Blame it on Kevin Costner. While he may have had good intentions with Dances With Wolves, you gotta wonder how many American Indians in the audience were asking themselves, "Why is this guy telling our story?" And while Costner's effort was actually better than most --think countless John Wayne movies, or Disney's Pocohontas -- Indians have been putting up with seeing themselves marginalized, misrepresented and caricatured for decades.
Hollywood's inaccurate portrayal of Indians has spawned a new cinematic movement, and this weekend in Moscow, you can sample some of the best feature-length and documentary films that new movement has to offer. Now in its third year, the American Indian Film Festival is the brainchild of UI professor Janis Johnson.
"Definitely part of the whole motivation for doing this film festival lies in being from this area -- I grew up in Lewiston and then left for 20 years, 10 in Seattle and 10 in New Orleans -- and only realizing once I was away how much miseducation there was in regard to Indians, especially with the Nez Perce," she says. "And now that I'm back, I see that there are still rifts, especially when the Nez Perce try to do something that betters their lives, whether economically or socially or whatever. There are people who still become really reactionary to that, almost paranoid, as if something were going to be taken away from them."
The Nez Perce still fight battles over use of the Snake River and traditional fishing rights. Not surprisingly, the film series is designed to open up avenues for communication between Indians and whites. Many films will be followed by a panel discussion; several are being shown in the afternoons to local high school classes. Thursday night (tonight) offers the poignant American Indian Graffiti, a full-length feature film set in contemporary Oklahoma. The intertwining lives of Stephanie, Rachel, Steve and Barry are played out against a backdrop of loss, coincidence and redemption.
If your previous familiarity with American Indian film has been largely through Sherman Alexie (Smoke Signals, The Business of Fancydancing), Friday will be a chance to see 49, which Alexie made for the Seattle International Film Festival's Fly Filmmaking Challenge last year. Alexie wrote the script, which explores and portrays the Indian musical tradition known as "the 49." For a sample of this haunting, lyrical framework, visit his Web site www.fallsapart.com and click on the "films" link. Alexie's influence is also felt in one of the other offerings Friday night, the Wyoming-based basketball drama Chiefs. Although it takes place two states away, Chiefs will resonate with Hoopfest participants and Alexie fans alike.
"Basketball is so huge right here with the Coeur d'Alene, Spokane and Nez Perce tribes," says Johnson. "If you've read Sherman Alexie, you know how important basketball has been in his life, and I think Chiefs is interesting in that it shows the larger significance of basketball in the lives of Indian youth."
Saturday night offers four experimental films by Mohawk filmmaker Shelly Niro, including It Starts With a Whisper, Overweight With Crooked Teeth, Honey Moccasin and The Shirt. Her films are shaped by issues of identity, especially in terms of how Native women grow into themselves within often conflicting cultures. Niro does so with humor, irony and a great deal of insight. Honey Moccasin -- with its closeted drag queen/powwow clothing thief, torchy musical numbers, rival bars, fashion show and melodrama/mystery plot -- sounds like one not to be missed.
Panel discussions will take place after each night's showings and with the admission price being free (FREE, people!), the American Indian Film Festival is well worth the scenic Palouse drive down to Moscow and the Kenworthy Theatre. And although the mission of the film series is ostensibly an educational one, there's nothing here to indicate folks won't also be entertained, uplifted and sustained by the simple power of narrative.
"We love film. Film is story-telling and Indian cultures have been storytelling for years," says Johnson. "Film is just a new way for Indians to tell their own stories."