The prairie provinces of Canada are like fish in a barrel. A united front in opposition to a hostile and jealous neighbour; a northern captive population of sick and elderly; a persecuted language; a history of federal invasion, starving taxicabs; and a security perimeter encircling a crucial economic resource.
It is an ideal setting for a film. In the movie, the town of Gens de la Saskatchewan rises up against its terrible fate – a clientele scarred and ghettoised by five generations of looting, and a decadent, ageing leader of the opposition, who declares a nation whose demise he intends to hasten.
It could just as easily happen in a town in a low-budget Canadian indie and become a cult, cult comedy. Without that hook, which is the history of genocide, occupied territory, and yer bumocracy, which makes the “poli bam lindy” (silver bullets) reference in the film’s opening dream sequence, it would be little more than another Canadian indie comedy which will never, ever be heard again.
Instead, it’s No Country for Old Men plus. Nine years in the making, the film shows how an old and sclerotic Native prime minister (Conrad Hoffman) gradually succumbs to a dark element in his small town, using a plot that mimics Cold War operations, to bring his opponents to their knees.
What do Indians want? Some want guns for their horses. Others want to buy. But the most common cause was the liberation of the First Nations women, whose wishes are heavily represented in the film.
At first, they complain of discrimination, but as long as it’s within the criminal law, they no longer fight for their rights, because finally they have nothing to lose. At first, their struggle is a simple one of reclaiming their heritage and their language. Then, they become entranced by the idea of causing mischief, and the possibilities quickly begin to expand into an impetuous plan to take over a remote airport and bomb the federal delegation – and a film, one senses.
What western masterpiece would the characters of Gens de la Saskatchewan have missed out on? A retelling of The Wounded Horse – with everyone choosing their colourful characters equally – and Nipper instead of Trapper, would have been excellent. Or a move away from the mayhem and murder to put the emphasis on the relations between the people of the town and one another, so that the least of the bad guys might show some redeeming qualities.
Czech and Slovak equivalents would have served them well – Svetlana Smarzova in Westernlla, or Bárbara Golsica in that other 1960s Czech classic, The Beast.
This article first appeared in Observer Magazine, which delivers good news, old fashioned way. For the latest magazine visit observer.co.uk