June 16, 2009

Review of Stories in Stone

Stories in StoneStories in Stone is a film about the Narragansett tribal stonemasons who, over the last four hundred years, have built many stonewalls that wind picturesquely through the woods of southern New England. Interspersing footage that elegantly captures the beauty of the walls with interviews with tribal elders and members of two prominent Narragansett mason families, Lilach Dekel and Marc Levitt weave a story that is at once poetic and inspirational. Stories in Stone is a story of love; for place, heritage and family and a tale that demonstrates how a craft, utilized initially at the point of European contact, has served as a strategy for resiliency and resistance.

Stories in Stone is the first film that looks at the Narragansett wall building tradition from multiple perspectives, artistic, spiritual, multi-generational and as a story of tribal affirmation. While some would see wall building as the haphazard placement of rocks, Stories in Stone, demonstrates that the wall’s beauty is the result of a finely honed and ever evolving sculptural aesthetic. While some see the walls as ‘the only option’ for the Narragansett, Stories in Stone makes clear, that more often than not, becoming a mason is a choice, a choice that allows freedom of movement, freedom from ‘inside’ work, freedom from working for others and the freedom to join a long and illustrious line of ancestors. While many believe that ‘tradition’ among New England Tribes is long gone, Stories in Stone makes clear that wall building remains a means to assert and perpetuate Tribal identity; in the choice to be a mason, in the placement of symbols, in the use of a particular aesthetic, in the visceral relationship to stone and in one’s spiritual connection to nature.
Another posting makes a key point about this documentary:With no central narrator, “Stories in Stone” allows the Narragansett to tell their own story without the use of outside “experts.”As you can see in the trailer, half a dozen Narragansett Indians talk about their craft in touchy-feely terms. I would've preferred a central narrator and outside experts to provide more information. In going for a "poetic and inspirational" feel, the film fails to address a host of questions. For instance:

  • How and why did the Narragansett learn stonework from the English colonists? Why these Indians and not others? Why did they stick with rather than give it up?

  • Are stone walls common in Rhode Island, New England, or the entire Eastern Seaboard? Why stone walls in some locations but not others? How do stone walls compare to walls of wood, metal, brick, or cement?

  • Who hires the Narragansett to build stone walls? Who is the competition? How is stonework doing as an industry? Can people make a living at it, or do they have to take second jobs?

  • In other words, the film needs more historical, geographical, and economic information. Without it, it's like any New Age story--a flute song of a documentary. Some people may enjoy it, but I found it lacking.

    For more on the subject, see Native Documentaries and News.

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