Friday, December 23, 2011

In search of "Reel Injun"

So anyway, I was looking for something to pass some time, and while I was nosing around Netflix I happened upon "Reel Injun," a documentary exploring the depiction of Native Americans in film. The movie is the work of Neil Diamond (no, not that Neil Diamond), a Canadian member of the Cree Nation.

Right off the bat, Diamond won me over when he said he would need a "rez car" for his cross-country quest in search of Indians on film. I couldn't help but remember my time working on the Navajo Nation where many houses, cars, fences, and pretty much everything else were held together with baling wire and duct tape. You make do with what you've got.

(The mother in me does say, though, that it's damn crazy to trust a rez car to take you thousands of miles. We had a rez car for short time, and ours couldn't even get us from Window Rock to Gallup. Just saying.)
Filmmaker Neil Diamond and his rez car

At any rate, Reel Injun is a study of Native Americans on film, beginning at the turn of the 20th century when movie technology was brand new.  Diamond weaves a rich tapestry through liberal use of movie clips and interviews with prominent actors, writers, and activists.

Although the film is thick with dialogue, Diamond does occasionally use silence (or, more accurately, the strategic lack of narration) to make a point. For instance, one scene involves a boys' summer camp that claims to be based on Native American culture. Once the context is explained, Diamond turns the camera on the boys for several minutes but provides no commentary, so we're left to reach our own conclusions. Here's mine: the boys and the staff did an excellent job mimicking obnoxious, unruly football fans, and I felt like I should be doing something about it.

Diamond's strategic silence, however, almost lost me in one particularly disturbing scene. He visits a rez classroom of second or third graders and has the teacher show them a massacre scene from either Dances with Wolves. or Little Big Man (sorry, I don't remember which). His point: many Indian kids nowadays have never been exposed to these brutal images. As we hear the audio from the scene in the background, Diamond focuses, without commentary, on close-ups of the children's faces as they watch. While none of the kids seemed visibly shocked, all looked troubled and transfixed. I understand what Diamond was after, but the idea of purposely traumatizing small children is nearly as horrifying as the footage they were watching. I sure hope those kids got some help processing what they saw.

Other than that, the film's flaws are minor. For example, he could have made clearer the route he took on his cross-country journey. In addition, I would have liked to hear more about his story, rather than the heavy emphasis on the interviewees. That, of course, is simply a matter of personal taste, but a greater blending of his quest with the subject matter might have provided more depth and color.

Since I love a happy ending, I was gratified that Diamond showcased films made by indigenous people for indigenous people. Diamond focused on two films: Smoke Signals and Fast Runner.  I've seen the former and enjoyed it; I look forward to seeing the latter.
Oh, but above all, there was that golden moment when I just about melted: For a couple seconds, a little house appeared onscreen accompanied by the caption, "Navajo, New Mexico." Navajo is a town of less than 3,000 people, close to where we lived. My kid attend daycare in Navajo for about three years, beginning when she was just a year old. We still treasure the Pendleton blankets the staff gave us when we moved away -- one for me, one for her dad, and one kid-sized blanket for my daughter. Fond memories, indeed.

Anyway, I recommend Reel Injun, which you can view via Netflix's instant queue. In the meantime, I will contemplate the exquisite landscape of the Navajo Nation, which tugs at me still.


  1. That sounds cool. There's lots of movies with Native themes that I like a lot...Smoke Signals, Thunderheart, Skinwalkers, Last Of The Mohicans, and the Canadian tv show North Of 60, to name a few. I don't know Fast Runner...I'll have to look it up.

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