoken in some scenes, those in the know will see some blending of cultures with additional languages (Cree) and spiritual traditions. The mix emphasizes that the ''boarding school'' past is not restricted to one tribe's past, Lightning said.

The film is not Hollywood-polished; it remains more raw and direct.

The world premiere of the film was March 10 at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. It was one of eight films chosen to compete. Later in March, the film showed at the Sami Film Festival in Norway. It has shown at the Walker Art Institute in Minneapolis, and will be shown at other film festivals this year. (Watch www.olderthan for updates.)

In April, Lightning brought the film to the community where it was set and filmed. The theater, the use of which was donated for the multiple showings, had to turn away people. Many of those who attended were moved to tears.

''It was intense, I'll say that,'' said Jeff Savage after attending the film with his wife and one of his daughters. Savage is director of the Fond du Lac Cultural Center and Museum in Cloquet.

''As a Native American family, we have lots of boarding school stories from listening to our grandparents. And I even have a few nun stories of my own.''

Education, like the kind found in ''Older Than America,'' can help non-Indian people to understand the past.

''The most effect this movie had was on the non-Indian folks who were there and realized that this was true,'' Savage said of the film showing. ''It's going to take movies like 'Older Than America' in mainstream theaters to start bringing some awareness and some truth.''