Indigenous movie representation can sometimes be less than accurate. From battles with romanticization to stereotyping to limited finances, Indigenous filmmakers and actors are trying to knock down the barriers they face in the industry.
A great example of this was featured in the CBC article, How a new wave of Indigenous cinema is changing the narrative of Canada and the UBC wiki entry: Indigenous representation in film.
The following story is going to compare and analyze how indigenous representation in a film has changed by looking at Chris Eyre’s 1998 Smoke Signals and Jeff Barnaby’s 2014 Rhymes for Young Ghouls. Both are directed by and feature Indigenous people. The movies both portray life on reserves (rez), Indigenous and non-Indigenous relationships and the impact of losing a parent.
Set on the Coeur D’Alene reserve in Idaho, United States, the representation of life on the reserve in this movie is pretty mild. It doesn’t dive too deeply into the hardships people face in these environments. It shows dirt roads, rez cars and the small town feel. This representation of life on reserves isn’t as in-depth or realistic as it could be. However, the reserve is not the main focus of the movie. The journey to Arizona is.
Rhymes for Young Ghouls
Set on the Red Crow Reserve in Canadian Mi’kmaw Territory, this film relies heavily on scenes of the ramshackle appearance of the community. It is surrounded by thick forest and navigated by dirt roads. The movie is set mostly in the protagonist Alia’s house which is home to wild parties and a drug dealing business. There is also a residential school on the reserve land.
Rhymes for Young Ghouls a more in-depth look into what Indigenous people endure on reserves. The scenes focus on the lack of adequate housing and furniture and even food. They also focused more on the negative role substance use and abuse has on the protagonist and her family’s lives.
Cowboys vs. Indians
Both movies touch on the tension between Indigenous protagonists and non-native antagonists. However, in Smoke Signals, this tension is summed up in one single scene. This is a scene when the main characters, Victor and Thomas, are on the bus to Arizona. Their seats are stolen by two white men who taunt the two young men. It is short and simple and runs under three minutes.
Whereas, the entire plot of Rhymes for Young Ghoulsis about people who are treated poorly by the officials of the residential school. Aila and her father are even beaten in one scene for being out on the lake in their boat against the non-Indigenous rules. Aila is eventually taken into the institution. However, the characters get revenge on the man terrorizing their town.
The importance of this narrative is favoured by the second film because of the context of the residential school era. However, this movie is not as dark as most other films. It has a harrowing underdog plot.
The Loss of a Parent: Secrets, Suicide and Searching for One’s Own Way.
Smoke Signalsshows a brief scene describing how Victor’s parents used to drink heavily and how his dad never really quit and ultimately abandons the family. One day, many years later Victor receives a phone call that his father has died. From that point, the movie is about Victor’s journey to finding peace with his father and who he is as a young man.
Rhymes for Young Ghoulsopens with a scene showing Aila’s parents also drinking heavily. They leave the house and the mother, who is heavily intoxicated, runs over Aila’s childhood friend and kills him. Stricken with the grief of her actions, Aila hangs herself. For the rest of the film, Aila speaks to her mother’s ghost and deals with the consequence of this loss.
The narratives of the protagonists losing their parents, having parents who rely heavily on drugs or alcohol, or having parents who leave is a very scary reality to many young Indigenous people. Under this category, even though it is almost disturbing to watch, Rhymes for Young Ghoulsportrays these hardships in a desperately needed and hauntingly real way.
Why Does this Matter?
This analysis and review are meant to examine the way that Indigenous people’s stories are being presented in film and how they have changed over the years. As mentioned in the CBC article there is a greater need for Indigenous people to tell their own stories, describe their own cultures and represent their own people. For example, when I look at non-Indigenous-made films about Indigenous people, I see so much missing….So, I think the opportunity there is to have better stories, more complex representations of our culture, more complex representations of the journey that we’re on as a Canada moving towards a reconciled future.
There is no denying that Smoke Signals has paved the way for other Indigenous directors and actors. In a way, it opened the door for creation, conceptualization and presentation of Indigenous films. It challenged the stereotypical and romanticized recreations of indigenous culture and people. That movie was the beginning steps for other films like Rhymes for Young Ghouls.
Besides these two films, there have been dozens of movies and tv shows that have come out since Smoke Signals came out in 1998. For example, Zacharias Kunuk’s 2001 Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, Neil Diamond’s 2010 Reel Injun, and Ron E. Scott’s Blackstone (2011-2015).
Peace & Love