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The Spirit Wrestlers

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“The satisfaction of Hamm’s documentary is that it is subtle, balanced and seeks insights into the conflicted values and thinking of both sides…Hamm has done us all a great service. He reminds us just what can happen when the forces of righteous thinking are unleashed in the service of governments whose arrogance leads them to believe that talking with citizens who disagree with their policies is an intolerable waste of time.”
Stephen Hume, features writer, The Vancouver Sun

The Spirit Wrestlers is a vivid 94-minute look at a troubled episode in Canadian history. Examining a century of Doukhobor experience in this country, it focuses on the harrowing events in the 1950s and 60s.

It was then that the British Columbia provincial government, in an attempt to bring to heel a small group of pacifist and communalist Russian immigrants, seized 170 children of the Sons of Freedom sect, a small and radical offshoot of the Doukhobors. The children were held for six years behind wire fences at a residential school. Today, 125 of those former students have taken their case to court, demanding compensation.

The Spirit Wrestlers explores this thorny issue through the eyes of children ensnared in a net fashioned by others. A POV documentary, the film shows that seizing these children was just one of many heavy-handed methods taken by federal and provincial authorities in their attempt to assimilate generation after generation of Doukhobor children.

Doukhobors have at times been treated heartlessly. To call attention to their plight, many Sons of Freedom, or “Freedomites” as they were often called, used nudity as a form of political protest. But as protest escalated some of these Freedomites, began committing violent terrorist acts. From the 1920s to the 1980s, waves of bombings and arsons destroyed schools, railway tracks, bridges, power poles, public buildings and homes. In the early 1960s, jail sentences for Doukhobors totaling more than 2000 years were imposed by courts in British Columbia. Their acts constituted Canada's most protracted terrorist threat.

The Spirit Wrestlers is the story of this tempestuous relationship. It asks the questions: When a nation prides itself on being a multicultural society, what happens when one group demands special treatment? Does support for diversity extend to allowing people to live in ways that defy our accepted social, religious and economic norms? In a democracy, is the majority prepared to allow a difficult minority to flourish?

Director Jim Hamm uncovers previously untapped archival records, film and photographic evidence. In interviews with Orthodox Doukhobors, former Freedomites, retired RCMP officers and historians, Hamm has created a remarkable film, which makes an important contribution to Canada’s social history.

The Spirit Wrestlers was selected to screen at Toronto’s Hot Docs 2002 Canadian International Documentary Festival (May 2002) and received a Leo Award nomination (celebrating excellence in B.C. film & television) for Best Sound Editing in a Documentary Program.

Produced by Jim Hamm Productions Ltd., in association with History Television, Vision TV, Knowledge Network and Saskatchewan Communications Network. Produced with the participation of the CTF: Licence Fee Program, BC: Film Television and Film Financing Program, Canadian Heritage: Canadian Studies Program, Rogers Documentary Fund, CAVCO and Film Incentive BC. © 2002 Closed Captioned

Key Credits:
Producer & Director - Jim Hamm
Writers - Larry Hannant and PJ Reece
Editor - Deane Bennett
Cinematographers - Mark Edwards and Mike Kirby
Narrator - Tom Butler
Music Composer - Bruce Ruddell

Home Video Sales Contact: Jim Hamm Productions Ltd.
P.O. Box 211, Bowser, B.C. V0R 1G0, Canada
(778) 424-1110

Libraries and Educational Institutions Contact:
Moving Images Distribution
606-402 West Pender St, Vancouver BC V6B 1T6
(604) 684-3014

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“It's a riveting film that opens up an aspect of our common pasts as British Columbian that we have largely chosen to ignore. It's extraordinarily powerful, and belongs in every school, public, college, and university library across British Columbia and, I would add, across Canada. The film very effectively depicts the Doubkhobor experience in British Columbia and, in doing so, sensitively explores the boundaries between religious belief, commitment to family, and state power. As a teaching medium, the film raises a wide range of issues for discussion at the secondary and post-secondary levels to do with law and justice, the role of the school, the nature of religious authority, the obligations of citizenship, and so on. We are each forced merely by watching to reconsider our own assumptions about the nature of belonging and to realize that determination of right and wrong action is not always possible.”

Jean Barman, Dept of Educational Studies, University of British Columbia

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