Today is Indigenous Peoples Day. In a lot of places, the holiday is still named after America’s first génocidaire, but in Minneapolis we’ve recognized that times have changed. And the times have also been changing in the world of film.
While the depiction of Indigenous people onscreen goes back almost to the beginning of cinema, depictions that Indigenous people themselves might actually want to see are generally a more recent phenomenon. Indigenous movie characters have been adversaries, sidekicks, purveyors of spiritual wisdom, and noble innocents in need of a white savior (Dances with Kevin Costner), but they are rarely protagonists in their own right, and they are rarely fully fleshed out people.
So, this Indigenous Peoples' Day, we’re going to highlight films from around the world that place Natives front and center.
Title: Smoke Signals (USA, 1998).
Plot: We start in the United States with Smoke Signals. Set on the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation in Idaho, we are confronted with two very different young men: Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) and Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams). When Thomas was a baby, his parents died in a fire.
Thomas would have died too had Victor’s father not been on hand to save him. Thomas has always seen the man as a hero. Victor, by contrast, despises him, as he was an abusive alcoholic who eventually abandoned the family. As the film begins, Victor’s father has just died in Arizona, prompting Victor and Thomas to go on a road trip to retrieve his ashes. Will they be able to reconcile their dramatically different feelings toward the dead man? Hell, will they even get to Arizona, with little money and the constant threat of police harassment?
Context: Don’t go thinking this is going to be all grim and mournful. Yes, there’s going to be some of that, but the film, directed by Chris Eyre (Cheyenne, Arapaho), is based on a story by Sherman Alexie (Spokane, Coeur d’Alene), one of our most prominent Native American writers, whose engagement with contemporary Native issues is shot through with an irreverent wit.
Another thing that makes the film so special is that it exists at all: It is the first film to be written, directed, and co-produced by Native Americans, and it’s so rare that we see a film with Native American protagonists in a contemporary setting at that (Hollywood’s tendency in depicting America’s Indigenous people has generally been to depict them as a thing of the past). Smoke Signals was well-received when it came out, and rightly recognized as a landmark, but the perception that there’s not much of a market for Native American cinema means that films like this remain a rarity.
Where it’s streaming: Amazon.
Title: Ten Canoes (Australia, 2002).
Plot: There are several layers to this film about pre-contact Aboriginal Australian life. There is the voice-over narrator (David Gulpilil), who provides context for an egg hunting expedition, depicted in black and white. The expedition leader, Minygululu, seeks to educate a younger man (Jamie Gulipilil) in both egg hunting and life. He does this by means of another story, which we experience in color. In it, we follow Ridjimiraril as he attempts to recover his wife, who has disappeared and whom he believes was kidnapped by a man from another tribe. As complications ensue, Ridjimiraril and his people will have to return time and again to the Law, which, though unwritten, pervades their lives and informs all their actions.
Context: Near the beginning of the film, David Gulpilil (who has been the go-to Aboriginal actor since 1970) tells us, “You probably haven’t seen a story like this before. It’s not your story. It’s my story.” And he’s right. The film has an all-Aborigine cast and, just as strikingly, the onscreen dialogue all takes place in Aboriginal languages (there is also a version out there where Gulpilil’s narration is in an Aboriginal language; the version that’s streaming in the US has it in English).
Ten Canoes comes on the scene within the context of broader debates in Australian society (often called the History Wars) about all the awful things white people have done to Aborigines. Especially controversial is the debate over native land tenure; did the Aborigines own their land prior to European contact? For a long time, the Australian courts said no, they did not; how can you have property without law to govern it? This film is part of the argument that they did have law, and consequently title to the land. We’ll be revisiting Gulpilil later in this list.
Where it’s streaming: Fandor.
Title: Boy (New Zealand, 2010).
Plot: Let’s head east and jump ahead in time to 1984. Our hero is Boy (James Rolleston), an 11-year-old Maori who lives with his little brother Rocky on his grandmother’s farm. Their father Alamein hasn’t been in their lives for a long time (he’s a petty criminal and often in jail). In his absence, Boy has forged an elaborate fantasy life about his father’s adventures (this being 1984, the fantasies often reach their climax with Alamein taking Boy to a Michael Jackson concert). All well and good, but then one day Alamein comes back and fantasy has to confront reality. Has Alamein come to make up for lost time? Or are his sons a diversion on the road to another criminal exploit?
Context: Directed by Maori filmmaker Taika Waititi, whose previous film Eagle vs. Shark brought him into collaboration with Jermaine Clement, the part-Maori part (if you’ll forgive the stupid pun) of Flight of the Conchords, Boy was the highest grossing New Zealand production in the history of the New Zealand box office (but what about the Lord of the Rings?! you may sputter. LOTR was a New Zealand-United States coproduction; Boy is 100% New Zealand).
Like indigenous people the world-over, the Maori have had, to put it gently, a rough time of it. But they are a very politically engaged community -- they have their own Parliamentary constituencies, they’ve held cabinet positions dating back decades -- and the embrace of Maori cultural products like Boy by Pākehā (white people) perhaps signals a new willingness to acknowledge the fundamental Maori contributions to New Zealand’s history and its national identity.
Where it’s streaming: Amazon.
Title: Warriors of the Rainbow (Taiwan, 2011).
Plot: This epic film depicts the Seediq people, one of a number of pre-Chinese Austronesian Aboriginal groups who are the indigenous people of Taiwan, and their heroic resistance to Japanese colonialism. The film spans 1895, the year China ceded Taiwan to Japan following the First Sino-Japanese war, to 1930, when the Seediq people under the leadership of Mouna Rudao (Lin Ching-tai, a Presbyterian minister who had never acted before) launch a bloody uprising against the Japanese, initially successful in part because the Japanese -- like the Americans at Little Big Horn, or the British at Isandlwana -- didn’t take their “uncivilized” adversaries seriously.
Context: Like indigenous people the world over (and if this is beginning to sound repetitive, forgive me, but it’s a grim truth), the Aboriginal people of Taiwan have generally not been treated well. Invaded and attacked variously by the Chinese, the Dutch, the Portuguese, the Americans (wiki the “Rover incident”), and the Japanese, Taiwanese Aborigines have found themselves repeatedly marginalized by foreign invaders. When not attacked, the dominant culture has sought to “civilize” and assimilate them.
In recent years, there has been a growing movement within the context of the dispute over Taiwan’s sovereignty and its relationship with mainland China to revisit and foreground the country’s pre-Chinese past. As the position in Beijing remains that Taiwan is and always was an integral part of China, the pro-independence faction in Taiwan is keen to call attention to the island’s Austronesian roots. Their recently elected President Tsai Ing-wen, in addition to being their first female president, is also their first president with Aboriginal ancestry, her grandmother have belonged to the Paiwan Aboriginal group.
Where it’s streaming: Amazon.
Title: Charlie’s Country (Australia, 2014).
Plot: We now return to Australia and David Gulpilil, who plays Charlie, an aging, modern-day Aborigine whose life has slowly crumbled. He finds that, increasingly, “being Aboriginal” is illegal. He goes hunting, the police confiscate his gun; he makes a hunting spear, the police confiscate it as a dangerous weapon. His relationship with his local white cop is revealing: The cop thinks he and Charlie have a grudging respect for each other; Charlie does not reciprocate and regularly curses the cop and other whites in an Aboriginal language that the cop can’t understand. When they take his spear away, Charlie thinks he’s had enough and he comes to a dramatic decision. He will leave his decaying community and go out into the woods to live a traditional lifestyle. Is this even possible in 21st century Australia? Or will Charlie inevitably be dragged back into the white establishment that tolerates him only on its margins?
Context: Now, as we mentioned above, David Gulpilil has been the go-to Australian Aboriginal actor for decades. From art films (Walkabout, The Last Wave) to the most mainstream of Australian kitsch (Crocodile Dundee I and II), Gulpilil has frequently had to the play the sidekick or the purveyor of Native wisdom in someone else’s story. It is only in recent years that he’s gotten to tell Aboriginal stories, like Ten Canoes and Charlie’s Country (for which he won the best actor prize at Cannes). For the latter film, he also co-wrote the screenplay with Rolf de Heer, who directed these two films and, as the Dutch name suggests, is not Aboriginal, which has occasioned some controversy. De Heer addressed the matter by saying that the Aborigines are “telling the story, largely, and I’m the mechanism by which they can.” You are of course welcome to judge for yourself.
Where it’s streaming: Amazon.
Title: Embrace of the Serpent (Colombia, 2015).
Plot: Set in the Amazon rainforest, Embrace of the Serpent tells two stories, separated by decades but united in the person of indigenous Amazonian Karamakate. In the first storyline, set in 1909, Karamakate becomes the reluctant guide to Theodor Koch-Grunberg, a gravely ill German anthropologist who believes his only chance of recovery is by travelling deep into the forest to find a sacred plant once cultivated by Karamakate’s people which may or may not exist anymore (Karamakate’s people might not exist anymore either, as they have fled into the wilderness to escape encroaching rubber plantations). Several decades later, an aging Karamakate is recruited by an American scientist to retrace the journey of 1909; the American is ostensibly looking for the sacred plant, but may have ulterior motives.
Context: On the face of it, this might sound like the sort of film we set out to avoid: a film about Native Purveyors of Spiritual Wisdom (we’re going to call this NPSW for short). But as the film progresses (in the crispest black-and-white cinematography), it becomes increasingly clear that this is an anti-NPSW film, as Karamakate is not particularly interested in hooking up white people with hallucinogens, but is rather following his own personal journey (and consequently, it becomes clear that he is our real protagonist, which is generally not the case in NPSW movies). He doesn’t need a white savior, nor will he serve as someone else’s savior. As we watch Karamakate’s journey unfold, we are witnesses to a series of nightmarish tableaux, as we see the depredations of the white rubber farmers and cultural destruction wrought by racist missionaries. It’s a hypnotic film, alternately beautiful and horrifying, and an excellent way to cap off your Indigenous Peoples' Day.
Where it’s streaming: Amazon.