The Frida Cinema

Orange County's Year-Round Film Festival

Frida Mixtapes: 5 Indigenous Films

The Frida Cinema currently rests on land once occupied by an Indigenous people that historically conflicted over two different names. The Kizh – meaning “willow house”, and the Tongva were separate, but their names were known for causing confusion for one or the other; from not just historians, but by its own people over centuries since their occupying of Southern Californian land.

Both would end up befallen over time as casualties of both Russian and Spanish colonization, with the Kizh becoming renamed as the Gabrieleño, which seemingly became a blow to not just their occupation, but nearly any lasting memory of their existence or culture. To say it’s unfortunate that the structure of this story seems to be shared by the centuries of eradication of the vast number of peoples who founded this shred of land we divided into fifty different sections, is obviously too undersold of a statement to make.

Over recent time, there has been a noticeably stronger push for us to acknowledge the ground we walk on, often by learning about the people who built it for us in the first place. Many other ways to learn can be found, but delving into the art created by descendants of those peoples tend to be the most essential. To me, there’s no more ideal way to learn about these perspectives than from the stories told by those perspectives, and in the midst of a holiday that, whether you celebrate it or not, sits on the mere foundation of colonial genocide, I feel a strong desire to share five works that each give a platform to creators who otherwise would have their histories slightly more lost.

1) THE BODY REMEMBERS WHEN THE WORLD BROKE OPEN (2019)

This Canadian feature, directed by both Kathleen Hepburn and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers–of Sámi and Blackfoot descent, was only made known to me based on a Letterboxd recommendation, where I noticed it seemingly buried on Netflix without much of a platform. All I could really afford to ask after giving it a watch is, “what gives?”. Set in real-time and mesmerizingly told in a single-take style (after two introductory shots of our lead characters), Hepburn and Tailfeather’s film tells the story of these two characters crossing paths based on nothing but happenstance. Rosie – waiting near a bus-stop, stands with a face laden with tears and fresh bruises from her abusive partner. Áila (played by Tailfeathers) – walking home from an IUD appointment just happens to walk past Rosie; her face conveying enough pain for Áila to take her back home with her, away from the reverberated screams of Rosie’s partner in the distance. We follow them, and we do nothing but follow, and it is an invigorating sight to behold.

While some films that utilize a single-shot style tend to use such technical bravura to compensate for a story that would otherwise be short on substance or abundant on ego, the film eradicates any possible usage of the word ‘gimmick’ from the get-go. The approach that Hepburn and Tailfeathers lend here feel purely natural and subjective, allowing these two souls to share spaces, occasionally in a silence that speaks in devastating volumes of their past experiences. Norm Li’s handheld 16mm camera gives the film a key sense of authenticity that makes Rosie and Áila’s trek feel as real as can possibly be. And while the trek is small in scale, the steps taken forward, and the connection that these two people slowly build, leave a print just big enough to never quite leave your head. Turns out you can watch something that is only understated enough to at least sort of understand why Netflix would bury it. It’s a film as enigmatic as it is essential.
(STREAMING ON NETFLIX)

2) AINU MOSIR (2020)

Kanto is fourteen years old and newly fatherless. He descends from Japan’s Ainu people – living in the isolated village of Akanko Ainu Kotan, and he is conflicted over said heritage; from the way his similarly feeling classmates attempt to distance themselves from it, to the passive condescension that her mother faces for something as arbitrary as speaking Japanese. As Kanto attempts to guide himself through this tumultuous period, he is approached by a friend of his father’s named Debo, who takes him into a forest containing not only a mysterious hole that supposedly leads into a place where the souls of his deceased ancestors reside, but arguably the most adorable bear cub you will ever see in contemporary film. Locked in a cage is a cub named Chibi, whom Debo assigns to Kanto the task of caring for. But what Kanto isn’t told of is the ritual that Chibi will be the centerpiece of. A ritual called ‘Iomante’, that will push Kanto’s personal doubts to upsetting degrees.

Despite the synopsis above potentially luring viewers into what may sound like a Ghibli-esque magical-realist fable, writer-director Takeshi Fukunaga keeps the story within a grounded, unsentimental approach that brings a full sense of life into Kanto and his surroundings. As the controversy regarding the aforementioned ritual begins to surface, you almost feel an urge to hypothesize the outcome you hope happens, instead of the sobering one you get. But within subtle flourishes of dreamlike imagery and the gorgeous nature of Kanto’s village is a genuine sense of spirituality that flows freely through the film’s veins, further assisted by the tight, intimate cinematography of Safdie brothers mainstay Sean Price Williams. Featuring surprising, but welcome cameos – including Lily Franky, known for his work with Hirokazu Kore-eda, Ainu Mosir is a brisk 84 minutes, but just as perfect a length for its window into the lives of the Ainu to last long enough to remember.

(STREAMING ON NETFLIX)

3) THE EXILES (1961)

 

Los Angeles County is known to be the home of more Native Americans than any other county in the US. In 1957, director Kent McKenzie started to find himself among the company of Indians who lived in the downtown area, specifically the Bunker Hill district. A year later, having spent time recruiting those he had gotten to know during that period to recreate their experiences of getting by day-by-day, McKenzie brought together a small-scale crew of friends and colleagues to help turn the project into what would gain prominence as a groundbreaking exercise in vérité filmmaking – despite its lack of distributor and world-found recognition. But over time, particularly due to its featuring in Thom Andersen’s 2003 video essay Los Angeles Plays Itself, attention naturally became drawn back to it. The Exiles documents twelve hours in the lives of a group of young Indians as they share cramped spaces in an apartment, drink, gamble and brawl the night away, while others quietly go a theatre by themselves to long for a life that distances from the one they used to have in the Southwest reservation they originated from, or as they call it, “back home”.

Through Malick-like voiceover from actors essentially playing themselves, and the black-and-white 16mm (from leftover rolls of film discarded by major studio producers), McKenzie’s film conveys an atmosphere that is entirely lived-in; blurring a fine line between narrative and documentary. It’s clear from the very first scene that McKenzie approaches these characters with a bludgeoning sense of love and truth, not unlike the work that John Cassavetes and Shirley Clarke were creating around the same period. It’s a film that thrives on social rifts both big and small, despite its lack of resolution. From the way that Yvonne quietly lies in her bed, waiting for her lover to return from the debauchery he currently engages in, to the tension that explodes on top of Hill X, in the form of a huge fight during a a party of drumming and dancing. Running through the course of the film is a genuine thread of life that you can tell doesn’t stop winding even after it ends. It’s all bound by the neighborhood the characters share that would tragically wind up being demolished a few years after the film’s completion, with the Walt Disney Concert Hall taking its place. Such an outcome can only place The Exiles far beyond the merits of a ‘film’ until it’s merely a document of lives that lived, and spaces once occupied.

4) CLEARCUT (1991)

Peter Maguire is a lawyer fighting for a case regarding a logging mill plowing and cutting its way through Native American land. As it becomes clearer and clearer that the case is one he will ultimately lose, Peter wallows in self-pity for the people he failed to provide himself for. Up until he comes across an Indian militant named Arthur – in a commanding performance by Graham Greene, who almost immediately takes far more initiation than Peter ever did, and in far more difficult ways. In a mere moment, Arthur takes Peter’s off-handed joke of kidnapping and torturing the manager of the mill and turns it into something very real, which drives the story into ways that put the film far above your typical early 90’s tight-knuckle thriller. Because by the moment you realize that Arthur’s methods clearly parallel what the mill has done to the trees surrounding the community of his people, the unpredictability does nothing but hit you.

Polish filmmaker Ryszard Bugajski gradually shows an understanding of the fragility of white liberalism that is, well, clear-cut. The emptiness of Peter’s self-affirmed defenses of how he failed the Indians he was assigned to testify for, and his painfully wormy exterior is woefully portrayed by Ron Lea. The way he speaks almost conveys prescience as if realizing the powerlessness of each word that comes out of his mouth, which makes Arthur a far more compelling foil. Greene’s performance gives Arthur a multitude of dimensions that immediately indicate not knowing what this character will do in the mere moments that follow. Possessing such an eerie charm that goes against his actions often gives the film easy comparisons to the work of Michael Haneke. As the film goes along, the furthermore complicated the dynamic gets between Arthur, Peter, and the manager of the mill who endures such hell, yet you can’t fully blame or pity any of the three for their actions. It is an unexpectedly angry, brutal, difficult watch; rooted in the blood of bodies and the sap of trees.

5) BOY (2010)

Taika Waititi–of Māori descent, is arguably the most prominent artist on this list, all the more considering he’s the first (and only) indigenous person to win the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. But while Jojo Rabbit was his latest film, I still firmly grasp that Waititi can be found at his best in his second feature. Set in 1984, the titular Boy–played by James Rolleston, is introduced as an eleven-year-old Michael Jackson superfan living in Waihau Bay, New Zealand. In his spare time, we find Boy living on a farm with his ‘gran’, pet goat, and younger brother named Rocky, who believes he was left with superpowers from his mother who died giving birth to him. Their absentee father – Alamein, played by Waititi, only lives on in the exaggerated stories that Boy makes up, at least until he appears to Boy one day in town accompanied by two shady individuals. If you read this and feel inclined to write the film off as your run-of-the-mill quirky coming-of-age comedy, maybe don’t jump too far ahead. Because while the quirk is certainly there, just beneath the surface is something deeply melancholy.

Waititi casting himself in his own film would indicate a sense of vanity that’s been proven by many others in the same position over the years, though not only does his performance sell a fully-realized but inherently flawed father figure, but he also gives center stage to Rolleston, who remarkably holds his own as father-and-son try to mend but only seem to unloosen whatever tether there was in the first place. Once it becomes clear why his father is there at all, it only deepens the pain of Boy that we almost have no choice but to feel ourselves. But this tonal balance is never quite lost, as what seems to be a conjoining of fiction with the recollection of Waititi’s youth is fully realized in the evergreen surroundings of Waihau Bay. Humor is found just as often as the sadness that can often blindside you. In the realm of directors in the past decade making semi-autobiographic work (Lady Bird, mid90’s, etc.), Boy is one that feels most specific to not only Waititi’s youth, but the roots from where he sprouted.