The opening gala for the Guelph Festival of Moving Media this past Friday featured Neil Diamond‘s Reel Injun. That’s not the singer but the Director from Waskaganish on James Bay in northern Quebec. This 2009 documentary was both interesting and honest as it portrayed the history of Native People in the movies from the very early beginnings of the industry to today. A film like this could easily descend into an angry narrative about how terrible our natives have been treated as the guest facilitator did following the screening, but the documentary doesn’t fall into that trap. There is humour and hope here without candy coating the sad truth. And by the end of the film I have some hope of progress in coming to terms with and healing what was, after all, genocide.
One part that shocked me into realization showed John Wayne desecrating a native grave by shooting the corpse’s eyes to prevent him from seeing in the afterlife. Now I had enjoyed westerns as a kid: these were, in essence, films about the triumph of good over evil, right? Well, I am happy to say, my perspective is different now. This documentary puts those westerns from the 30’s in context. The American people wanted simple escape from the economic realities surrounding them and, I think, from the burden of their warped history. At one point in the film we experience this, particularly poignantly, when a classroom of young natives are shown a Cowboys and Indians movie typical of the time. The cinematographer focuses on their faces and it is so easy to see the damage cause by these historically inaccurate fantasies.
But the portrayal of our native peoples in film changed many times. There’s Billy Jack who fights back and in The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) you see Chief Dan George as the wise old man and comic relief. We see the noble savage shown out of all proportion.
The director shows, very clearly and with an admirable balance, that few films actually show native people accurately. Like headbands being shown on all Plains Indians who didn’t wear headbands. Why? Because the non-native actors needed a way to keep their long wigs from falling off. Only when native film makers have been allowed to tell their own stories do we see something real like Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001).
For those who want more check out this interview of Mr. Diamond by the CBC.
A very highly recommended film.
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