You hear the squelching of his boots before you register much else. An older Aboriginal man is paying his respects at a rustic grave. The mud takes hold of his boots, lets go only reluctantly. He plods back to his humble shack, and sets to work counting stores. His traps are empty. Nothing grows. A way of life very likely already threatened is now near extinction with floods inching ever closer.
Two Mounties shows up to serve him a final evacuation notice; he’s the last hold out. “Even the animals knew enough to get out of here,” they tell him, and though he knows this to be true, he is unable to leave. With less than 15 minutes running time, we can only guess at this man’s bond to the land, why it means so much to him, why he feels so tied to his home that he puts himself in peril just to stay. Likewise we can only guess at what life in the city would be like for him, a man who still finds dinner in a trap he laid in woods he knows like the back of his hand; a man who signs his name with an X.
With very little dialogue, Lorne Cardinal masters the character and gives him dignity as he wrestles with a life-changing decision, with only hinted-at spiritual repercussions. First-time director Kelton Stepanowich shot God’s Acre in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, and manages some striking imagery within his limited budget. The sound mixing is perhaps not what it should be but this is clearly a film maker with something to say about Aboriginal identity, and his is one of many voices that needs to be heard.
Dig It If You Can
This film by Kyle Bell serves as an introductory piece to Native American artist, Steven Paul Judd. Judd is a mostly self-taught man, whether it be film, Photoshop, even writing for television. The need to create drives him but his Native (Kiowa-Choctaw) ancestry is what inspires him.
Growing up on a reservation, Judd had limited exposure to outside influences like film and television, and what little he did see never reflected his own image. Today he creates the kind of images that would have comforted his younger self in a style blending pop culture and Native art that’s all his own. Banksy-esque, even Warhol-esque, his art is at once familiar and thought-provoking. His bold, “indigenized” pieces, overtly or covertly political, give people pause. But more than that, they offer his people representation, a chance to see their own culture and identity as a direct influence on the popular culture of today.
Director Kyle Bell (himself Thlopthlocco/Creek) takes a cool approach to the film’s subject, never quite achieving intimacy, unafraid to use up 2 of the film’s economic 20 minutes keeping Judd at a remove. But he accomplishes what he sets out to do: he gives voice to a subversive Indian artist, and thus gives voice to an entire people.
Marie’s walk home from her campus library is almost exactly 7 minutes. After being aggressively harassed one night, she can no longer help noticing just how vulnerable a young Native woman in Saskatoon can be. Her experience of reporting the incident, to the seemingly uninterested local police, only makes her feel less safe.
7 Minutes, the 7-minute documentary short from Tasha Hubbard, recreates Marie’s experience through a re-enactment narrated using Marie’s own words.
I’m not always a fan of re-enactments in documentaries. Like most people, for example, I was captivated by 2008’s Oscar-winner Man on Wire, but could have done without the fake footage. The recreation of Marie’s walk home, however, serves 7 Minutes quite nicely. First, it spares its subject, who is already brave enough to tell her story, from having to appear onscreen. Second, it is artfully shot, edited and, though I would have rather they tone down the spooky music, does an excellent job building tension. Lastly, it gives us the chance to imagine what it must have been like for her on that very scary night.
As a film, 7 Minutes turns out not to be long enough; Hubbard is very effective at covering the night in question in great and harrowing detail. Marie’s summary in the film’s final minutes about her experience with the police and her conclusions about violence towards First Nations women feel rushed. As a result the film feels like a short segment of an important and thought-provoking feature-length documentary.
Films like Mannahatta are always tough to watch as a white male. They serve as a reminder that what’s mine has come at someone else’s expense. Manhattan is the classic example of that, a chunk of land “bought” for nothing where the tiniest square of land is now worth millions of dollars, from high-end department stores to small neighbourhood pizzerias.
Mannahatta focuses on one of those Manhattan pizzerias. The film maintains a tight focus in order to convey its message, and that is a wise choice. Mannahatta is a small story of a new employee at the pizzeria who is haunted by a man that no one else sees. At first he is confused and annoyed by this ghost but eventually he listens to and understands him. It’s a cooperative awakening and we see that a joint effort is required to truly bury the horrors of the past.
The biggest problems are best dealt with by breaking them down into smaller, manageable bits. Mannahatta takes that approach and it succeeds in its endeavour. It is thought-provoking without being preachy, and its message is both obvious and worthy of repetition. We are all in this together, and while we cannot change the past, we can move forward together if we are guided by compassion and empathy. One step at a time.
Check out Cinema Axis for more coverage from the ImagineNative film festival.