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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Canadian Film Review: Reel Injun (2009)

* * * 1/2

Director: Neil Diamond, Catherine Bainbridge

Reel Injun is a documentary that is as much about the history of film generally (and changing social attitudes over the last hundred plus years) as it is about the depictions of aboriginals on film specifically. It's a thought provoking and very well-made film, though it does miss a couple of opportunities to push the discussion to the next level.

The film is divided into sections, each one dealing with a decade of film from the medium's invention to the present day (though the 1980s are skipped due to a dearth of westerns). The early sections are the most interesting in the film, particularly as it points out that the technology enters the world just as the American frontier essentially disappears, the territory having been settled. Native Americans, the ultimate victims of Manifest Destiny, were popular subjects for film in its infancy and Reel Injun very effectively argues that the immediacy of the medium allowed filmmakers to mythologize Native Americans and the concept of the Old West in a way that was more or less concurrent with the violent process of settlement (for example, the film Buffalo Dance is made just four years after the Wounded Knee Masacre of 1890).

The first sections are also interesting for their exploration of the way that depictions of aboriginal peoples changed around the mid-30s/early 40s. In the early decades, Native American characters were figures of fascination but not representative of danger. By the 1930s, when westerns really started to reach their stride, there was a shift in the general characterization of Native American characters, who became violent antagonists on film, often out to destroy the white establishment (John Ford's Stagecoach is cited here as being particularly harmful). It gets progressively worse from there and even when it begins to get better, as with the sympathetic depiction of Native Americans in films like Dances with Wolves, it's actually still harmful, just in a different way. Dances is a film that indulges in exoticization and though it's sold on the idea that it's about Native Americans, it's actually about a white guy who's coded as "good" by his ability to put race aside and live amongst "the other."

Guided by Neil Diamond, the co-director and also the film's narrator, Reel Injun effectively charts the way that social changes evolved alongside depictions of aboriginals on film. It has particular fun with the way that hippie culture appropriated many facets of the culture they thought of as Native American, but which was largely a false culture perpetuated by film. Reel Injun also goes to great lengths to show how this false culture, dictated by white filmmakers, informed actual aboriginal communities. The disconnect between real people and their fictional representatives is never more apparent than when Diamond talks about playing "Cowboys and Indians" when he was a kid and not understanding that he wasn't a cowboy.

For the most part, Reel Injun does an excellent job at charting the negative effects of depictions of aboriginals on film. However, it doesn't quite push itself as far as it could. For example, at one point Diamond states that he wants to see the reactions of children when they see an old school western and the film watches them as they watch Little Big Man. They appear rather disturbed by what they're seeing but the film doesn't follow-up or explore it any further. It shows us their faces as they watch the film but there's no discussion with them afterwards and it's problematic that we don't actually hear what they think about what they've just seen. It sort of undercuts the idea of the documentary giving voice to people who went without one for so long in popular culture.

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