From the dawn of cinema, images of Indigenous peoples have been dominated by Hollywood stereotypes and often negative depictions from elsewhere around the world. With the advent of digital technologies, however, many Indigenous peoples are working to redress the imbalance in numbers and counter the negativity. The contributors to Reverse Shots offer a unique scholarly perspective on current work in the world of Indigenous film and media. Chapters focus primarily on Canada, Australia, and New Zealand and cover areas as diverse as the use of digital technology in the creation of Aboriginal art, the healing effects of Native humour in First Nations documentaries, and the representation of the pre-colonial in films from Australia, Canada, and Norway.
He Who Dreams: Reflections on an Indigenous Life in Film
Stage directions are in brackets. The keynote requires the performer to stand in front of a blank white screen, upon which projections will appear throughout the address.
Greetings and welcome colleagues, friends. Tansi and Boozhoo filmakers, directors, screenwriters, critics, and scholars. Hello cineastes, film junkies. [slyly] You know who you are. [beat] If a movie comes on at 2 a.m.-even if you're dead tired-you'll watch it all the way to the bitter end, all the way to the final fade-out and credits! (Even if it's terrible. Even if you've seen it before.)
[sheepish AA first-timer] "Hi, my name is Michael. I'm a film addict."
[using various voices, overlapped]: "Hi Michael. Hi, Mike."
Ladies and Gentlemen. This is a map of a human heart. This is a chalk outline. These are footprints in the snow . leading to .
EXT. NIGHT. WINTER.
The air has a deadly chill. Lights from nearby houses and cottages cast an eerie glow through a stand of trees. THREE MEN are walking down a country road. The snow is hard-packed underfoot. Their breath comes churning out of their mouths. Their BOOTS SQUEAKING against the snow.
One of the MEN, a NATIVE man in his mid-20s, motions the others to stop. He HEARS something. They all stop.
CLOSE ON NATIVE MAN.
Do you hear that?
The other MEN shake their heads. The NATIVE MAN listens. He hears only winter silence.
(shaking his head)
They start walking again. Eager to get back inside to the warmth.
(Sound: Trees cracking in the wind. Likes bones breaking.)
The other two MEN halt, again listening intently.
Something's out there. It's following us. I can hear it when we're walking. But when we stop. It stops.
POV from behind the trees. CAMERA dollies through the woods. The trunks of trees passing in front of the lens. Thick black rectangles moving Right to Left across the screen. The THREE MEN, not altogether unaware they are being watched, start walking quickly towards the house down the road.
(Sound: Bones breaking.)
The air was so cold and clear that night that the sound of our shoes hitting the hard-pack snow was echoing in the trees . Just our own footsteps bouncing off tree after tree. That's all . It was better when I thought it was breaking bones.
National Ballet School. Maitland Street. Distorted mirrors and wooden floors.
"First Native boy, a Cree from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, accepted into Canada's National Ballet School, after extensive auditions across Canada." Betty O. Broken bones.
Toronto, 1987. National Ballet. 70 Dancers. Full Orchestra. Powdered wigs. Frederick Ashton and Petipa. Fake moustaches and tambourines. Bones breaking. Swan Lake.
Breaking bones as I fell from the sky. Eliot Feld. July. So hot that I sweated through black leather ballet shoes. Leaving black footprints on the marley dance floor. Nancy. Walking hand in hand down 18th St. Astoria. Union Square. East Village. I saw Dances With Wolves on Broadway and 14th. Brown faces ten feet tall. Told her I wanted to be an actor. She didn't bat an eyelash.
Franklin. The 101. La Cienega. Sepulveda. Burbank. Darryl Marshak. Harry Gold. First class airfare. Scripts arriving FED EX. Breaking bones.
[using a woman's tonality] "Yes, just look into the camera. Tell us your name and the part you're reading for."
[some confidence, but still mostly tentative.] "Hi, my name is Michael Greyeyes. I'm reading for the part of Red Cloud."
The image of the Indian is a site of contest. Within this arena, theories of identity, racism, history, language, authenticity, essentialism, post-colonialism, etc., vie for dominance, each providing an entry point into the debate but none offering a complete picture of it.
Two recent documentaries: The Bronze Screen and The Slanted Screen bring into focus the idea that our-and I am speaking as an actor-our participation in an industry devoted to emptying us out, reinscribing us as they see fit is . problematic. That the cards are stacked against us. That the way out of the trap is to write, direct, and produce our own work. Subjectivity is the answer. This is, of course, right.
Taking the reins, as it were, is a no-brainer. But being armed with a digital camera doesn't make you accomplished. How do we develop the skill sets to make lasting work? The ability to create cinema and television that can change the world doesn't usually spring from the womb. There is a system of training required. Some will call it programming, inculcation, indoctrination-but however you take it, whatever you name it, the training is needed before you have the right to call yourself a filmmaker, a writer . an actor.
You can't walk onto the arena floor at Schemitzun and call yourself a dancer, just because you've got brown skin, black hair, [under the breath] and a flat ass. I would think that you'd need to practise a bit, learn the songs, earn the right!?
Me? I had two systems of training: a conservatory model, with a good dose of on-the-job training, and the classic Indigenous model: mentorship. But we'll talk more about that later on.
Okay, so you've got your diploma in hand, or experience under your belt. This isn't your first barbecue. Before you run out the door, to write, direct, and produce your own work, I need to mention something. I don't want to be a drag or bring you down, but let me play devil's advocate for a moment. How are you going to get your film out there?
[encouraging] You've got the thing in the can. Great! I know how hard it was to raise the money. Believe me. A movie about Indigenous people, made entirely by Indigenous people. Hell. They probably wanted to give you ten dollars to go away!
Ahh, great! The film festival route is excellent. American Indian Film Festival in San Fran is a great place to start. Dreamkeeper! Fantastic. Sundance. South by Southwest. Cannes! Go for it. Shop it around.
[change of tone/ugly and condescending] Dress it up nice, while you're at it! Put a wig on it, a nice pair of shoes. Redo the poster. Look you've got a hunk in the lead. Have him take his shirt off. Show off those pecs. That gorgeous brown skin! What's the matter with you? What? It's an art film? What does that mean? Lots of dialogue, no plot-that you want to lose money.
[strident, lecturing] This is a marketplace. We work on commission .
[sudden change of tone/somewhat ashamed] I apologize. I didn't mean to bring him out.
What I meant to bring up is that without distribution, the fine work of Indigenous filmmakers-our hard-won subjectivity-will remain unseen, unheard. Without the imprimateur of studio distribution, I might never have seen Once Were Warriors, Tsotsi, Rabbit-Proof Fence, Whale Rider, to name but a few international films.
No problem. Making the film is the hard part. (It is.) Distribution, by comparison, is cake.
Witness the much-heralded collaboration between Sherman Alexie and Chris Eyre, Smoke Signals. It was the darling of the festival film circuit. A Miramax film with all the trimmings. And it was ground-breaking. Indian characters were complex, fully problematized, and compelling. No white hero trope to bring a large-scale (read white) audience inside the story and our communities.1
By 1999, Variety had announced that Miramax has signed a deal with Alexie to bring his own novel, Reservation Blues, to the screen. Months later-after swimming in the shark-infested waters-Sherman announced, "He was quitting the movie business" (Lyons 1). Reservation Blues replaced the forgiving tone of Smoke Signals with a more violent, angrier, and strident vision. When push came to shove, Miramax wanted no part of actual Native subjectivity.
In an interview with the San Francisco Examiner, Alexie commented wryly:
There is a perception in Hollywood that Smoke Signals was a noble failure . In meetings I had, everyone had seen it, but the tone was, "I wish it would have done better." I always say that in the year it came out, it did better than Pi, Buffalo 66, and The Slums of Beverly Hills put together. It was easier to get $ 2 million to make Smoke Signals than $ 200,000 to make Fancy Dancing. I couldn't get anyone to give me $ 50,000. ("Sherman Leaving Hollywood")
As a countermove, Alexie-as big a name in the Indigenous firmament as anyone-began making films on DV (his first The Business of Fancydancing) and seeking distribution outside of the major studio infrastructure. The move towards true Indigenous subjectivity within Hollywood remains a dream, despite promising press releases, "Indie" film awards, and public pronouncements to the contrary.
The control of the Indian image remains contested.
Given this reality, I propose that the work of Native actors in mainstream films and...