Reel Injun (2009) dir. Neil Diamond
By Alan Bacchus
North American Aboriginals have a long history with cinema, just about as long as the medium has existed. If you consider the ‘Western’ cinema’s most venerable genre in the century’s most influential form of storytelling then it’s easy to see how much damage Hollywood’s depiction has done to the mainstream perception of the Indian people. I use the word ‘Indian’ not in a derogatory way. Though, it’s not the politically correct word this egregiously erroneous term which had stuck through our language continues to be used by their own people. But it’s part of the down to earth quality which the participants in this film bring to their self-analysis.
Canadian Aboriginal director Neil Diamond uses a familiar first person narrative format through which to frame this very large story, pointing the camera at himself to chart his own journey of self-discovery. He tells us of his childhood when he used to watch Westerns movies and TV shows and found himself always cheering for the 'Cowboys' as opposed to the “Indians’ – yet not recognizing that he, himself, was one of these Indians. While it’s a probably bit of an exagerration it he demonstrates just how wrong the entrenched depiction of his people were on the big screen.
As Diamond hops on the road in an old beat up roadster (affectionately referred to us as a 'Rez car'), he brings the audience back through time and charts the temptestuous relationship of Indians and Hollywood.
Diamond finds all the right footage and participants to tell his story from a number of intriguing angles. A number of Aboriginal leaders, film critics, poets, authors and intellectuals take us through 100 years of cinema. For the Hollywood point of view Diamond even meets up with Jim Jarmusch and Clint Eastwood for their opinions. Ironically we learn in the early silent era Indians were often characterized as the hero, with much reverence shown for the traditions of the culture. But as esteemed Canadian film critic and Ojibwa Nation member Jesse Wente expresses, it was John Ford’s ‘Stagecoach’ (1939) which set everything back and laid a foundation of cinematic mistreatment.
Diamond keeps a light and refreshing sense of humour through everything. One of worst cultural mistakes which permeated into mainstream culture is the idea that Indians wear headbands – a mistruth which came about from the need of the actors to prevent their wigs from falling off during action sequences. Same with the feathered war headdress which was ubiquitously applied to any Indian in the movies.
The film flows in and out of the predictable timeline of cinema history. A good deal of time is spent on the political history of the First Nations, which began in the hippie 60’s when Indian culture became ‘fashionable’ again, and climaxing with the Wounded Knee revolt. Of course Wounded Knee links up with the legendary Sacheen Littlefeather speech in place of Marlon Brando in 1973. Littlefeather who appears in an interview even clears up some of the political discreditation against her which continued to this day – the idea that she was a fake, and not a ‘real’ aboriginal at all.
In fact, a number of the most famous Indians in cinema history were adopted into the culture. One of the most touching stories is of Iron Eyes Cody, one of the most famous Indian actors who appeared in over 100 films, yet was of Italian descent. The effect of his roles in his own family continue to be felt, later in life self-identifying with the First Nations, marrying an aboriginal woman and becoming patriarch to a culturally-aware aboriginal family.
Diamond ends off the film bringing us to the present, where we find ourselves in a Golden Age of Aboriginal Filmmaking. Diamond, Wente and most of the pundits (and myself included) consider Zacharias Kunuk’s “Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner” is the first ever truly indigenous mainstream film.
'Reel Injun' should be required viewing not just for cineastes but to educators and children. Diamond has created a remarkable statement of history within the context of this highly discriminatory and unregulated teaching tool known as cinema.