Cree documentary filmmaker finds his own fame as he tracks the Reel Injun at FIFA
The receptionist at the Palm Springs Hilton doesn’t miss a beat when I dial up and ask for Neil Diamond. Apparently, he’s staying at the hotel under his own name.
The Montreal-based Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond may not yet be as famous as the Jewish Elvis (Montreal Neil isn’t even allowed to use his own name on Facebook), but his documentary Reel Injun: On the Trail of the Hollywood Indian did just close the Agua Caliente Film Festival in Palm Springs, after sold-out premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival last September and, more recently, South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, as well as held-over runs in Toronto and Vancouver.
The film, a co-production by the NFB and Montreal’s esteemed aboriginal-owned production company, Rezolution Pictures, is a groundbreaking work that began, in a sense, when Diamond was a kid in Waskaganish, on James Bay. As he recounts in the intro sequence to Reel Injun, Diamond and his friends spent their childhoods watching all kinds of movies in the church basement, including classic John Ford westerns with cowboys and Indians. And, like everyone else, the Cree kids all rooted for the cowboys.
"Dances With Pocahontas in Space"
On one level, Reel Injun is a classic road movie. Diamond sets out in a borrowed "rez car" to crisscross the continent, beginning with a visit to a Québécois summer camp for kids where the campers enact "tribal games." "I wonder if any of them have ever met a real Indian," he muses in the film’s voiceover. "I hope they aren’t disappointed." (According to Diamond, upon meeting him, they were.)
He then sets out to visit sites of historical importance to Native American history: Wounded Knee and the Black Hills of South Dakota; Arizona, Geronimo’s homeland; and winding up on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. In Tinseltown, he confronts the changing representations and misrepresentations of indigenous peoples – from Thomas Edison’s 1894 Buffalo Dance and Sioux Ghost Dance Kinetoscope films to Ford’s The Searchers – that have horrified postmodern film historians for generations.
Diamond follows the image of the "redskin" in Hollywood – as warriors, noble savages, "Indian princesses," heroes, villains, "drunken Indians" and more through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, from Dustin Hoffman’s native role in Little Big Man to Sacheen Little Feather refusing Marlon Brando’s Oscar in ’73, through Kevin Costner’s Indian fetishism in Dances With Wolves in the ’80s to the indie (and native) film renaissance of the ’90s and ’00s. In the process, Diamond also had a chance to explore his own identity as a "real Indian," or rather, a "reel Injun," in the mirror of cinematic archetypes. As he sits astride a horse on a prairie plain somewhere in the American Midwest, he says in the film’s voiceover: "I finally feel like a real Indian."
(Diamond’s own favourite "native" film, or rather performance, is Will Sampson’s Chief in Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He says, "It’s definitely not Avatar, that’s for sure – or as I call it, Dances With Pocahontas in Space.")
Reel Injun also proves the veracity of a few urban legends (or rez legends, as Diamond terms them) about native people in the movies, including the fact that Navajo elders, used as extras in old westerns, occasionally got bored and went off-script, delivering some very subversive lines to Custer. He also reveals the real reason Hollywood Injuns always wore headbands, and the real ethnicity of classic Hollywood Injun Iron Eyes Cody.
Once were road warriors
Diamond’s road trip wasn’t solitary by any means: He punctuates his narrative with quotes from native and non-native activists and filmmakers such as Chris Eyre, John Trudell, Jim Jarmusch and, yes, Clint Eastwood.
"He was always on my wish list from the very beginning, because of The Outlaw Josey Wales, and Flags of Our Fathers, and the westerns, and his [relationship] with Chief Dan George," says Diamond of Eastwood. "He was pretty much the successor to John Wayne. [Actor] Adam Beach knew him, and at first he agreed to [be interviewed] when they were shooting Flags of Our Fathers. I guess we just kept calling his assistant, and we finally wore him down. When we went to [Burbank for the interview], we brought him a present too: these beautiful beaded moose-hide mittens from an artist in James Bay. It might seem like a strange present for a guy who lives in Southern California, but we wanted him to remember us. And we made sure they were big enough for his hands."
Like many contemporary actors, Beach, the Salteaux actor from Manitoba who starred in Flags of Our Fathers as well as Rezolution Pictures’ Moose TV, plays many of his roles with a levity not available to previous generations of "reel Injuns."
"I don’t remember the first time I saw a native person smile in the movies – you never, never saw that; it was always the crying Indian. I think it was Chief Dan George in Little Big Man," says Diamond.
As far as tragedy, Diamond saw his share of that too, including during a stopover in Pine Ridge, once the proud ground where Crazy Horse bravely battled Custer and his men, now the poorest county in the U.S. A massive image of Crazy Horse is being carved out of the side of a mountain there. It’s a statue that, if completed, will be the biggest for a human anywhere – and also for a man who refused to let his image be captured while he was alive.
For Diamond, Reel Injun‘s road trip was a chance to realize a personal desire of his own to visit the landscape of the so-called Plains Indian – because he himself had never met a Navajo or an Apache or a Lakota other than in the films of his youth.
"I was just fascinated with the cultures; they were so different from where I grew up in James Bay," he says. "I found out that one thing that was shared was our sense of humour. There’s a lot of teasing, and you rarely get compliments. That’s the same as where I come from – teasing is the way we show affection. It’s a way of bringing everyone onto the same level. And the other thing, it seems like native people everywhere point with their lips. I met Aborigines from Australia, and apparently they do it too."
Reel Injun screens at FIFA and opens at Cinéma du Parc, April 2