By Amy Nicholson
By LA Weekly critics
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Anthony D'Alessandro
Smoke Signals director Eyre agrees. “I don’t think a lot of people see value in telling stories about modern Indians,” he says. “But I don’t see the value in films that show the past. They all end the same way — the Indians die.”
The blame doesn’t fall entirely on the industry, however. Palm Springs Native American Film Festival programmer Thomas Harris, who screened all 360 of this year’s entries, says many Native filmmakers rely too heavily on the tragic realities of reservation life and not enough on substantive storytelling. “Right now, the ratio of documentaries to narratives is about 80/20,” he notes. “Which makes sense, because, with digital technology, documentaries can be made very cheaply. But there just aren’t enough narrative features out there.”
Podemski feels that the desire to inject activism into cinema has hampered the ability of many Native filmmakers to tell compelling stories. “I think our natural instinct is that we have to fight for something or communicate something on a larger level — to change society’s consciousness about Native Americans,” she says. “But I do think there is a need to focus on story and character and the craft of filmmaking, as opposed to a political or social statement that sometimes gets tied up in the narrative.”
Sherman Alexie is more blunt: “If I see one more fishing-rights documentary, I’m going to scream.”
Making a narrative film takes money, however — something most Native filmmakers don’t have access to. One continuing source of hope is that wealthy casino tribes will begin to invest in Native films. But many casino tribes are cautious about risking their money in the movie business after several tribes were financially burned by 2004’s million-dollar debacle Black Cloud. Written and directed by Rick Schroder (yes, that Rick Schroder), this story of a Navajo boxer’s attempt to make the Olympic team was duly panned by critics, a financial disaster, and replete with virtually every conceivable Native clichĂ© (from the medicine man–like grandfather to characters’ conversations with the “spirit world”). Three years later, the film continues to be a source of both humor and embarrassment. That tribes would back a Rick Schroder vehicle instead of supporting one of their own remains one of the greater mysteries of the Native film world.
Still, challenging and thoughtful Native narratives are getting made. Both Alexie and Runningwater cite veteran Sundance filmmakers Blackhorse Lowe (5th World) and Cedar Sherbert (Gesture Down) as names to watch out for in the future.
“There are more Native Americans working in fiction filmmaking now than ever before,” says Runningwater. “While production values are often quite low, they find ways to make their films. The ultimate challenge is telling an original story that audiences can identify with.”
Tracy Rector, a Seminole filmmaker who runs the Superfly Filmmaking Seminar for Native youth, sees the next generation of Native filmmakers potentially bridging the gap between the desire to tell truthful indigenous stories and the ability to make movies that resonate with a larger audience. “There’s a huge gothic culture on the rez these days,” says Rector, “so you’re seeing that reflected in the work of young filmmakers. I’m seeing loads of really smart and funny zombie movies from my kids. I actually think it might be the next wave in Native cinema.”
Native Zombie movies?
“You know, we did have one zombie submission,” notes Harris. “It was about a Native American zombie possessed with the spirit of the white man. A really fantastic idea, but not very well executed.”
That may soon change. Blackhorse Lowe is allegedly working with the Sundance Screenwriters Lab to develop a Navajo zombie/horror film, while another experienced Native filmmaker recently contacted Rector about producing a zombie flick.
Alexie, for one, isn’t surprised. “Since George Romero turned the zombie movie into one of the more politicized allegorical cinematic forms, it might be natural for the most politicized allegorical ethnic group, us Injuns, to naturally be drawn to the form.”
Meanwhile, Alexie’s own filmmaking future remains uncertain, zombie or otherwise. “I’ve dealt with some Custers in my time in this industry,” he says, admittedly humbled by his experiences in the film business. Nonetheless, he and Eyre have reconciled and are hoping to start work on a new project together. The pair recently engaged in serious talks with HBO about shooting Alexie’s script about a remote Native Alaskan fishing village, but the project fell through. “They wanted to turn it into Rudywith whales,” says Alexie.
Given the industrywide perception that there’s no market for culturally authentic Native films, neither Alexie nor Eyre envisions the next Smoke Signals breaking through anytime soon.
“We really need that bankable star who can carry a project,” says Eyre. “I tell studio executives that all the time and they say, ‘You’ve got that one guy.’ I just think to myself, ‘Oh, really? That one guy, huh?’”
For now, all eyes will be on Adam Beach, who just landed a recurring role on NBC’s popular crime drama Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.It’s the first major role for a Native actor in which his ethnicity won’t be the thrust of his part. “That could really be huge for us,” says Eyre.
Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, film info & more!