The Lone Ranger

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It seems like all Native America wanted to talk about this summer was “The Lone Ranger” and whether it honored or offended Native Americans. I’ve read articles from Native people on both sides, so I’ll let my words be few on this topic. Frankly, I expected it to be worse. It makes some honest, if clumsy and possibly misguided, attempts to honor Native peoples. Its greatest sin is that it relegates Native Americans to the past. Tonto appears to be the last living Indian, and he’s hardly more than a peanut-guzzling wax figure in a Wild West museum. The filmmakers might be surprised to find that there are vital and growing Native communities in the 21st century.

“The Lone Ranger” opens in a Wild West museum, where an extremely old Tonto is part of the display. This ancient Indian narrates the entire story to a young boy wearing a toy six-shooter and cowboy hat. About halfway through the film, we learn that Tonto (Johnny Depp), because of childhood trauma, has suffered a break with reality and is completely nuts. When you put these two scenes together – when you recognize that the whole movie is a story told by a man who has completely lost touch with reality – things start to make a little more sense.

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Crooked Arrows

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By Willie Krischke – October 25, 2012

If you’ve been following the story of the Iroquios Nationals lacross team (and if you haven’t, you really should start) you know it’s the kind of thing that would make a great sports movie.  Sadly, “Crooked Arrows” isn’t that movie.  True, it’s about the triumph of an underdog Native American lacrosse team, but the parallels end there. The Arrows are a high school team, not the Nationals.  And more importantly, “Crooked Arrows” is a long ways from a great sports movie.

The film is set on the fictional Sunnuquot reservation in upstate New York.  According the press release, the Sunnuquot are supposed to be the “seventh nation” in the Iroquois confederacy.  This might be the first hint that director Steve Rash — whose last film was the direct-to-dvd “American Pie Presents Band Camp’ — isn’t all that interested in the Native American setting of this film. The Onandaga Nation helped to finance this film, and they have a long and thriving lacrosse tradition – in fact, several of the actors in “Crooked Arrows” are members of the Onandaga lacrosse team.  So why not set it in a real place?  Because if you create a fictional tribe, you can cherry pick whatever Native American cultural bits and pieces you want and not offend anybody.  Or perhaps offend everybody with your generic, condescending and overly simplistic ideas about what it means to be Native in the 21st century.

Brandon Routh (who told one interviewer that he was “part Chickapoo, watered down, on my father’s side”– someone needs to tell him that he’s probably part Kickapoo, as Chickapoo is a breed of dog, not an Indian tribe) stars as the prodigal son of the Sunnuquots, who once played Lacrosse for the neighboring rich white kid prep school, and then headed into the city to make his fortune by selling his tribal lands to casino developers.  But before the tribal council will let him hand over any more of the tribe’s ancestral birthright, he must spend a season coaching the high school Lacrosse team, who haven’t won a game for as long as anyone can remember.  In so doing, he will recover his Indian spirit, or something like that.

And so we’ve got a reluctant coach forced to lead a group of losers — the standard setup of every underdog sports movie ever made, from “Bad News Bears” to “A League of Their Own” to “The Mighty Ducks.”  Add Native American cliches, and stir. There’s an assistant coach/medicine man who makes them magic lacrosse sticks, and talk like a cross between Yoda and Tonto. Routh takes the players on a vision quest (in a sweat lodge) where they receive their animal spirits — and their Lacrosse positions.  They’re short a goalie, until a 7 foot savage named MOG who slays deer with his bare hands and eats them raw steps out of the woods and occupies the crease.   It goes on and on like this.  You can get angry about all the terrible stereotypes, or you can treat it like a bad horror flick from the ’70s and laugh at how terrible and ridiculous it all is.  That’s what I recommend.

Like a broken clock, “Crooked Arrows” occasionally gets things right.  Every now and then, Routh’s struggle to live in two worlds actually rings true.  And Chelsea Ricketts plays Routh’s feisty little sister, who cares far more about both Lacrosse than her brother does. Her performance is head and shoulders above everyone else’s in this one.  She’s the only actor who seems genuinely committed to the material.  Gil Birmingham, a fine Native actor, plays Routh’s father half-heartedly; perhaps he knows what an embarassment this movie is, but hey, an actor’s got to work just like anyone else.

It its second half, when it gets away from offensive stereotypes and focuses on the sport, “Crooked Arrows” becomes a better movie.  It is still slavishly addicted the sports movie cliches — the benchwarmer, the ringer, the vicious opposing coach, the injured star — but the action scenes are crisp, colorful, and pretty exciting to watch.  The team, under new management, recovers from an 0-5 start to make the playoffs by a whisker.  But to win the championship, they must defeat the prep school boys from down the highway, who have embarassed them on the field time and again.  (“When did the Indians learn to play Lacrosse?”  one suburban mom whispers to another on the sidelines.) Routh’s halftime speech is one of the best moments in the film, and you just might find a tear in your eye — if you’re still watching after all the nonsense that came in the first half of the film.

It’s great to see Lacrosse, and its Native American roots, get some exposure on the big screen.  But this isn’t the film I had hoped it would be.  I still think the story of the Iroquois Nationals would make a great movie.  Maybe this one will open the door for that one to be made.  Lacrosee, and the Six Nations people who invented the game, deserve better.

 

Is Barrow, Alaska the New Hollywood?

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In an odd aligning of the cinematic planets, two pretty good movies set amongst the Inupiats of Barrow, Alaska have become available on DVD within the last few weeks.  Barrow is the northernmost city in the United States, and previously was the setting of the bloody awful vampire movie “30 Days of Night.”  Both of these movies are much better than that one.

The shiny big one with the hollow insides is “Big Miracle.”  Drew Barrymore and John Krasinski lead a cast full of recognizable faces in an adventure to free three gray whales who are trapped in the ice and unable to migrate south to sunny Baja.  The film is narrated by a young Inupiat boy (Ahmaogak Sweeney) whose grandfather Malik (John Pingayak) hunts whales, both to feed his family and to keep the ancient traditions alive.  According to Malik and the other indigenous fisherman, the whale chooses the whaler, and these three trapped in the ice are a gift from Creator that will feed their whole community through the winter.

But small-time newsman John Krasinski finds the whales and records a newsbyte on them that gets picked up by Tom Brokaw and NBC Nightly News (this really happened; the film is based on a true story that took place in 1988.) Suddenly the small town is flooded with big city reporters, Greenpeace activists, government officials, and even a Minnewegian duo hawking their own patented ice-melting contraption.

The Inupiaks decide to help free the whales, instead of accepting the gift of their flesh, because they realize they are facing a overwhelming tide of ignorance and cultural blindness.  “All they will see is blood,” the Malik tells a fellow whaler.  It’s a pity there was no way to foster deeper cultural understanding and respect between the tribe and the outsiders, and, from this angle, the rest of the movie looks rather strange: it is, in a sense, an expensive and  foolhardy quest to return a gift to its giver.

Watching “Big Miracle” is a disorienting experience.  It is every bit the Animal Planet-esque “Free Willy” knockoff it sounds like; this is a heartwarming tale of a community coming together to save the whales, and if you can get through it without your heart being warmed, you’re colder and more cynical than I am (and I’m a movie critic, so that’s unlikely.)  But it also undercuts its sentiments at every turn.  Everyone involved is playing an angle; the only person operating out of pure idealism and the, ahem, kindness of her heart is Barrymore’s Greenpeace activist, who is far and away the most annoying person in the film; she’s preachy and self-righteous and hates everyone but the whales.  It’s a well-made movie, but even after two viewing, I’m not sure what I think of it.

“On the Ice,” the other Barrow Alaska movie, is small and cheap but has a heart of gold.  Filmed by Barrow resident Andrew Okpeaha MacLean, is a well-made bit of film noir set in the darkless nights of an Arctic summer.

It’s the story of two friends on diverging paths, and a tragedy that besets them in their last few days together, one that will likely change both their lives forver. Josiah Patkotak plays the quiet, sensible one; he is a few weeks away from heading south for college, and his demeanor implies that he is just as comfortable in a library surrounded by books as he is on the ice, riding a snowmobile and hunting seals. His best friend is Frank Qutuq Irelan, whose future doesn’t look so bright. There’s a wildness in his eyes and a recklessness in his manner that make it clear he knows he’s got nowhere to go; maybe it’s killing him inside that his best friend is almost out the door.

On an early morning seal-hunting expedition, Irelan gets in a fight with another hunter, and Patkotak accidentally kills him while attempting to stop/protect his best friend. The two decide to dump the body in the ice and tell everyone it was an accident, but it’s not long before things start to unravel.  Patkotak’s father is in charge of the local search-and-rescue, and begins to uncover the truth faster than his son can spin out the lies.  And Irelan, never a bastion of self-control, is so racked with guilt that he almost can’t help but confess what’s happened to anyone who will listen.

“On the Ice” is infused with attention to details that will ring true to anyone who’s lived or worked amongst Native youth or in a Native community.  It’s a powerful film because it’s about the place where it happens as much as it is about the people involved.  MacLean has made a memorable film about the town where he lived, and has the potential to become a powerful voice in the world of Native cinema.

“West of Thunder” Supports Creation of School at Pine Ridge

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INTERNATIONAL SUPPORT FOR MOVIE WITH A PURPOSE

 “West of Thunder” is a Lakota inspired western. Set in 1899, nine years after the Massacre at Wounded Knee and the formation of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the movie explores the possibility of revenge and the choice of a higher road.

 Proceeds from the film will support the creation of a K-12 Lakota Cambridge accredited school (Sunka Wakan) on Pine Ridge Reservation.

 The creation of the Sunka Wakan school is a collaboration between the Lakota people of Pine Ridge reservation and an international team including the US, England, Israel, France and Hong Kong.

This project is embraced as a catalyst for real change on Pine Ridge.  The school, the first of its kind, will provide students with the highest level of academics with an immersion in Lakota culture, language and traditional values and will prepare students for future success in both worlds.  Herds of rescued wild mustangs will also be a part of the project—with equine therapy and Lakota cultural programs.

 West of Thunder will hold Sunka Wakan benefit pre-premiere screenings in New York (July 13th) and LA (August 9th).  International premieres will take place in London, Paris, Israel and Hong Kong in September/Oct 2012.


Shouting Secrets: Interview with Korinna Sehringer and Tyler Christopher

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“Shouting Secrets” director Korinna Sehringer and actor Tyler Christopher

“Shouting Secrets” played at the Native American Film Festival in San Francisco a few months ago and very nearly swept the event, taking away prizes for Best Film, Best Actor (Chaske Spencer) and Best Supporting Actor (Tyler Christopher), while also garnering a handful of other nominations. It’s a heartfelt and touching film about a family drawn together through tragedy—three siblings, all alienated from each other and their parents, come together around their mother’s bedside after she suddenly falls ill. Sparks fly, buried hatchets are dug up, and emotions run hot as the three siblings, along with various other family members, must learn to be a family together in order to honor their mother, who was the glue that held all the pieces together.

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Reel Injun

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Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond sets out in “Reel Injun” to document the evolving image of the Native American on the big screen.  He aims to explore not only how Hollywood images have shaped white culture’s perceptions of Indians, but how it’s shaped perceptions among the Native Americans themselves.  “I grew up playing cowboys and Indians,” he says, “and never realizing that I was the Indian.”  He couches his documentary’s journey in a journey of his own, setting out in his “rez car” to visit iconic sites across North America.  He visits the Pine Ridge reservation, where he rides a horse across the Great Plains, and declares “finally I feel like a real Indian!”

Early depictions of Native Americans on film were curiously academic. The Indians are viewed with a degree of respect, but also clinical detachment In films like “The Silent Enemy” (which is starvation, not the Indian,) the desire seems to be to document a dying people before they are gone forever. But in the ’30s, with the introduction of John Wayne and John Ford Westerns, the Indian became a brutal enemy.  Westerns capture a certain American ideal about themselves; the rugged wanderer braving the massive, dangerous Wild West, and inside that mythology, the Indian is nothing more than the embodiment of the savage side of Nature — it’ll kill you as soon as look at you.

John Ford made almost all of his movies in Monument Valley; his Indians dressed (vaguely) like Plains Indians, but lived in the American Southwest.  His movies have become so iconic that thousands of tourists visit Monument Valley every year, not because it is a beautiful, majestic place, but because it’s a place they’ve seen in the movies.  I’ve been to Monument Valley, and can report back: almost none of those tourists are white Americans.  They are Japanese and European.  I spent a night there once and the only person I met who spoke English was the Navajo guy running the food stand.  Hollywood’s idea of the Native American has been exported to the entire world.

There’s always been a legend that the Native Americans in John Ford’s films joked around by speaking in their own language; Ford never cared, as long as they “sounded Indian.”  Perhaps the highlight of the documentary is a sequence in which what they actually said is finally translated.  It’s pretty funny.

Things didn’t change much until the countercultural revolution of the late ’60s and ’70s; then Indians became “groovy” and “spiritual” and everyone wanted to claim some Indian heritage somewhere in their past, or past lives.  Depictions of Native Americans in cinema changed as well; they became stoic, spiritual warriors; the embodiment of all that modern society had left behind.  Natives became heroes and icons, but they still were little more than symbols.  They weren’t real people.

Diamond interviews Lakota activist Russell Means, who was in the middle of the 1973 Wounded Knee standoff when Marlon Brando denied his Oscar for “The Godfather,” instead sending Sacheen Littlefeather to the podium to (very politely) scold Hollywood for the treatment of American Indians by the film industry — and by the government.  Means recalls how those at Wounded Knee were watching the awards program on the TV at the trading post, and their spirits, almost defeated, were supremely lifted by that act of courage and defiance.

Westerns fell out of popularity in the late ’70s and ’80s, and there wasn’t much work for Native American actors, even as extras.  One notable exception was the 1976 Clint Eastwood film “The Outlaw Josie Wales,” in which Chief Dan George managed, through keen comic timing, to put a slightly more human face on Native peoples.

After a brief stop to examine the problems of 1990′s “Dances With Wolves” — perhaps the biggest “Indian” film ever made– Diamond moves on to the more recent Indigenous film movement, which allows him to end the documentary on a deeply moving and hopeful note.  He interviews Adam Beach, and looks at films depicting like “Smoke Signals,” “Pow Wow Highway” and “Dance Me Outside,” which depict Natives as real people with both strengths and weaknesses, not as icons or symbols.  But these films are still made about Indians for the wider majority culture: Diamond, and the people he interviews, wax poetic about “The Fast Runner,” a film made by Native people, for Native people, telling a Native story.  This is Native cinema.

The image in “Fast Runner” — of Atanarjuat escaping from his certain death and running naked across the ice — captures the moment of Native cinema that we are in now.  After years of being beaten down and used, Natives have escaped the suffocating confines of Hollywood, and are breaking free, making, with great vulnerability, exhilarating films that tell their own stories, in their own ways.  As the radio DJ in “Smoke Signals” broadcasts, “It’s a good day to be indigenous.”

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

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By Willie Krischke

Ready for a break from your typical Christmas movie, with its forced magic, emotional manipulation, and vague commentary on the Christmas spirit?  Here’s a film that will go down like a big drink of seltzer water, cleansing your palate, resetting your clock, and making you positively long for another Tim Allen ho ho ho.

Set in northern Finland among the reindeer-herding Sami people, “Rare Exports” takes place in the days leading up to Christmas.  In the shadow of a small mountain, a small community scratches out their existence, fighting off the wolves and the weather and waiting for a lucky break, or one that will finally kill them.  There are no women in the community.  One wonders how they procreate.  There are children.

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También la Lluvia (Even the Rain)

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In the face of the oppressed I recognize my own face;

in the hands of the oppressor I recognize my own hands.

–Henri Nouwen

The Academy Award nominated Spanish film “Even the Rain” was released on DVD just before Columbus Day this year, and the film should be on anyone’s list who is interested in reflecting upon the explorer, his legacy, and the Native peoples he encountered.

Gael Garcia Bernal plays a young auteur director seeking to make a film about Columbus.  His intent is to make a politically charged film in which Columbus is the villain and the hero is Hatuey, a Taino warrior who leads a rebellion against Columbus’ colony and ends up a martyr. Luis Tosar plays Bernal’s producer, the guy trying to keep costs down and everything running smoothly.  He insists that they film in Cochabamba, Bolivia, thousands of miles from Hispaniola, the setting of the film. He films there because the labor costs there are cheap. The labor costs there are cheap because they are exploiting Native workers.  It all comes full circle.

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Samson and Delilah

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By Willie Krischke

“Samson and Delilah” isn’t a re-telling of the Old Testament story of a strongman and a seductress, and least not in any straightforward way. It’s a film about two aboriginal teens in a backwater town in Australia. Samson wakes every day to the sound of a three piece rez band playing just outside his window; it’s possible that they’re rehearsing, I suppose, but it seems more like they’re just passing the time as best they can.  amson is impish and incorrigible; he takes what he wants simply by being persistent; he’s not violent, but he’s certainly a nuisance. At one point a storekeeper shoos him away like he would a stray dog.

Delilah couldn’t be more different. She diligently cares for her grandmother, waking her every morning and making sure she takes her pills, wheeling her to the health clinic (situated in a tractor trailer) and helping her paint the canvasses that an art dealer from the big city comes by and purchases once a month. Delilah has nothing but disgust and contempt for Samson, and does her best to ignore him. Her scorn and dirty looks don’t bother him a bit. In a moment of weakness she buys him a bag of candy, and he reads it as an invitation to move in with her.

There’s a certain humor in Samson’s unwillingness to take no for an answer, as well as in Delilah’s stubbornness, and it’s highlighted by the fact that there’s hardly any dialogue in the film. We learn late in the film that Samson can’t speak, but up until that point, it just seemed like everyone seemed more comfortable communicating without words. And thank goodness for the humor. “Samson and Delilah” starts out pretty bleak and grows darker after that. Some pretty awful things happen in “Samson and Delilah,” but the point might be ultimately uplifting; it’s about the human spirit’s ability to endure awful things and both offer and accept love, or at least kindness, in the midst of them.

It could be seen as a parable about the dangers of huffing gasoline. At the beginning of the film Samson is a happy-go-lucky incorrigible gas huffer, but by the end he’s barely alive. Delilah, to the contrary, is a girl who needs someone to care for.  She is smart hard working, and stubborn. When her grandmother dies, she is set adrift; it isn’t until Samson needs her that she seems to come alive again.

When Delilah’s grandmother dies, the women of the village beat her within an inch of her life. Meanwhile Samson endures a (much more deserved) beating, and decided to run off, taking her with him. They find themselves living under a bridge in the nearby town of Alice Springs; one of the most poignant (and disturbing) moments in “Samson and Delilah” comes when their truck runs out of gas, and Samson abandons it, carrying a bottle of gas with him – he’d rather huff it than use it to get somewhere worth going. This is when things are the bleakest; Delilah tries to find a way to make some money and buy some food, while Samson just looks for more gas to huff.  The filmmaker seemingly becomes locked in Samson’s drug-addled perspective; twice terrible things happen to Delilah as she walks a few feet behind him.  Both times we, the audience, watch as it happens in the background, out of focus; we are shocked, but he doesn’t notice, and we’re left to piece together as best we can what’s going on from very limited narrative bits.

But eventually, “Samson and Delilah” recovers from its bad case of gloom and despair; somebody (the film hints that it might be Christians) help Delilah out, and she, in turn, seeks out Samson and sets him on the road to recovery, even as she’s recovering from injuries herself.

The pace of “Samson and Delilah” is glacial; this isn’t blockbuster or even indie Hollywood. Things develop slowly and quietly.  Viewers used to the noise and flash of multiplex movies might find “Samson and Delilah” to be a real snoozer, but anyone accustomed to the way time passes on the rez should find the pace of “Samson and Delilah” familiar and relatable. This is a film you have to decide to watch; it quietly requires your attention, rather than clamoring for it.  If you’ll give it, you’ll find it to be a rewarding, emotionally powerful experience. Director Warwick Thornton and the two actors who play the leads–Rowan McNamara and Marissa Gibson–create compelling, relatable people out of the barest bones of cinematic storytelling.  I guarantee that if you stick with it and make it to the end of “Samson and Delilah,” you’ll want to watch it again, and share it with friends.

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