“Alive” or Better Off Dead?
Last week, a controversial music video by UK filmmaker Josh Cole was released featuring the song Alive by the UK based group Chase & Status (featuring Jacob Banks). Following the release, the Twitterverse erupted as people heatedly argued both for and against the video. Some aspects of the video are a fairly accurate depiction of life on the Rez in Browning. However, there are numerous other factors both in the video itself as well as in the making of the video that I cannot stand behind.
Two days after the video was released, Josh Cole posted an interview to his blog with Sterling HolyWhiteMountain a Blackfeet “collaborator” with the project. Read here:
Yesterday, Indian Country Today released an interview with Josh Cole about his controversial video. Read here:
There are multiple issues at hand and I wish to address them with the man behind the video, Josh Cole. Josh, I think it is fair to assume that you had good intentions in making this video but good intentions are not enough. It is critical to fully understand the history of a complex community like Browning before swooping in with your cameras and your outsider perspective. These are difficult waters to navigate but I’m going to do my best to guide you through them and tell you why I, as a Blackfoot woman and filmmaker, am still not okay with your video.
Josh, you say that all your work is about the “beauty that comes from hardship.” You have photographed and filmed numerous marginalized and impoverished people across the globe and your films are cinematically stunning. There is nothing wrong with wanting to make this world a better place but I hope this particular experience leads you to approach marginalized communities in a different way, a better way.
I can understand why so many native people enjoyed watching your video. For one, it hits very close to home for many of us. That story isn’t a far cry from reality. As you mentioned, many of the CrazyDogs said that this was “their own story” and I completely agree that addiction and lateral violence are both very important issues that need to be discussed but I don’t think you ought to be the one leading that conversation. Second, it’s a beautiful and heart-wrenching video paired with a catchy song. Third, who doesn’t like seeing their own people along with familiar settings on screen?
On your YouTube page, you thank the entire Blackfeet Nation and the CrazyDogs Society. However, upon inspection of your cast and crew list, it seems that the majority of the Blackfeet people involved were in front of the camera. Those behind the camera seemed to serve as location scouts and horse wranglers or be a jack of all trades like Sterling. I do not wish to discredit the agency of the Blackfeet Nation or their choice to be a part of this production but there are some major problems here. I thought Sterling’s statements were rather apolitical but I’ll address that in another blog post. Anyway, you are credited as the writer and director so I am assuming that there were no Blackfeet people involved in actually creating the story so I would like to know how you came up with the story and why this particular story? You see, in having no Blackfeet people as key creatives (writers, directors, etc) you are perpetuating the colonial gaze or the Eurocentric gaze on Indigenous peoples and that is a problem.
You mentioned in your interview with ICT that you wanted to “tell Europe how difficult it is for Native Americans.” That’s a great idea and all but let me try and put this into context for you. Poverty, lateral violence, substance abuse and addiction are all a daily reality for Indigenous communities across this continent. These issues come as a result of a violent colonial history and a violent colonial present. But many non-Indigenous people cannot or will not put two and two together. Instead, they choose to view these issues as inherent to native people.
The problem with the story you chose to tell is that it is a narrative that has been told time and time again. It depicts a losing battle with poverty, addiction, and violence. It’s a narrative about the dying race, the vanishing Indian. And who does this narrative blame for the death of a people? The Indians themselves. This narrative ignores the complexities of colonialism and all those implicated within the colonial narrative. In telling the story this way, you ignore the reasons behind this young man’s addiction and his community’s struggles.
Again, as you mentioned, several of the CrazyDogs connected with the script because it was similar to their own story. In fact, the story is quite like my brother’s story. However, he is now acing his second year of university, he is the president of the Native American Students Association at this university, and he is actively involved in the Sundance societies. He is also expecting his first child with his beautiful Blackfoot partner who is attending university as well. You see, he didn’t end up dead and neither did those CrazyDogs you worked with. So I find it quite interesting that the song is titled “Alive” yet you leave us with a dead Indian at the foot of Chief Mountain, one of our most sacred sites. Was it really necessary to kill your main character? Wasn’t one dead Indian enough for you? You sure do make the afterlife look appealing in comparison to reality and your statement on this being a “happy ending” is a bit too simplistic. I hope you understand that your choice in ending plays into another very familiar narrative for us – that our people are better off dead. That “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Our people don’t need to see another dead warrior. What you could have shown is a story like my brother’s or all those living and breathing members of the CrazyDogs. A story that give us hope and that doesn’t leave us feeling completely defeated.
We should also discuss Indigenous representation. You see, native people have been represented and misrepresented onscreen since the time the very first moving picture was made. We’ve seen the stoic Indian, the drunk or strung- out Indian, the helpless Indian maiden, the broke Indian, and the dead Indian a thousand times before. We get it. We’ve got problems that need fixing but it’s not your job to fix them.
I do not have a problem with non-native people depicting natives or telling native stories onscreen. In fact, I think it is critical that non-native people both collaborate with and include us in their work. And by collaborating with us I should hope that means we see more native people depicted in a full spectrum of diversity. The Aboriginal department at Screen Australia has really got that whole collaboration and representation thing down to a science and I think the rest of the world ought to follow suit.
Now, let’s talk about the Sundance. You see, at Kainai, it is forbidden to take photos or film the Sundance. In fact, our Brave Dogs stand at the entrance of the Sundance grounds making sure that no one even considers bringing a camera into this sacred space. Yes, you might have had permission to film a make believe Sundance from the Blackfeet Nation but knowing how strongly other Blackfoot communities like ours feel about the photography of sacred ceremonies, you shouldn’t have done it. The CrazyDogs of Browning may have agreed to it but they cannot speak for the entire Blackfoot Confederacy and I should hope that our BraveDogs would say “no” to something like this. Ultimately, your portrayal of the Sundance reduces our sacred ceremonies to nothing more than a spectacle.
I want to pose some alternatives for the next time you decide to depict a marginalized population – like my people – onscreen. For one, ask yourself who are you making this for? Is it for the community you are depicting or is it for an outside audience? Then ask yourself why you are doing it. Is it for your own betterment, is it for the betterment of the community involved, or is it for the betterment of society at large? Then ask yourself what the potential impacts are of making such a video? Is this for short or long term gain? What happens after you leave the community? How is the community meant to live with the final product? Who owns that story? There are so many questions to ask and sometimes there are many right answers but it is critical that you ask those questions. And if you find yourself feeling uneasy about it, then maybe there is a reason why. Maybe you just shouldn’t do it.
In terms of pragmatic tangible actions, here are some things you can do better next time. You can include members of the community as key creatives. Let them write the script. Let them direct. Find a community member to help you produce. Trust me, there is a talented and thriving Indigenous film community. In fact, there are a number of talented young Blackfoot filmmakers; Cowboy Smithx, Damien Eagle Bear, Colin Van Loon, Robyn Weasel Bear, Trevor Solway, Gyasi Ross, Rose Stiffarm, and Caitlyn Pantherbone just to name a few. You can also make sure that community members are going to gain a valuable set of skills from the production and the best way to do that is to invite them to intern or apprentice on set. This isn’t a groundbreaking suggestion because there are onset apprentices on most big productions. If you want to help the community using your expertise and skill set, you can facilitate a youth workshop in which you teach youth from the community how to make films. You can even find ways to fund a long-term education initiative that includes leaving the community with the production equipment needed to make their own films. Really, the list goes on. I don’t want to berate you anymore because I think that the Twitterverse dragged you through the ringer but there is a reason why that happened. It’s time to reflect and I do hope you’ll consider what I’ve said the next time you work with another marginalized community.