“It was going to get made no matter what…”
In my last blog post “Alive or Better Off Dead?” I made a statement about Sterling HolyWhiteMountain’s interview posted on Josh Cole’s blog. I referred to his interview as being apolitical and promised to elaborate on that in another blog post. So here goes. HolyWhiteMountain does discuss a plethora of important political issues in Indian Country but there was one statement that essentially undermines any other political statement he made:
“The thing about this video is, it was going to get made no matter what, whether I helped or not. I knew there would be controversy, and I knew what the arguments against it would be – they’re not unfamiliar at all. But I also knew that if I took the job, I might be able to do my small part to make the representation as authentic as possible.”
You see the thing about this video is that it didn’t have to be made. Implying that his community didn’t have the agency to prohibit a production like this from being made on their territory makes it resoundingly clear that people with this type of “it was going to get made anyway” mentality are not willing to acknowledge that we, as Indigenous peoples, are not only implicated in the problem but that we are also capable of changing the status quo. The problem being that when we participate in problematic initiatives like the Alive video we are allowing it to happen. Yes, I understand Josh Cole had good intentions and that members of the Blackfeet community gave him the blessing but the fundamental problem is the way that this video was made and the particular story that was told. I completely agree that we need to show and explore the difficult stories but the problem with non-native people like Josh Cole making videos like his is that this is the only type of story they are interested in telling. It becomes so clearly evident that they see our people as nothing more than another cause, another charity case, another people in need of a white saviour.
I’m a filmmaker and I intend to have a long career in the industry and, frankly, there is no room right now to be apolitical or apathetic when it comes to representations of our people on screen. We have reached a critical point in cinematic history and the world has no choice but to listen to the now thriving community of Indigenous filmmakers. This community is comprised of filmmakers and video artists – of whom there are far too many to mention – who are creating truly incredible works that defiantly challenge the last century of misrepresentation. Their work serves to reflect the distinct multitude of authentic Indigenous lived experiences and provides us with provocative and engaging material that often depicts painful realities. And let me be clear, their work doesn’t just serve up simplistic stories of painful realities. Instead they provide us with an even deeper truth – a common narrative that we can all agree on – and that is the resilience and complicated beauty of a people who have overcome centuries of colonial genocide.
Again, do not get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with non-native people telling our stories onscreen but there is a right way to go about it. Case in point, just last weekend I watched a feature film called Empire of Dirt which was directed by Peter Stebbings, a white director. This film truly resonated with me and it covered a lot of the same difficult issues of poverty, addiction, and violence. The difference between that film and the Alive music video is that there were numerous First Nations key creatives involved. It was produced by Jennifer Podemski, a Mohawk powerhouse in the industry and written by a First Nations woman, Shannon Masters. At no point during this film did I question the intentions of the director or those involved in making the film because it was truly a collaborative process that included a lot of non-native people on the production team but also involved First Nations people guiding this difficult narrative. Furthermore, it did not leave me feeling defeated or disempowered like the Alive video did because its characters were not defined by poverty, addiction, and violence. Instead, its characters were defined by who they are as people and part of their reality happened to include some of these difficult issues.
I also don’t think that this is about having total control over representation. It is about ensuring that the film industry no longer perpetuate exploitive relationships with native peoples and in doing so we ensure that representations of us no longer include harmful grand narratives that only serve to marginalize Indigenous voices. As mentioned in my last blog, Screen Australia’s Indigenous Department is an excellent example of a body of Indigenous people working within the industry to both promote the growth of Aboriginal filmmakers as well as “shaping and influencing the policy environment for issues affecting Indigenous screen content creators.”
As an artist, I take serious issue with the notion that in order for art to be successful it must also be aesthetically pleasing. This is an incredibly naïve belief and reduces art to nothing more than pretty wallpaper. It also discredits the agency of those who consume, collect, and engage with art and deems them nothing more than passive viewers. I don’t make films just to throw pretty images up on the screen. I make films to tell stories that engage my audience. I agree with HolyWhiteMountain when he says “the experience of watching the video, reading the book, seeing the painting or sculpture, that experience is enough on its own. If you want social change, work on social change – but don’t tell artists they need to be mouthpieces for your political agendas.” However, Josh Cole stated that he made the video with social change in mind. When you proceed with any work of art rooted in the intention of social change, you carry a certain degree of responsibility especially when you are working with a community that is not your own. There were plenty of folks working on the production who can empathize with and understand the complexities of a community like Browning but the fact is they still are not Blackfeet. Allies are a powerful thing in this world and I do not wish to undermine the work they do but being an ally means that your role is never to speak for us. An ally’s role is to stand in solidarity and to listen to the needs of a community like Browning and Empire of Dirt is a brilliant example of how this collaborative relationship with allies can transpire positively in the film world.
Ultimately, I do respect what Sterling had to say and I respect his community’s choice to participate in this video. This isn’t a case of black and white. There are a lot of grey areas and that is why I think there were such heated debates. But I do hope that the undeniable problems with the way this video was made and the story that was told can offer us all a valuable lesson in the ways that we can improve matters of Indigenous representation and collaboration in the film industry. We definitely have a long way to go and pointing fingers is not enough. It is up to us, as Indigenous storytellers, to lead the discussion on how to proceed with making these critical changes to the status quo.