Road to Paloma & The Lesser Blessed

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Road to Paloma & The Lesser Blessed

Originally published in Indian Life magazine.

Road-to-Paloma

 

Two pretty decent films about Native Americans (and featuring Native American actors) have been released on DVD recently.

“The Road to Paloma” stars Jason Momoa, who also directed the film. Momoa, who is of Hawaiian, Pawnee, German and Irish descent, is probably best known for playing the fierce Khal Drogo in HBO’s series “Game of Thrones.” He’s also the star of SundanceTV’s series “The Red Road,” which is about Ramapouh Mountain Indians in New Jersey. In fact, according to the internet, he got that role because of this movie.

Momoa is easy to look at, an icon of beefy masculinity, but he also handles himself admirably behind the camera.  “Road to Paloma” can’t boast the most interesting or original plot, but it is chock full of beautiful and striking images, and there’s a sense of moody grace to its proceedings.  And even though the whole thing is pretty much a cliche, Momoa manages to keep it from feeling campy, silly, or ham-handed.

He plays a member of the Mojave tribe on the run from the police, after avenging the violent death of his mother. The death and the vengeance all take place before the movie starts; it’s essentially a road trip movie, as Momoa rides his tricked out chopper across painted desert and endeavours to deliver his mother’s ashes to their final resting place. Along the way, he befriends a wayward rock star, fixes Lisa Bonet’s radiator (Bonet and Momoa are husband and wife in real life, and she also co-stars in “The Red Road), and visits his baby nephew. But the FBI are on this trail, and it’s only a matter of time before this idyllic journey must come to a tragic end.

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“The Lesser Blessed” takes place in the Northwest Territories, which feels like a completely different planet from the canyons and rock formations Momoa motorcycles past. Based on this movie, there’s no beauty up north, only bleakness, and people trying their hardest to fight off both the coldness outside and the darkness within.

Joel Evans plays a loner Dogrib (Tlicho) teenager who is contantly picked on and doesn’t have any friends. He’s in love with the prettiest girl in school, but can hardly say hi to her.  He’s new in town, and has a dark secret, which only one other boy in town knows about, and that kid seems determined to make his life miserable.

But then Kiowa Gordon shows up, and everything gets a little better. Gordon has the great hair, winning smile and easy charisma of a young Johnny Depp.  And he knows how to fight. He stands up for Evans, befriends him, and then seduces the pretty girl. This may not be the ideal situation for Evans — he’s essentially the third wheel everywhere they go — but it’s a lot better than things used to be.

“The Lesser Blessed” is essentially a high school coming of age story, and, like “Road to Paloma,” isn’t exactly the most original material.  When Evans’ big secret is revealed, he discovers who his real friends are, and finds out that sometimes the people who seem hardest to trust are most deserving of it, and the ones you think are close are going to bail on you as soon as things get tough.  These might not be the most profound revelations, but, like “Paloma,” this movie doesn’t oversell itself, and the result is a pleasant, if moody, movie experience.

In both of these movies, sense of place is important, but the places they portray are somewhat romanticized on the screen.  The deserts in the southwest are filled with a rugged beauty that seems made for motorcycle road trips; however, they’re also full of big empty spaces between those beautiful places, and those never show up in “Road to Paloma.”  And, while I’ve never had the opportunity to visit the Northwest Territories, I trust that life there isn’t quite as bleak and ugly as it appears to be in “The Lesser Blessed.” There’s beauty to be found up North, too, I’m sure of it.

I’d recommend both of these movies to anyone interested in Native cinema — they may not be big award-winners, but they’re both solidly entertaining and artistic pieces of indie filmmaking.  However, viewer beware: there is some objectionable material in both of them.  “Paloma” features a scene in a strip club, with all that that entails, and the teenagers in “Blessed” use drugs at a house party. Neither movie glorifies this kind of behavior (in fact, “Paloma” is clearly frowning on it,) but it’s there, nonetheless. I have no doubt that some people will be offended by it. You’ve been warned.

Winter in the Blood

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Based on the 1974 novel by James Welch, “Winter in the Blood” is a dreamy, often brutally dark film about an alcoholic on the Blackfeet reservation in Montana.  Chaske Spencer plays Virgil First Raise, who lives his life in an alternating state of drunken stupor and hung-over bleariness. There’s not much that you could call a plot here; First Raise wakes up in a ditch as the film opens, discovers his wife has left him, heading into town with his rifle and his electric razor, and he eventually decides he ought to go after her, at least to get the rifle back. But even this quest doesn’t feel at all urgent; he seems to not really care if he gets her or the rifle back, and he’s not in a hurry.

Instead, this is a very wandering, impressionistic film.  Directors Alex & Andrew Smith do a great job of capturing how, if you live in one place long enough, almost anything can trigger a flashback to a powerful, often painful memory.  We learn, as the film unfolds, that Virgil has lost both his father and his older brother is traumatic and scarring ways.  We also learn that he’s basically a good guy who takes care of his silent grandmother whom everyone else seems to have forgotten about.  He is drowning in the pain of his past, and drowns his pain in drink, and meaningless sexual encounters.

The darkness of “Winter in the Blood,” along with its plotlessness and general lack of shape, can make it a challenging film to enjoy.  We aren’t told much about Virgil, and we’re quickly given more reasons to dislike him than to like him, and this is not a hopeful story about transformation of character. You’ve pretty much got to stick with this character because you know someone like him; I think a lot of us know someone like him.

Chaske Spencer is excellent in the lead role; he’s an actor who can convey a ton of emotion in a single facial expression, a way of standing, of stumbling out of the house. I think Spencer might be the finest young Native actor currently working; Adam Beach is more famous, but doesn’t have the range and intensity of Spencer. It’s a shame most people know Spencer for playing the werewolf in the silly, stupid “Twilight” movies.  He’s a very talented actor who is always worth watching.  ”Winter in the Blood” also features a fine supporting cast, including one of my favorite actors, Gary Farmer, the ever-present Saginaw Grant (even if you don’t know his name, you’ll recognize him when you see him) and the up-and-coming Michael Spears, who is just one good role away from real stardom.

Also David Morse, the only white man in the film, who plays a character who may or may not be real.  Dressed like he just walked off a dude ranch (complete with ridiculous mustache and ascot) and talks like he grew up in Twin Peaks.  He recruits Virgil to help him smuggle something or other across the Canadian border, but then abandons the plan when he finds out Virgil isn’t full-blood.  There are also to comical looking characters chasing him.  This part of the movie is surreal and funny and odd; it doesn’t really fit with anything else that’s going on.  It might all be a hallucination, but whatever it is, I don’t know what it’s doing in the film.

“Winter in the Blood” is a movie about memory, identity, and trauma; it’s also a movie about despair and addiction.  Like Virgil First Raise, it’s kind of a confused, hazy film with no clear direction or purpose.  Directors Alex and Andrew Smith are clearly more interested in capturing a mood, a state of being, than in telling a story, and while I haven’t read the novel the movie is based on, sometimes this film illustrated the difficulty of bringing a great book to the screen — things that happen effortlessly on the page are really difficult to bring to the screen.  There’s art, and even a kind of harsh beauty, in the attempts, but it doesn’t always work.  It’s often a visually beautiful film, capturing those Montana skies, and fields of grass and cattle in ways that reminded me of films like “Days of Heaven.”

All in all, this is a very uneven work, and it’s certainly not for everyone.  Even as I was watching this, I found myself thinking “I see enough despair, wasted lives, alcoholism, and dysfunctional relationships in my regular life.  Do I need to see it on the screen, too?”  If you feel that way, stay away from this one.  But if you watch most of the movies out there and think, “That’s just not the way it is where I live,” you might want to give this one a chance.

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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