The film’s storyline is fragmentary, its focal point like a crack in a wall.
A young girl, chin tipped up to the microphone, fingers toying with a bead necklace, attempts to tell a room full of congressmen about the abuse her brother endured, but she chokes on an enormous sob and can’t go on. In a black-and-white photo of American Indian children at a boarding school, identical in their close-cropped and bobbed haircuts and plain clothing, the number of children grows larger and larger as the camera zooms out, and then, a moment later, the image becomes just one of many pinpoints on a map of the United States. A woman tells of having her mouth washed out with soap for speaking Penobscot and abruptly stops. The screen goes black.
Throughout the new documentary Dawnland, screening Oct. 19 in Dartmouth College’s Loew Auditorium, a sense of incompleteness, of halted revelations and impenetrable grief, pervades. As it explores a dark and largely overlooked aspect of American life, the film opens just a tiny fissure, grants only the smallest suggestion of healing.
It is, nevertheless, a start.