July 24, 2009

Native films need crossover potential

Someone who recently saw the movie Older than America had this to say about Native filmmaking:It's difficult for me to evaluate Native films these days without taking into consideration whether or not the project has the potential to reach beyond a niche audience. Perhaps this is an unfair burden to place on Native filmmakers who for the most part are mostly concerned with working out historical and current socio-economic grievances in the "personal filmmaking" mode, but for Native cinema to truly grow from its insular indulgences and achieve interest from mainstream audiences, it eventually has to show some crossover potential.

That said, I've recently seen two films, "Older Than America" and "Rez Bomb," both of which demonstrate the promise and often frustrating limitations of Native cinema. Out of four stars, I'd give both films two and a half. They both held my attention during their running times, but I don't see how either of them would generate much interest from the multiplex mentality. If I were a major theatrical distributor, I'd take a pass. The future of these two projects is probably relegated to the film festival circuit and possibly a cable outlet like the Independent Film Channel but more likely an eventual modest DVD release. This is just another reason investors are so reluctant to fund Native films.

Looking at the films on their own merits, "Older Than America" is the more ambitious of the two efforts, wearing its sometimes preachy agenda on its sleeve of bringing to light past abuses in Indian boarding schools. Director/co-writer/actress Georgina Lightning assembles a recognizable cast, including Adam Beach, Wes Studi and Bradley Cooper (recently gaining career momentum from "The Hangover") and surrounds them with a tale of supernatural visions, family secrets, murder, small-town political and religious corruption, and sweat lodge healing ceremonies.

The story of the systematic abuse of Indian children in boarding schools in the 19th and 20th centuries is powerful enough material on its own, but in "Older Than America," it's almost as if the writers felt they had to make the history more palatable by surrounding it with every genre convention they could think of: Supernatural mystery at old abandoned boarding school, check. Romance between tribal police officer (Beach) and local teacher (Lightning), check. Introduction of out-of-town white guy (Cooper) for mainstream audience to identify with, check. Hissable villains in the forms of corrupt priest and mayor, check. Wise old Indian man who helps bridge the supernatural world with traditional ceremonies, check.

The overall result is too many characters, too many dangling plot threads and not enough of a "real world" sense of what the Indian boarding school experience means or should mean to American society as a whole. I applaud the effort of trying to reach out to a wide audience, but in trying so hard to do so much the filmmakers may have ironically marginalized the film even more.

Story issues aside, as a filmmaker, Georgina Lightning acquits herself quite well. She scores solid performances from her actors across the board, the tech credits (as Variety would say) are very professional for a low budget effort, and as a director of action and suspense, she stages her scenes effectively. However, when it comes to scenes of intimacy, this is where she falls a bit short. Her bedroom scenes with co-star Adam Beach are particularly awkward and squirm-inducing in their obvious lack of chemistry. This could be attributed to rumors of on-set friction between her and Beach, since she seems less self-conscious in scenes with the other actors, but Lightning might have been better off concentrating on directing and casting another actress like Tonatzin Carmelo (who, as you know, covered similar supernatural territory in "Imprint"), DeLanna Studi or Tamara Feldman in the lead role.

Speaking of Tamara Feldman, she is one of the pleasant discoveries of "Rez Bomb," the other Native-themed film I saw this month. The film was actually written and directed by a non-Native (Steven Lewis Simpson) and it's essentially a young-lovers-on-the-run film set near the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. Feldman (her bio says she's part Cherokee) plays a young Lakota woman who falls for a ne'er do well white guy and gets swept up in his drama of treachery and violence in which they both find themselves pursued by a sadistic loan shark. The film on paper actually has more crossover potential than "Older Than America," but is ultimately undone in its execution by its ultra low-budget trappings. The performances range from painfully amateurish to passably competent and the tech credits range from sometimes serviceable to pretty much non-existent. Feldman sometimes has trouble elevating her performance above the cliched script, but she's really the only thing worth seeing in the film (she shines in scenes where there is no required dialogue), and one wonders if she'll become to the go-to actress when it comes to Native roles for women.
Comment:  It may be tough if not impossible to make an accessible movie about boarding schools. Or other heartrending Native topics. How do you avoid saying "This is wrong!" and "People like you in the audience are to blame!"

I've seen Tamara Feldman in some roles. E.g., Poppy Lifton in Gossip Girl. She seems a decent enough actress.

But I hope she doesn't become the go-to girl for too many Native roles. Unless the roles are only part Native, that is. People such as Delanna Studi, Tonantzin Carmelo, Misty Upham, and Tamara Podemski should be getting these roles, not a part Cherokee with starlet looks.

For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Movies.


Anonymous said...

Not every film is meant for megaplex success. How many indies made by White or Black or Asian or all cultural voices filmmakers get big audiences? The mainstream exhibition and distribution system relies on names and marketing to the dumb-downed populace. What is important is what happens to the audience that does get to see these films. Festivals (and there are many), community screenings, word-of-mouth, these are all legit means of getting out your message and film. And in many ways, a more subversive way.

I'm sure all filmmakers would like financial and box office success, but just b/c they aren't getting that doesn't mean they failed.

Jet said...

Anyone who imagines writes, produces, and gets a film project on a screen and in front of an audience is a success. Even at a "low budget" level it is a huge undertaking.
That being said, I agree with the view of the writer of the article. Colleen Simard (Urban NDN magazine)also wrote about the need for cross-over films to get Natives artists onto the big screen in the Winnepeg Free press. I have detailed my quest to produce a Native-themed "cross-over" film here on Newspaper Rock in the past. It is my belief that to reach a broader "cross-over" audience the film has to speak to all cultures on an emotional level, telling stories that anyone can relate to, from any tribe, culture or walk of life for that matter.
No, every film isn't made for the multi-plex, but until someone produces a "breakout" film (Whale Rider, Slumdog Millionaire) that features Native Americans in lead roles, the movie-going public's perceptions will be fueled by Hollywood. It's been ten years since "Smoke Signals" let's get busy! I am still trying...

Keep the faith.

Anonymous said...