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.

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