Human Rights Watch 2014: Highway of Tears – Documentary Review

Director: Matthew Smiley
Runtime: 76 minutes
Rating: 14A

In recent years, Canadian films have sought to reveal injustice in the First Nations community by exposing issues relevant to the entire country in various modes of filmmaking. Due to its expository nature, the documentary plays a key role in the spread of this information through cinema. Highway of Tears is an excellent example of how documentary filmmaking can effectively spread and explain a message, and it humbles and reminds us of stories that must not be forgotten.

Highway of Tears

Highway 16, a 724 km stretch of road in northern British Columbia, is more commonly known as the Highway of Tears due to the distressing events that have happened along it. Since the late 1960’s, many women have disappeared and been found murdered along the highway. Many of these women belonged to the Aboriginal communities of British Columbia, and because of lack of resources and infrastructure were forced to hitchhike in order to travel to urban centres and other areas. The documentary uses this problem to expose deeper issues of gender, class, and racism in British Columbia and Canada as a whole, all while showing what the First Nations community is doing to raise awareness on the issue and prevent it from propagating.

It is clear from the messages in the documentary that a major objective of this work is to expose the issue to audiences that may not be aware of it. The documentary excels at having clearly laid out information that is not only easy to understand, but compelling and successful at maintaining the attention of the spectator. Its use of live action footage, brief use of animation, and a clear narration make the information comprehensible to many audiences. I consider this to be one of the documentary’s strongest points because it is important for the content to be understood by everybody. Some documentaries stall and make use of heavy text to create a more dramatic atmosphere, but Highway of Tears delivers extensive information in an efficient, absorbing manner.

Highway of Tears

There is no denying that the issues most relevant when discussing this piece relate to the actual content, but one must discuss the cinematic qualities of the documentary as well. Highway of Tears has beautiful original music that gives it appropriate tension, and creates a solemn atmosphere that enhances the viewer’s experience. There is a very clear sense of setting thanks to crisp and clear shots that help the spectator understand where the events are taking place. The vast amount of footage, photographs, and interviews also enhance the experience and give the information credibility.

Canada is often thought of as a country where opportunity is equal and plenty, and although these claims are not false, it is also true that there are remnants of colonialism that to this day deeply affect members of various communities across Canada. This documentary has incredibly high value because it has the potential to reach audiences and introduce them to an issue that has not been resolved, but exposes deeper, more important issues of racism, classism, and other forms of institutionalized discrimination. Highway of Tears manages to bring all these issues forth, while maintaining a delightful cinematic quality that make the entire project a thoroughly enjoyable, though deeply painful, experience.