Indian Life Newspaper -

Two Recent Indigenous Films Worth Your Time


Last updated 1/4/2018 at 2:24pm

Te Ata feels like a Hallmark production, if Hallmark were ever even slightly willing to be critical of the United States government and its Indian policies. It is a well-meaning tribute to Chickasaw storyteller Mary Francis Thompson, whose stage name was Te Ata. According to the film, that name means "Bearer of the Morning," and her grandmother gave it to her when she was a baby because she wailed so loudly at dawn.

Thompson (Q'orianka Kilcher) grew up in Oklahoma in the early 20th century, when white settlers were claiming Indian territory as their own, and her father (Gil Birmingham) and uncle (Graham Green) play Chickasaw leaders who struggle against this usurping. She studies theater at a women's college, and dreams of being a Broadway actress, but finds more traction as a Native storyteller and performer, almost always for white audiences. She begins by telling (and dramatizing) the Chickasaw stories that she grew up with, but as word spreaders, elders from other tribes teach her their stories as well, and ask her to keep those stories alive by bringing them alive.

Opposing Te Ata is a mustache-twirling Senator Bates (Robert Oustley), who wants to outlaw all Native forms of cultural expression, from drums to storytelling.

Directed by Nathan Frankowski, Te Ata is awfully earnest and sentimental, eschewing nuance, subtlety or even much in terms of atmosphere or ambience in order to get its points across as clearly and loudly as possible. The racism in the film is blatant and bald at all times. But those points can be inspiring; even without nuance, the film makes it clear that the Chickasaws got a raw deal, are still getting a raw deal and survive because of their determination and stubbornness.

In the movie, Te Ata/Mary Francis loves her family, loves her people and loves to perform onstage. While those things exist in the typical tension you'd expect for a girl in Oklahoma at the turn of the century, she emerges as a hero to her people because she keeps their stories-and culture-alive at a difficult time.

This isn't a movie with much artistic merit, and those who have a low tolerance for cheesiness and sentimentality will not appreciate it. Nonetheless, it's a heart-warming, inspiring story, and many will find in it much to like. We need more cinematic portrayals of Native American heroines, and Te Ata fits the bill.

A look at Tanna

I thought I knew what I was getting into when I rented Tanna, but this little movie had far more in store for me than I had expected. The trailer promised a sort of Romeo & Juliet story set amongst a South Pacific Island tribe with almost no connection to Western culture. I've seen plenty of films of that sort, films that set a simple story amongst an Indigenous tribe, and are really aimed at White eyes, focusing primarily on how Indigenous people live. It's ethnography vaguely disguised as drama, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

And Tanna fits that description, but is so much more as well. With its breathtaking scenes of active volcanoes, which are a central part of the mythology and religion of the Vanuatu people of the island, this movie manages to convey the people's deep connection with the land in a way few films even attempt. They see both the volcano and the ocean around them as living beings, both life-giving and dangerous, and filmmakers Martin Butler and Bentley Dean do a fantastic job of helping us to enter into that worldview.

Butler and Dean worked with the Vanuatu people-there are no professional actors in this film, though there are many talented ones-to tell a true story that happened not very long ago and significantly impacted the tribe's understanding of their ancient religion. To bring an end to ongoing conflict between two tribes, beautiful Wawa is offered in marriage from one tribe to the other. But Wawa is in love with Dain, who is from her own tribe, and refuses to go. Wawa and Dain run away into the woods, are pursued by both tribes for their transgressions and eventually meet a tragic end.

That part is pretty straightforward, and you've probably seen a movie like that before. In addition to its fantastic cinematography and atmospheric pace (made all the more impressive because the directors did all this without a crew), what elevates Tanna above most other "star-crossed lovers" stories is a subplot about Wawa's little sister, Selin.

About 10 years old, Selin is ever watchful and knows lots of hiding places in her part of the island. She idolizes Wawa, and she knows her secrets before anyone else does. More than once in the film Selin must make agonizing decisions about whether to tell her elders what she knows or keep her sister's secrets.

I found Tanna to be a powerful and compelling film, and one I heartily recommend.

Will Krishchke and his wife work with InterVarsity in Durango, Colorado, where his wife directs Native Ministries for InterVarsity.


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