Making The River : LATEST EVENTS

October 31, 2008

Transcript of Howie Movshovitz review for Colorado Public Radio

Filed under: 1 — makingtheriver @ 6:06 pm

Indigenous Film Festival 2008 –

What’s called “indigenous filmmaking” doesn’t have much in common with Hollywood . It’s not interested in movie stars, explosions, car chases or superheroes. But it is about the variety and texture of human life. But Colorado Public Radio film critic Howie Movshovitz says that for now five years, there’s been a festival in these parts to show and celebrate indigenous film.


The idea behind Indigenous film probably began around 1922 with Robert Flaherty’s famous “Nanook of the North.” That first great documentary made at least some people worry that the film was more Flaherty’s fiction than a genuine view of the life of an Inuit man living near Hudson ’s Bay in Canada . It’s certainly not Nanook’s picture of himself. “Nanook of the North” has many virtues, but it’s an outsider’s idea of a culture Flaherty didn’t really know, and the question it still raises is “who gets to represent whom?” And, if people don’t have the opportunity to represent themselves, is it valid if someone else does it?

Then, around 1980, when portable video became available, these questions began to be addressed. A few experienced filmmakers brought cameras to groups of people who’d never had them – all over the world. Those groups started making films about themselves. They, of course, didn’t see themselves as exotic or comic, and they didn’t make up silly explanations for their behaviors. The Ikpeng of Brazil, for instance, speak a language most Americans don’t understand; they dress, cook and dance differently; but from the films they’ve made about themselves it seems that the hard wiring in human beings is pretty much the same. The Ikpeng laugh at the same things we do, have the same basic needs; they tell storie, and their little boys like to pee on each other when they play by the river. That’s part of what you get from indigenous filmmaking.

For now the fifth year, Jean Rubin and Merv Tano have directed what’s called The Denver Indigenous Film and Arts Festival at various locations in the area. And from what I’ve seen there are at least two genuinely distinguished films in the schedule.

Sarah del Seronde’s new documentary “Making the River” takes on a lot of questions. One big one is the practice of removing Native Americans from their home turf and sticking them in institutions. Jimi Dexter Simmons became a ward of the state of Washington when he was 17 months old. His incarceration – and that’s the right word no matter what the state says – began at St. Mary’s Home for Boys, and it led all too soon to the state prison in Walla Walla, where he found the same now-grown kids he’d known at St. Mary’s. To alienate him and others even more, the state government had de-certified the tribe, the Grand Ronde, so that in a20real sense the government told Simmons that he had no identity. When a guard was killed in a riot at the prison, Simmons was clapped away in Guantanamo-style conditions.

“Making the River” is about Simmons’ trial as well as his life story. A good bit of the film shows Simmons now, in close-up, with enough context to indicate that his20life has improved. But his face is puffy, his eyes sad; his voice is terribly soft. He speaks slowly, with great precision; his words are so direct it’s astonishing, and with no pretension. He has the unassuming bluntness of an ancient ballad. You could look at his face forever, and you can’t help thinking “what have we done to this remarkable human being?”

The other extraordinary film in the Indigenous Festival is “The Exiles,” from 1961. It was directed by Kent MacKenzie, put together for about 45 cents, and it’s hardly been seen in the past 47 years. MacKenzie died in 1980. Dennis Doros and Amy Heller from Milestone Films saw a clip from the picture in a documentary about films made in Los Angeles . They tracked it down, got the UCLA archive to restore it and have now released it to theaters. After the screening in the Indigenous Film Festival, it will stay in town for at least another w eek.

The film takes place over 12 hours in the lives of a group of Native Americans who’ve moved to Los Angeles from various reservations. They’re emotionally lost. They wander around the Bunker Hill section of t own, drink constantly, scuffle and late at night on a grubby hilltop, they try to enact a drum ceremony, which falls apart because the characters are drunk and miserable.

Director Kent MacKenzie couldn’t afford to synchronize the sound. The three lead actors had never been in a film before. Mostly, the film’s built out of vulnerable, articulate monologues with images that complement instead of illustrating what they say. The nighttime cinematography by Erik Darstaad and John Morrill is simply incredible – a magnificent play of light and darkness that embodies the doubts, dislocations, nightmares and hopes of the three people. I don’t know anything like “The Exiles.” It’s stunning, filled with despair, and magnificent.

I’m Howie Movshovitz

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