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Indians in the movies go back about as far as movies themselves. While there's been enough consciousness-raising in recent decades that only the most naive audience members could still believe that the movie Indians--both noble and savage--we've all been brought up on are accurate reflections of real Native Americans, the ugly, real-life effects of those images remain.
Last weekend, a fledgling effort to redress this problem was made at "Imagining Indians: A Native American Film Festival." A co-production of Scottsdale Center for the Arts (the venue for most of the events), Native American Producers Alliance, and Atlatl (a service organization for Native American artists), it was promoted as the first festival in this country to centrally feature films and videos actually produced by indigenous people.
The title for the event was taken from the film Imagining Indians, directed by festival artistic director Victor Masayesva Jr. (Hollywood's Warp Path," January 20, 1993). Guests included the likes of American Indian Movement activist turned actor Russell Means, actor Gary Farmer and actresses Tantoo Cardinal and Sheila Tousey, among many lesser-known artists.
Because of the focus on native-produced works, "Imagining Indians" was, for a film festival, singularly sparse both in film screenings and in festivity. The tone at many of the panel discussions was poignantly somber, leavened at times with grim, gallows humor.
As Chris Eyre, an Arapaho/Cheyenne board member of NAPA and a grad student in film at New York University (his short film Tenacity was screened), puts it: "As far as native cinema's gone, it hasn't existed. Even when [non-native filmmakers] plug native people in, or use original costumes and artifacts, that doesn't make a native film." The rarity of authentically native cinema necessitated the padding of the program with films like Dances With Wolves, The Last of the Mohicans and Thunderheart, all of which were received much more enthusiastically on their initial release by non-native "Indian buffs" than by natives themselves. Also shown, at an outdoor screening Saturday night at the Gila River Indian Community, was a prerelease cut of Sioux City, a routine and rather clich‚ murder mystery set on a Nebraska reservation, directed by and starring Lou Diamond Phillips.
There were, however, a number of films, and even more videos, screened at "Imagining Indians" which seemed (to me, admittedly no expert) truly representative of native life and interests in this country. These included Masayesva's own Imagining Indians, a combination of documentary and satirical footage on the popular image of Indians in media; and PowWow Highway (1989), a sometimes gripping, sometimes comic road movie featuring terrific performances by Gary Farmer and A Martinez. Also screened was last year's Where the Rivers Flow North, which, though principally concerned with a non-native character (the great Rip Torn as an obdurate Vermont logger), justified its screening because of the sublime performance by Tantoo Cardinal as the logger's housekeeper and companion.
The videos I saw included documentaries such as Ava Hamilton's Children of Wind River, a half-hour piece about day-care issues on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, made for Wyoming Public Television. In general, the videos were informative but negligible (and not intended) as cinematic art, although Phil Lucas' Healing the Hurt had astoundingly powerful footage of a therapy session for adults who had been abused as children at non-native residential schools.
Two of the most cinematically interesting films shown were about the concerns of oppressed tribal people in another part of the world--New Zealand. Barry Barclay's Te Rua, about the attempt by a group of Maori to recover the native art of its ancestors from a Berlin museum, suffered from scattershot editing but had several dazzling, tense sequences and a star performance by the excellent Wai Kuki Kaa (of Geoff Murphy's Utu). Merata Mita's Mauri, about a man's struggle to come to terms with his native identity, suffered from overwrought acting, but was rich in haunting images.
Whatever their flaws, these two films were well-enough produced, viable enough as cinema, to serve as a model for native filmmakers on this continent. Eyre notes that for Native American film to become vital, ". . . it has to be done by auteurs, by writers and directors. That's the effort we're trying to make. It's going to take that one film that breaks through as a commercial theatrical release . . . that's going to open the gate for native filmmakers. There was always black cinema, but Spike Lee created a renaissance."
A young Cherokee filmmaker named Randy Redroad, whose short comedy Cow Tipping: The Militant Indian Waiter was screened at "Imagining Indians," shows the same kind of acidic yet accessible wit, with the potential for crossover commercial appeal, for which Spike Lee became celebrated.
Much of what was liveliest at the festival came not from the films, but from the panel discussions and other live presentations. On opening night, for instance, after a sweet invocation and performance by native flutist Robert Tree Cody (grandson of the familiar actor Iron Eyes Cody), came the keynote address by Floyd Red Crow Westerman, a Lakota actor and folk singer best known to non-Indians for appearances in movies such as Dances With Wolves and The Doors.
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