February 11, 2008

What makes a movie Native?

The success of the Navajo-themed Turquoise Rose provides an opportunity to address an unresolved question.

“Turquoise Rose”...What Navajo Made that Movie?The first time we spoke more than a year ago, Turquoise Rose director Travis Hamilton said he hoped people would leave the theatre asking, “What Navajo made that movie?”

Travis Hamilton isn’t Navajo—hell, he isn’t even Native. But audiences who’ve seen his film, even Navajo audiences, are leaving the theatre asking that very question.

Perhaps this explains the pleasure of watching his sweetly uncomplicated film with an all Navajo cast starring Natasha Kaye Johnson, Ethel Begay and Deshava Apachee.

The film succeeds, not so much because of the light script, but because Hamilton has the confidence to defer to the images of sandstone landscapes, dusty highways and most of all, to his actors. Together, they tell her story; no, let me rephrase that—they show the growth of the young woman rejoining her external and spiritual life.
More on Natasha Kaye Johnson:The fact that she pulled it off so effortlessly is even more impressive when you realize that the Twin Lakes, New Mexico actress had never performed in front of a camera before. And those in the know are noticing. She was nominated for Best Actress at the 2007 American Indian Film Festival and has filmed a short film for ABC-Disney called Rez Runner with other opportunities landing her way.

She’s got the bug, she admits, but not just for acting. A former reporter for the Gallup Independent, Johnson recently moved to Phoenix to advance her journalism career while considering her options performing on the big screen.

“Right now I’m on that fence about what I want to do…acting or journalism? ...So far, though, it’s been frustrating. Some of the scripts I’ve been sent have been sooo stereotypical. I mean, are you serious?”
Comment:  As we saw in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Comanche Moon, filmmakers are dead-serious about presenting false or misleading stories about Indians. They'll invest millions of dollars to mollify mainstream America with a safe and comforting message. Namely, that Indians were savages who engaged in warfare just like whites. That Americans were (and are) noble, honorable people who would never harm others intentionally. That conflict was inevitable and so we weren't to blame for the tragedy that ultimately happened.

I look forward to seeing Turquoise Rose. But I'm still confused about what makes a "Native" movie Native. Turquoise Rose seems roughly analogous to Dances with Wolves--non-Native writer and director, largely Native cast. About Dances and other movies written by non-Natives, Carole Levine said that "no matter how good or lousy" they are, they "just can’t fake it." Yet Hamilton's work on Turquoise Rose suggests that a non-Native can do an acceptably "Native" movie. That non-Natives can indeed fake it.

So the basic question remains unanswered. Can a non-Native create a movie (or play, or novel, or comic book) that Native people would accept as "Native"? Or must a work of fiction be created by a Native to qualify as "Native"?

9 comments:

russell said...

Writerfella here --
Good question. But the answer must be more complex than the original question. By standards named here, there have been almost no "Native' films save for those that were made by Natives alone. Such a set of qualifiers would mean that any 'Native' films made from this point in time must meet both rules and contexts that Natives never would have considered when they set out to produce their products. No non-Native financing, no non-Native writing, no non-Native directing, and no non-Native releasing. Native films therefore would become entities that MUST be all-Native productions, as much their own as, say, Native jewelry. Otherwise, their films must be seen as non-Native by such a rationale, which must that of the yclept Native American Producers Guild...
All Best
Russ Bates
'writerfella'

russell said...

Writerfella here --
Tonight (Tuesday, 2/12), writerfella and cousin Milton Paddlety finally took in THERE WILL BE BLOOD, and an astounding epiphany occurred to them both as they viewed the film. First, since it was about the birth of the oil industry, it affected them because they finally are part and parcel to oil leases sold by the BIA in 2007 on their own tribal land holdings. Second, the film reveals that EuroMan successfully has built an exploitative culture and society and civilization and a nation in which EuroMan is safe to do anything he wants, and to say anything he wants, and to have anything he wants, and to be anything he wants, and he STILL is not being made happy by all of the above. EuroMan's philosophy was shown to be that no one else should succeed but he, and that he cannot live with the success of anyone save for himself. Never has any one film revealed to writerfella what this world really is all about, and it will from now on be taken as gospel for writerfella's own writings hereafter and his own reactions to how EuroMan's society treats him. Daniel Day-Lewis will win the Academy Award for Best Actor later this month and the film likely will win for Best Picture. Certainly, writerfella's own Academy ballot will carry such votes. And now he knows exactly WHY his treatment on this blogsite has become what it is...
All Best
Russ Bates
'writerfella'

dmarks said...

So, Russ, is that what it boils down to? This web site is all about Euroman Rob persecuting Native Russ?

Shonie De La Rosa said...

In Russells first comment:

"No non-Native financing, no non-Native writing, no non-Native directing, and no non-Native releasing. Native films therefore would become entities that MUST be all-Native productions"

Our film Mile Post 398 fits all that. 100% Native Produced.

Rob said...

So Turquoise Rose isn't a Native movie, Russ? I gather that's your position even though you weren't clear enough to say so.

In her essay, Carole apparently disagrees. Now if only we could get together and debate the issue directly rather than indirectly.

By the way, your jewelry analogy is problematical since non-Natives sometimes commission (pay for) Native jewelry and sometimes "release" and distribute (sell) it. So jewelry that everyone else recognizes as Native isn't Native, according to you.

Anyone can define "Native movie" however they wish, of course. For the purposes of this blog and website, I've defined it broadly as any movie by or about Native people.

Rob said...

Re "And now he knows exactly WHY his treatment on this blogsite has become what it is...": Yes, it's amazing that I let you ramble on about your writing credits, your friends and relatives, and your fanciful theories about Indians. Anyone else would've deleted many of your unsubstantiated and irrelevant postings. For my exceptional tolerance, I pat myself on the back.

russell said...

Writerfella here --
Unfortunately not. First, examine Rob's criteria, which is where writerfella's comment first arose.
Second, dMarks comment better would have been found in the Ruby Ridge Gazette as a consistent editorial.
Third, writerfella heretofore already has contributed to this blog that, unlike writerfella's own contributions to published and filmic media, almost all of what has come to be considered 'Native films' has been solely about reservation life and reservation people, limiting the perception of the audience for such productions to be that ALL Natives ONLY live on reservations. Evaluate the truth of such a perception and then come to know what is the state of 'Native movies...'
All Best
Russ Bates
'writerfella'

Rob said...

"Unfortunately not" what? Another vague and therefore worthless comment.

You may have written some non-reservation stories before, Russ. But you've also praised movies like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Comanche Moon for portraying Indians as denizens of the past. At best you're sending a mixed message.

Meanwhile, I'm constantly touting Native achievements off the rez: in the arts, in business, in politics, in sports, on the Internet, etc. So you don't need to tell us that that modern-day Indians are more than savages, drunks, or casino owners. Readers of Newspaper Rock are getting the message every day.

Rob said...

Re "Daniel Day-Lewis will win the Academy Award for Best Actor later this month and the film likely will win for Best Picture": You were one for two. Daniel Day-Lewis won but No Country for Old Men was named best picture. You should've listened to the critics, who generally agreed that No Country for Old Men would win.