TORONTO — How do you spell "empowering?"
It's a word Lana Slezic uses often as she describes her new documentary "Bee Nation," which is the opening-night film for the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, kicking off Thursday.
The film documents Canada's first-ever provincewide First Nations Spelling Bee, held in Saskatchewan last year. But it touches on a much deeper story, says Slezic.
"I think these kids, they're underdogs in a way and they succeed and we champion them the whole way through," she says.
"I want to break down stereotypes with this film. There shouldn't be an 'us' and 'them.' We're all just people. So I think when you're in the homes of the First Nations families that are in the film, you feel that.
"It's a really intimate setting and you get to know them and you see love and warmth and support between parents and the kids. And we can all relate to that."
The moving documentary profiles six First Nations students as they compete in the English-language bee in North Battleford, Sask., in the hopes of making it to the national championships in Toronto.
They include William, a Grade 3 student, who is competitive and wants to be a doctor. Makayla, a whip-smart Grade 5 student who declares: "One day I want to go off the reserve and see what's out there." And Thomas, another Grade 5 student, who says he's excited to participate in the bee because it might mean he can go to Toronto.
"Sometimes I was crying, sometimes I was laughing," says Slezic. "The expressions on their faces, I was on the edge of my seat the entire time and it's not a short thing — it's like a six-hour thing.
"It takes a long time and especially when my kids — I call them my kids — when they would get up onstage ... it was nerve-racking.
"That's actually one of the words: 'Nerve-racking.'"
Slezic first learned of the bee while looking online for a way to help her eight-year-old son spell better. Ten days later, she was on a plane to the province to speak with the children's families and teachers on different reserves about what the bee meant to them.
Along the way she also learned about the underfunding First Nations schools face.
"They were so excited about the spelling bee because they'd never had one before," says Slezic. "I think it was a real source of pride for them."
Slezic recalls bee organizer Pauline Favel telling her: "'Why not us? Why shouldn't we be a part of this? We can do this, too. Our kids can do this, too.'"
Cameras follow three of the kids as they make it to the nationals in Toronto to compete against students of all backgrounds.
"It has changed them, given them a new confidence that they never had, and opportunity, too," says Slezic. "They'd never been on a plane before, never went to a big city like Toronto before. So it's really opened up horizons for them that they didn't expect."
It also enriched their parents' lives.
"Seeing their children grow, I think it really moved them, empowered them, made them want to push them even more," says Slezic.
She says she's still in touch with the kids. One of them, William Kaysaywaysemat, is scheduled to attend Hot Docs with his family. Also scheduled to attend is Evan Taypotat, principal of Chief Kahkewistahaw Community School.
Hot Docs runs through May 7 with a total of 230 titles from 58 countries.
Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press