Monday, October 30, 2023

Film and the Indigenous

Chasing the Light

Back in 2017, I had an email from Martin Scorsese's office. We were screening a film called Chasing the Light, by Navajo director Blackhorse Lowe, as part of ORIGINS. "Mr Scorsese" the email told me, "would really like to see this film." I put them in touch with Blackhorse. Hopefully something came of it.

What's undeniable about this little footnote in film history is that it proves Martin Scorsese really does do his homework. His new epic, Killers of the Flower Moon, is a deeply serious engagement with Indigenous culture, specifically that of the Osage people. Ceremonies, language and culture are all meticulously recreated, and (I understand) this is done with total accuracy. The story it tells is a true one, and is appalling: an Osage woman whose married name was Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone) had her family murdered by her husband Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his uncle William Hale (Robert De Niro), so they could get their hands on the wealth that came to the Osage when oil was discovered under their reservation lands. 

The film is a masterful piece of storytelling, but it also seems to be a white man's story. Mollie and her family have little agency in the film. At one point she travels to Washington, although even that is to appeal to the President. Otherwise they are on the receiving end of active malice. It is also very much male malice, and the Indigenous characters are almost all women. Somehow, despite all the careful research, the conventions of the movies still seem to be winning through. The key relationship in the film is not even between Mollie and Ernest, but between Ernest and William. Beside the history, it seemed to me that the key source text was actually Othello. De Niro's Machiavellian manipulator plays Iago to DiCaprio's naive, gullible Othello: and the result is that the audience ends up feeling sorry for Ernest. Yes: the hero of the film is the man who murders his Native American family. And that is discomfiting, to say the least.

Killers of the Flower Moon

I was very struck by the comments of Christopher Cote, who was an Osage consultant to the film. "This history is being told almost from the perspective of Ernest Burkhart and they kind of give him this conscience and kind of depict that there’s love. But when somebody conspires to murder your entire family, that’s not love." Quite so.

I did, however, see a truly great Indigenous film at this year's London Film Festival, and that was The New Boy: the latest feature by Kaytetye (Indigenous Australian) director Warwick Thornton, whose previous work includes Samson and Delilah and Sweet Country, both of which we've screened at ORIGINS. The success of those films has given Warwick a lot of kudos: he was able to attract the great Cate Blanchett to appear in The New Boy. When I meet him at the screening he jokes "She was a bit raw when she came to the shoot, but we managed to get her into shape." However, it is not Blanchett who dominates this film but a child actor with scarce a word to say, Aswan Reid. 

Aswan Reid in The New Boy

Reid's character, known only as "the new boy", arrives at an orphanage run by Blanchett's Sister Eileen, where he encounters Christianity on a very profound level, accessing it through his own Indigenous spirituality. Actual snakes, real blood...  Thornton, like many Indigenous artists whose people encountered the church in its complex amalgam of compassion and exploitation, has long had a very ambivalent relationship with the Christian faith. In his 2011 short Stranded, a figure hangs on a neon cross above the red desert landscape of the Australian north. The title of Samson and Delilah is Biblical.  I don't think this makes him a Christian filmmaker, least of all in this new work, but it does demonstrate an understanding that Christianity is not only an oppressive force, and that on some level it may be able to enter into a genuinely productive dialogue with Indigenous worldviews. 

Of course, that won't happen until the cultural landscape gives equal weight to both sides of every story.

Thursday, October 12, 2023

Invisible Indigeneity

Rafael Montero and Kate Smith in LOYOLA

Back in August, I directed a short opera for El Parnaso Hyspano at the Arcola’s Grimeborn Festival. We called it LOYOLA, but it was originally titled San Ignacio Loyola, and was written by Domenico Zipoli, a Jesuit musician, on the missions in Latin America. Given that the missions’ purpose was to evangelise the Indigenous people, and that the title role was sung by Rafael Montero, who is himself an Indigenous Latin American, this was never going to be a “straight” opera production. As I wrote in an earlier post, we felt obliged (and excited) to take on board the Indigenous viewpoint on the context in which the piece was originally created, and to ask what this music could signify in the very different historical moment of its present performance. That was why I decided to turn it into the dream of a dying Indigenous man (also called Rafael Montero - the name was on the hospital bed); to emphasise his rejection of conventional religion in the figure of the Demon (who became a priest, in a way that was entirely consistent with Zipoli’s text); and to read his passing on of his mission to a younger colleague as a call to action for an activist allied to Indigenous causes. 

The weird thing was: nobody seemed to notice.

This isn’t a rant about bad reviews. Actually the reviews were very positive. Nor is it an artistic flip about how audiences can’t understand my creative genius. But I do think it’s important to ask why, when something so basic as a performer’s ethnic and cultural identity becomes central to a production, it should be almost universally overlooked. In a way this isn’t even to do with my directorial decisions, which were as much the result of Rafael singing the role of Loyola as of my own interest in Indigenous issues. It’s to do with how the performing body is read in the current political and cultural context.

What does it mean to cast performers “from diverse backgrounds”? “Diverse” has come to mean “non-white” (as if whiteness were some neutral norm from which everything else is a “diversion”), rather than its original meaning, a synonym for “various”. We are all “diverse”. But prevailing modes of thinking tend to assume that the labels of identity politics only apply to people who have in some way been historically excluded. So “gender” is regarded as something that women and trans people have, but is rarely applied to men. “Ethnicity” is seen as something that Black and Asian people have, but white people do not (I remember a director saying that she wanted a cast with “more ethnicity”, not realising that there could only be as much ethnicity as there were actors). I am a great believer in diversity, particularly in theatre, because it leads to difference, richness and the fusion (or fission) of multiple viewpoints, all of which are conducive to drama and to democracy. So I find it odd when “diverse casting” is treated as something inherently desirable but also as something to be ignored. As the Chair of our board, Jatinder Verma, has often argued, theatre signifies through the live body on stage, and so the audience reads that body, including its various identifying characteristics. We do see race, gender, age, (dis)ability etc. - whether or not people are cast according to the character they play having the same characteristics as the performer. This is why it’s possible to make audacious and brilliant casting decisions like Adrian Lester as Rosalind or Henry V, Kathryn Hunter as Richard III, Nahil Shaban as Haile Selassie. These performers bring themselves to the roles, disrupting the way the audience views the character by virtue of who they are. I realise that all these examples date from some years ago. Maybe the landscape is a little different now, a little more literal, a little less open to disruption? 

Related to this is the current orthodoxy that characters who are from non-white backgrounds, trans characters, disabled characters etc. must be played by actors who share those specific characteristics. I don’t disagree with this. It’s not an absolute and eternal rule, of course, but an ethical movement specific to the present time, an adjustment that needs to be made in view of the historical injustices that have led to people with these characteristics being excluded from the stage and screen, where they were portrayed through such “virtuosic” performances as Laurence Olivier’s Othello and Daniel Day-Lewis’s Christy Brown. The idea that only black men should now play Othello is what Gayatri Spivak has called “strategic essentialism”. Race is not actually essential - but at the present moment in history it is in the interests of justice and equality to behave as if it were.

How does this relate to what happened when Rafael performed LOYOLA? I think the audience found itself faced with a choice between two prevailing ways of reading his Indigenous body. One would be that the character is literally (perhaps “essentially”) an Indigenous person, which St Ignatius Loyola clearly was not. So the audience (and the critics) turned to the second orthodoxy, which is that ethnicity and cultural background should be ignored when non-white people play “white” roles. The possibility that the performer’s ethnic identity might be considered when they play a character of a different race, even if the whole production is structured around this, seems to be something that can no longer be considered. 

This is very unfortunate, and plays absolutely into the hands of the theatrical establishment, which has always survived by being what Lawrence Stone called the British aristocracy - “An Open Elite”. Apparent outsiders are absorbed and assimilated, so long as they continue to play by the rules. “Look at us, aren’t we wonderful, we’ve got a black Hamlet / Hamilton / Harry Potter.”  The underlying mythologies of the great tragic prince, the founding father or the boy wizard are not in any way questioned or undermined by such casting - indeed, they are reinforced by the “inclusive” gesture. It makes it very difficult to offer an audience casting decisions that genuinely shift the ground, because the audience has become very nervous of reading them that way.

In the scene where he sent his follower Frances (San Francisco Xavier) out to fulfil his mission, Rafael’s Loyola sang about the need to bring truth to the poor people who dwell in ignorance.  And pointed at the audience.

LOYOLA: Tara Venkatesan, Biraj Barkakaty,
Rafael Montero