William Kaysaywaysemat III of Bee Nation with his brother, parents and
filmmaker Lena Slezic on stage at the Hot Docs film festival, Toronto, April

By Barb Nahwegahbow

TORONTO—A documentary film about First Nations students competing in a spelling bee landed a spot in the top ten audience favourites at Toronto’s Hot Docs international documentary film festival.

Bee Nation was also selected out of more than 200 films to open the festival on April 27. It played to a packed house that night and at two additional screenings.

The film follows a group of First Nations students and their families as they study and sweat and compete in Saskatchewan’s first ever First Nations spelling bee. They’re all hoping to win a place at the national spelling bee in Toronto. When filmmaker Lana Slezic heard about the Saskatchewan contest, she knew she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to tell the story, she said in an interview before the festival. Slezic swung into action and before she knew it, she was on a plane to Saskatchewan ready to film the story.

“It was a privilege to meet the kids and their families,” said Slezic. “In each home, there was such warmth and love and support for the kids and their education. I was so impressed with that, and how quickly and easily I was welcomed into their homes. And how they wanted to share with me their culture and their traditions.”

This resulted in a film that overturns the usual stereotypes of First Nations families and it does so very well.

One of the stars of the film is 9-year old William Kaysaywaysemat III, a well-rounded youth from Kahkewistahaw First Nation. He’s competitive and full of confidence. He’s been a Pow Wow dancer since he was three and excels at this as well as sports and academics.

“He’s awesome,” say his parents. They try to prepare him for the fact that he might not win, assuring him he’s already a winner in their eyes.

William totally captivated the audience following the April 28 screening when he was joined on stage by his family and the director. The group got a standing ovation as they made their way to the stage and the moderator said, “I think William’s getting used to these standing ovations!”

William’s composure when facing the audience of a few hundred people and in answering their questions was indeed awesome. His dad, William Kaysaywaysemat II, reflected on the experience of being at Hot Docs and said his son continues to amaze him.

“He makes life just that much better,” he said. “The hard work and dedication that we as parents provide our children, these are the excellent results we see with giving that love and care.”

He and his wife teach their son about struggle, he said and they teach him, “We overcome those struggles by our determination and continue to go forward.”

William, who wants to be a doctor, has been a role model to many of his friends who want to compete in the spelling bee. “What that encourages is literacy,” said the senior Kaysaywaysemat. “Hand in hand with literacy comes learning, going to school and learning.”

The other students featured in Bee Nation – Makayla Cannepotato, Xander Johansson, Thomas Isbister, Savannah Nicks, Josie Singer – also have dreams of going further in school, becoming doctors or lawyers, leaving the reserve to see what else is out there. Like William, they too are competitive and want to win.

Three of the kids are successful in their goal to compete in the national spelling bee in Toronto and there’s plenty of nail-biting tension. For information, go to: http://lanaslezic.com/bee-nation/.