In Focus - Foster Child is a deliberately frustrating film

Gil Cardinal’s Foster Child opens with the story of how he met his foster mother. She tells the tale of a little boy who was scared of everything, mentioning that she had heard he was abused but didn’t know much about what had happened to him before he entered their home as a shy two year old. He immediately confuses it with the story of another kid raised in the same home. And nobody really knows what happened to him before they got there. It’s an effective way to set the stage, to show that Cardinal is not going to have an easy time finding out more about his roots.

The film, which took home Best Production, Best Documentary Over 30 Minutes and the National Film Board Kathleen Shannon Award, is deliberately frustrating. Cardinal is chasing after information about a woman who was dead for over a decade by the time the film was made, and is being stymied by social workers who don’t have all the details and can’t even give him the details that he does have. He approaches this problem by holding his camera on faces. His own, as he tries to get information out of interview subjects or process the things they are telling him. The faces of people as they struggle to figure out what they are comfortable telling him. The camera lingers for what seems like minutes on totally silent people. This can be used to devastating effect, one key scene involving Cardinal finding the man who he thinks is his father, and then finding out why this man says he is wrong, filmed on a telephoto with both men in frame, making the viewer feel like an unwanted stalker during an intense private moment.

Race is a big part of the film, right from when Cardinal is told he wasn’t considered a candidate for adoption because he was Metis, the refusal just written with a simple no. Cardinal is simultaneously part of his larger foster family and completely alone, acutely aware that he’s not one of them, because of his skin color and different last name. It’s another part of Cardinal’s frustration, which spreads through every frame. On meeting his uncle he says “today it’s important to look Indian, to be Metis,” while suggesting with his body language that he doesn’t know what any of that actually means.

The other thing that the film is obsessed with is death. Cardinal’s uncle shows him an album, while rattling off the family members who have died - one begins to think that the only two people left in this family are these two men going by how many people are no longer around. Buildings where his mother used to live have been torn down, people she used to know are long deceased. It makes his search more painful, but also makes it more frustrating, since dying with these people and places is the information Cardinal needs in his search.

It’s not a satisfying film, while Cardinal reaches a form of acceptance in the conclusion one still wishes that reality had not conspired against him, and he could have had a conversation with his mother or one of his brothers. The viewer feels empathy for Cardinal in his struggle, since we also wish for more satisfaction than he has had while trying to find his roots.

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