An article provides some background:
'Alive' Director: Blackfeet Thought Rez Drug Abuse Story 'Needed to Be Told'
By Vincent Schilling
Cole filmed the video on the Blackfeet Reservation in Browning, Montana, and worked with Blackfeet tribal members during the course of its creation.
Chase Iron Eyes waxing self-righteously on FILMING THE SUNDANCE CEREMONY, WTF?!
We should not film sacred ceremonies. What is sacred? You know; your spirit knows. You know when you are stepping over the line. Filming an actual sundance is clearly stepping over the line. If you want to spectate at the act of piercing or sun dancing you should not be able to do it on a god damned computer or any digital media for that matter. Haul your ass to an actual sundance; and when you're there don’t spectate, participate even if you consider yourself in the “audience” (support circle). Although we cannot fully incriminate the creators of this video because it’s not patently offensive as is the film of the actual ceremony, we still must state publicly, for the purpose of guiding the future of Indigenous country that filming or even dramatizing (in human form for the purpose of filming) the conducting of sacred acts and ceremonies such as the offering of a connected pipe and the sundance should never be taken lightly and altogether avoided. We only do these things to connect to the universe, not to make objects of them.
By Sophia Marjanovic
The people involved in making the video have defended it. First, Vincent Schilling interviewed Josh Cole, the Welsh director:
As a reformed drug addict I follow stories around the world where the worst drug abuse is common. It’s my mission with my career to try to steer people into recovery as a thanks to those that helped me with my own addiction. As such I was shooting a story about a reformed Hispanic gangster turned graffiti artist in LA and I met a Native American rapper who grew up on a reservation.
I was shocked to hear stories about the reservations--in Europe there is no concept generally about contemporary Native Americans. I then started researching and put together a story based on the stuff I was told about. I decided I would really like to tell Europe how difficult it is for Native Americans in modern America because most people have no idea who they are. All my work is about the beauty that comes from hardship and I wanted to tell the story of the spiritual awakening of a drug addict in a Native American community.
What were the reactions about this young man turning toward good then becoming a “martyr” as you put it?
I felt that the film needed an emotional finish. When people are moved they remember what they have seen. Plus it actually is somewhat of a happy ending because he is reunited with his girlfriend in the afterlife. There's also a message in there about the way your past follows you--that no matter how much you reform you can't always avoid who you were before. I have lost many many friends to the illness of addiction and this is often my experience.
Many Native people are concerned about using Native Americans in a romantic way as a form of poverty porn or sensationalism, what is your response?
I strive against this type of imagery myself and I don't think my work inspires pity at all. Everywhere I shoot I work very closely with the actual community to tell their story in the most authentic and meaningful way possible. Everywhere I've ever shot I can go back to and work again.
1. What did you do for the Alive video? How should we describe you?
I was the casting director, a production assistant, one of the primary in-community contacts, occasional truck driver, and loudest laugher on the set.
2. Why did you get involved in its production?
I got involved because I wanted to be part of this video that was going to be shot in my homeland, in the place that made me and is always with me no matter where I go or what I do. But also because I thought I might be able to offer advice / provide ideas regarding authenticity–and I mean that in the broadest sense. I'm fully aware of the difficulties American Indians face when it comes to issues of misrepresentation, and so if I can do something to alleviate that I will. Also, because this is a world where people need work to survive, I needed a temporary job to get me through the end of the fall semester.
3. What did you think of the storyline when you saw it? How do you think it portrays your community?
The storyline brings up a difficult question for me, and that is–how would I like our community to be seen? From an internal, on-rez perspective (namely mine), I think the story is eminently familiar, in part because various types of addiction are a serious problem in many reservation communities. Ours is no exception. And the juxtaposition of the healing power of traditional ceremony with these difficulties is also familiar–it's relatively easy to find people on the Blackfeet Reservation whose lives have been turned around in a good way through ceremony. I think this is a really important aspect of the narrative–that this young man, lost in drugs and violence, turns his life around through involvement in ceremony. People might say, Well, yeah, but he dies in the end–but everyone dies in the end, the question for me is how you lived the time you had. One of the difficulties, I think, comes in that this issue of addiction and poverty and violence on reservations is, in a way, a common story in Indian Country. Some Indian people are going comment that they want to see another aspect of our various communities represented–because reservation communities are in fact very diverse, and very complex, and there are many things, some quite beautiful and some quite banal, that get very little attention when it comes to national or global media. And I agree–these things do need to be shown. I want them shown as much or more than others. I’m a writer–my head is full of stories I think need to be told, and all of them are stories from Indian Country, and all of them are stories I want told as truthfully as possible. And sometimes truth hurts, but also in my experience healing usually begins with the pain of recognition.
So herein lies one of the great difficulties of the social demand for "realistic" representation vs. artistic/narrative demand. While there is shared space between the two, they are, I think, fundamentally different perspectives with ultimately different goals. The social demand is one of improved human rights, improved living conditions, better political and legal representation, etc.–and all of these things without ambiguity. There’s no way for me to call myself an American Indian and not be concerned with these things. On the other hand, the artistic demand is primarily a demand for successful art, and that demand falls into the realm of aesthetics–a realm that, for what it's worth, is almost always immediately thrown out when discussions like this come up. If the video weren't aesthetically successful, I'm not sure we'd be having this discussion at all, because it wouldn't be worth our attention. But because Josh Cole et al. shot a successful video, we’re having this dialogue which has nothing to do with the aesthetics of the thing. Ironic, to say the least. This is also why the goals of agents of social change are not necessarily going to line up with the aims of an artist, native or non-native. And this difference is why there is likely always going to be a degree of conflict between their disparate aims. Long story long, what I'm saying is that while the content of the video may in some ways be a relatively common story in Indian Country, to say that kind of story should not be shown simply because it's common is ridiculous. The answer to the problems of misrepresentation is not to stop representing difficult things that are still happening in Indian Country–the answer is more and more representation of the many different things that are happening.
I think a problem with HolyWhiteMountain's position is that it doesn't address Cole's intent. What did Cole say his intent was: to expose conditions on the rez, or to make successful art? If Cole had any desire to fulfill a "social demand," then all the criticism about "poverty porn" is on point. And HolyWhiteMountain is missing that point by suggesting we can't judge art by social or political standards.
No more dead Indians
Native filmmaker Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers isn't buying the Alive defense. In her blog, she addressed Cole and his arguments:
"Alive" or Better Off Dead?
The problem with the story you chose to tell is that it is a narrative that has been told time and time again. It depicts a losing battle with poverty, addiction, and violence. It’s a narrative about the dying race, the vanishing Indian. And who does this narrative blame for the death of a people? The Indians themselves. This narrative ignores the complexities of colonialism and all those implicated within the colonial narrative. In telling the story this way, you ignore the reasons behind this young man’s addiction and his community’s struggles.
Again, as you mentioned, several of the CrazyDogs connected with the script because it was similar to their own story. In fact, the story is quite like my brother’s story. However, he is now acing his second year of university, he is the president of the Native American Students Association at this university, and he is actively involved in the Sundance societies. He is also expecting his first child with his beautiful Blackfoot partner who is attending university as well. You see, he didn’t end up dead and neither did those CrazyDogs you worked with. So I find it quite interesting that the song is titled “Alive” yet you leave us with a dead Indian at the foot of Chief Mountain, one of our most sacred sites. Was it really necessary to kill your main character? Wasn’t one dead Indian enough for you? You sure do make the afterlife look appealing in comparison to reality and your statement on this being a “happy ending” is a bit too simplistic. I hope you understand that your choice in ending plays into another very familiar narrative for us–that our people are better off dead. That “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Our people don’t need to see another dead warrior. What you could have shown is a story like my brother’s or all those living and breathing members of the CrazyDogs. A story that give us hope and that doesn’t leave us feeling completely defeated.
We should also discuss Indigenous representation. You see, native people have been represented and misrepresented onscreen since the time the very first moving picture was made. We’ve seen the stoic Indian, the drunk or strung-out Indian, the helpless Indian maiden, the broke Indian, and the dead Indian a thousand times before. We get it. We’ve got problems that need fixing but it’s not your job to fix them.
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