Sunday, December 22, 2013

Reel Injun (2009): The real-life impact of false images


Reel Injun (2009) is an intriguing documentary (available for streaming on Netflix) from Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond. It deals with the way Native Americans and First Nations have been portrayed in Hollywood films from silents to today.

The documentary covers the variety of false images that have been presented about Native Americans and First Nations in film (and also the recent insurgence of films from indigenous perspectives). The documentary accomplishes this through film footage, archival footage, and interviews with many people from inside the community (filmmakers, historians, and activists like Russell Means, John Trudell, Charlie Hill, and Sacheen Littlefeather) and outside (Jim Jarmusch and Clint Eastwood).

The film argues that false images create false perceptions--perceptions that are harmful in real life. 

Although in the film lovers community we would probably immediately agree that film totally has power (why else are we all addicted and held at its mercy?!), there are many others who argue that movies and television are simply entertainment and don't seriously impact a person's worldview or behaviour.

Reel Injun and I would both completely disagree with that!

This documentary quite impacted me, because it reminded me of some memories I had rather forgotten (I am an elderly 19).

As a really young child, I loved westerns. Some of my earliest entertainment memories are westerns. I watched them on TV: Bonanza was my absolute favorite show at the age of five. I loved western movies: Roy Rogers was my favorite person ever! I devoured westerns (I didn't help that I was the girl in the middle of four brothers).

See, my parents were pretty strict about movies in one sense (the modern films I was allowed to watch was closely monitored), but also very open (I could watch anything I wanted made from 1935-1950). My mother was concerned about violence, language, and sex, but otherwise--I could watch anything I wanted. This meant that at a young age, I watched a lot of really great classic films (pretentious movie reviews from an 11-year-old, anyway?).

It also meant that I watched millions of westerns.

These are the westerns from the '30s and '40s. The westerns that are discussed in Reel Injun. They almost universally portrayed Native Americans as faceless, nameless hordes of savages (played by white men in red face). At a young age, I was impacted by these films.

Watching the documentary really reminded me. As a 4, 5, 6, and 7 year-old, I was honestly terrified of "Indians." I held them in the same fear and fascination that I treated sharks. I would have nightmares; I was convinced they were living in my woods (therefore, I was scared to go into them alone).

This perception I had came directly from the movies I watched.

Because I was homeschooled, I got to learn a lot of things before I might have in the public school system. If my mother was teaching a history lesson to my older siblings, it was a very likely that I would get to hear it too. So, even at that young age, I was told true stories about Native Americans. I got to learn about colonization, and the Trails of Tears, and other actual events. Even then, I knew about the true story of Pocahontas and not that Disney nonsense (I wasn't allowed to watch it anyway).

But, the information I received about real humans and real cultures did nothing to combat my fear.

Images are that powerful.

Fortunately, as I got a bit older, I was able to clearly identify the real people versus the false images.

But, that isn't always the case for everyone. Not everyone learns that their perception or worldview is wrong. That can be incredibly difficult for people to even recognize.

And, that's not to say that everyone is going to react like a terrified 6-year-old. For many people, it may manifest in a vague dislike or uneasiness. Or maybe it manifests by treating Native Americans and First Nations as a group of "others," instead of distinct human beings. There can even be a seemingly positive "fascination" that still distorts or disrespects or dehumanizes people and cultures.

These are things that result from false representation.

And, it was interesting. I was thinking how I wish I had told my parents about my feelings. It's strange that I didn't. My other big fear at that time was my house burning down. Every night, before I went to bed, I was so worried that my house was going to burn down. I told my parents--and they acted on it. I was always reassured, we had "fire drills," the fire alarm in my room was tested often, I was taken to visit the fire department.

But, I never told my parents how terrified I was of the"Indians" I saw in movies. And, really, what could they have shown me to change my mind? I had been taught true things; it was the films that impacted me though.

And, because of the continued false portrayal or lack-of-portrayal of Native Americans in Hollywood films--there was no pile of movies I could have been shown to counteract the impact of those other movies.

That is why representation--true, not necessarily always positive, but true representation--is so vital for all peoples and cultures.

I know this is sounding rather melodramatic, especially coming from someone who honestly hasn't experienced a lack of representation in films.

But, take it from a terrified-for-no-reason five-year-old, films have a power to impact for good and bad.

I would never advocate for censorship or that movies should only be used to portray positive, happy stories. But, films should seek truth and understanding even in unreality. 

 





P.S. I know this is a bit of serious post from me (and those aren't usually the best written or most articulate coming from me), but it was something that was impacting me--and I hope I don't sound too awful or crazy. Thanks so much for reading! :-)

2 comments:

Hamlette said...

Intriguing! I will have to see if my library has this, or try to get it myself. I, too, grew up watching hundreds of old western movies and TV shows, though I became very fascinated with American Indians and spent many hours dreaming that I was one, playing them, reading about real-life captives, everything I could find. Could be because we loved The Lone Ranger, and Tonto is such a positive Native American character. Who knows. Anyway, thanks for pointing my way to this documentary! It sounds fascinating. (Plus, Clint Eastwood!)

Sarah Mann said...

I've watched this twice for two different classes (Minorities in film and Indians in Film). I still think it's so interesting. Screen representations of any kind of people are SO ENDLESSLY FASCINATING to me, and I was actually wondering if you had seen this because of your love of Westerns!

This was a really neat post. :D

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