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Film sheds light on Indian boarding schools

It's hard to tell what's real on the set of "Older than America," an independent movie being filmed in and around Cloquet, and what is not.

The movie is set partially during the Indian boarding school era that stretched from the 1880s to the 1990s, a time that is either forgotten or rarely talked about by American Indians today.

But it's a time that remains vivid in director Georgina Lightning's mind.

Lightning's father was a hard, distant man who grew up in a boarding school where children weren't allowed to speak their own language and often were starved for affection. Years after her father committed suicide, Lightning began searching for an explanation for his behavior. Her search led her to learn about the history and cultural repercussions of boarding schools, and to bring that history to light in her directorial debut.

The film's boarding school scenes are being shot at the former Washington School in Thompson Township outside of Cloquet. On a recent Saturday, the crew arrived at the school at 6 a.m., the young actors at 8 a.m., and they all expected a long day.

Everybody is on a tight timeline. With a budget of less than $1 million, the days are packed and hectic for crew members who have little time to get a lot done.

Filming will continue through mid-December, though it could take two more years before the film appears in theaters, said co-producer Andrew Peterson.

Six scenes were scheduled for shooting some as simple as a girl running up a flight of stairs, others involving multiple actors hitting their marks and a chorus of young children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance ("If you forget the words, just say

•'apples and bananas,' " Lighting directed).

There is no time for elaborate hair and makeup, so that really is 9-year-old Whitney Mayorga's long black hair being sliced short in a school bathroom. Children's hair typically was shorn when they arrived at a boarding school, a symbol of their culture being stripped away.

Whitney's mother, Cindy Mayorga of Cloquet, winced as she watched the scene unfold. Although Whitney had been lobbying for a haircut in real life, the girl grimaced as another actress playing a nun roughly pulled and clipped her hair.

"She's never had short hair before," Cindy Mayorga said. "Her long hair was her power. But it will grow back."

But in another scene, the bar of cheap white soap that a nun pops into another child's mouth that's not real.

You can't go sticking real bars of soap into the "talents' " mouths, said prop master Brian Riordan of Duluth, because if they get sick, it's your fault. That's why Riordan spent a night melting and shaping white chocolate until he had a bar of "soap," complete with a realistic scummy film of lather.

Riordan is an erstwhile crane operator whose movie career began with the 1988 film "Far North." Riordan had applied to be a truck driver on the set, but soon was called on to start dressing scenes and finding or building props. He has worked off and on ever since, including the film "North Country," shot partially on the Iron Range and released last winter.

"It's nice to be able to be creative, to be resourceful when you're building props," Riordan said. Boxes of the tools of his trade are piled in one classroom, including a wooden pail filled with dippers and two fake rats, and fat books titled "Training your Retriever" and "Textbook of Gynecology."

Riordan found the props to transform one classroom in Washington School into a spare boarding school scene, complete with tattered books and aging maps tacked to the walls. A morning light shone through the windows -- courtesy of huge floodlights set up outside the building and the first assistant director, who insisted his full name was "Rowdy," prepared the scene.

"Talk to me about Whitney: How many minutes?" Rowdy asked into his walkie-talkie. The first-time actress still was in makeup and wouldn't arrive on the set for a bit, so Rowdy kept giving directions. In the scene, two older students are caught whispering to each other, and a priest grabs each by the nape of their necks with help from the film's stunt director and marches them out of the classroom.

"Nobody looks at the camera," Rowdy instructed. "Everyone looks at the priest."

Lightning dashed here and there, a set of thick headphones slung around her neck. She paused to confer with producer Christine Walker for a moment, both peering intently at a monitor to watch the rehearsal.

"Awesome, awesome," Lightning praised the young actors, each dressed in white shirts and navy blue pants or jumpers. "You guys are movie stars."

"Lock it up," Rowdy called out, and everyone in the entire building stopped in their tracks. Silence descended as the actors take their places and Lightning took a last look around.

"Action," she said, and the boarding school era came back to life, if only for a moment.