Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Off The Rez

As Stephanie Harrison points out in her introduction, Smoke Signals is the first movie written, directed, produced and starring all Native Americans in Native American roles (or Indian Americans, the term Sherman Alexie prefers).  At the same time, it was essential to the filmmakers that they create a film that would be appealing to a wide audience, and not just for Native Americans. They wanted to illuminate the life and dilemmas of the modern Native American to every American (which includes a staggering statistic of alcoholism and substance abuse among those that live on Reservations), rather than sustain the old western stereotypes of "The Noble Savage."  Yet, a part of their response was also living in the shadows of that stereotype (I think you can definitely see this in the character of Victor, the song about John Wayne, and their discussion on what a "real" Indian is supposed to look like). 

Knowing that "This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" is only of the texts that was the source material for the film adaptation (there were other shorts stories in the collection that were sources for the story in the film), what do you think about the use of film conventions (or dare I say "formula") to help shape the story.  Was it a noticeable change from the writing in the short story, or was it similar to other adaptations we've looked at (like how All About Eve changed a lot from the original text simply for the medium of feature film)?  I guess part of what I'm asking is do you think the "Hollywood Storytelling Conventions" were apparent and did they help or hinder the film? 

A great example to counter this film, and its Hollywood conventions, is Sherman Alexie's film directing debut The Business of Fancy Dancing, which uses very non-traditional film storytelling conventions.  It's worth a look if you have access to a Netflix account (unfortunately it's not on Instant).  We watched it last year in Film Genres and some of your classmates have seen it.  Interesting to note, Alexie also utilized a very non-traditional filmmaking method to make the film - they had an improvisational shooting style day to day (did not use conventional shot list) and everyone on set, including the grips, were asked their opinions on what types of shots to get to capture the scenes.  Alexie also tried to hire as many women filmmakers as possible, in response to the issue of how few women filmmakers there are in the industry.

For those interested, an amazing documentary exploring the historical portrayal of Native Americans in American film is now available on Instant Netflix. I saw it at the Traverse City Film Festival two summers ago and it was fantastic.  It's called Reel Injun, and many of the filmmakers involved in Smoke Signals are interviewed.  Extra Credit to anyone who watches it and writes a blog post (no due date - anytime before end of semester).  But it's worth a watch in general!