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Sherman Alexie stands at the back of a dark, crowded theater at last month’s Palm Springs Native American Film Festival, scanning the audience for reactions. The festival is showing the film made from Alexie’s first screenplay, Smoke Signals, in honor of its 10th anniversary, and he’s keen to see how it has held up over time. “I don’t know if I can watch the whole thing,” he says, “too many flaws.” Onscreen, Alexie’s memorable road-trip buddies Victor (Adam Beach) and Thomas-Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams) sit in a trailer watching old cowboy-and-Indian movies. “The only thing more pathetic than Indians on TV,” says Thomas, “is Indians watching Indians on TV.” The crowd erupts with laughter and Alexie smiles. It’s a great line, and at the time it was written it was certainly true. Despite the dawn of political correctness in the ’90s, depictions of Native Americans as either bloodthirsty savages or as the stoic, spiritual antecedents to hippie culture continued to dominate the big screen.
But Smoke Signals threatened to change all that. The first major film written, directed and acted by Native Americans, Smoke Signals was both a critical and commercial success. Selected for the dramatic competition at Sundance and winner of the festival’s Audience Award, it was bought by Miramax and went on to bank $6.8 million at the box office on a budget of less than $2 million. More importantly, it offered Native Americans starved for positive and accurate depictions of themselves something they could watch and be proud of.
The film’s success appeared to be a harbinger of a new wave of Native filmmaking. What’s happened since? “Absolutely nothing,” according to Alexie.
Indeed, a Native film with the cultural impact of Smoke Signals has yet to be replicated, and Alexie feels partly to blame. After their film took off, he and director Chris Eyre were bombarded with offers to work together again, but instead of capitalizing on the momentum, the two had a falling-out. Alexie, who was already well known in the literary world as the author of more than 17 books, drew the lion’s share of the film’s media attention and chose to roll with the praise, leaving Eyre feeling neglected.
“Basically we acted like typical Hollywood assholes,” says Alexie.
The two split ways with mixed results. In 2002, Alexie wrote and directed The Business of Fancydancing, which despite an interesting, semiautobiographical narrative about a reservation-born poet’s struggle to maintain his cultural roots in the white world, was missing Eyre’s directorial precision and went straight to DVD. Meanwhile, Eyre directed the thoroughly forgettable Skins, as well as several films for television (including 2003’s Edge of America), all of which lacked Alexie’s artistic edge.
If the creative duo who launched the Indian world’s first hit has sputtered, the world of Native film has continued to grow, albeit slowly. In 2001, Inuit director Zacharias Kunuk’s The Fast Runner won the Camera d’Or Prize at Cannes. This year, the Palm Springs Native American Film Festival received more than 360 submissions, up from 180 the year before. Perhaps most notably, Smoke Signalsstar Beach earned strong reviews and serious Oscar buzz for his portrayal of Ira Hayes in Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers.
Sundance, where Smoke Signals first began its amazing run, has also continued to provide a major outlet for Native filmmakers. This year, Creek director Sterlin Harjo’s Four Sheets to the Wind screened in the dramatic competition and went home with a Special Jury Prize for its leading lady, Tamara Podemski, who plays a reservation girl struggling to cope with city life and the loss of her father.
Yet despite a series of critical successes and the unwavering support of Sundance, which has used the festival as a showcase for Native films dating back to the first edition in 1985, commercial viability has remained elusive.
“Sundance shows around 120 feature films, and only a fraction get picked up and distributed,” says Bird Runningwater, associate director of the Sundance Institute’s Native American and Indigenous Initiative. “But it does seem that, most often, Native films fall into the category of those not being picked up.
Four Sheets to the Windmight be one of the best films out there that no one has ever seen. Despite drawing favorable comparisons to the box-office dynamo Garden State, and despite Podemski’s lauded performance, the film has yet to land a theatrical distribution deal. “It’s heartbreaking because we saw firsthand how audiences responded to the film,” says Podemski. “Someone just needs to get the balls to put it out there.”
Ironically, Podemski found out after talks with several high-level executives, the problem with the film is that it isn’t “Native enough.” “This is a regular film about a family that just happens to have a full Native cast,” she explains. “And I was told that the industry just doesn’t know what to do with that yet. They only know how to market something that is noticeably ‘Native.’”
That people can’t yet see the film is especially crushing for Podemski. For a Native actress, positive and challenging modern roles are difficult to come by. “There’s definitely a tendency to want to dress us up in buckskin,” she says.
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.
As for Podemski, she just signed on for a part in a Fox television pilot about the original Dutch colonists of Manhattan. “It’s a buckskin role,” she laughs, “but it’s a really nice one.”
And so Indians will still be watching Indians on TV, no longer ashamed of what they see, but hoping for that breakout star who can carry them back to the big screen.
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