Call me grumpy, but I think it’s time we stop pretending that we’re adventurous moviegoers. Ang Lee does not qualify as adventurous. Neither does Guillermo del Toro. Almodóvar, genius that he is, isn’t all that outside the mainstream.
For all the awards-season blather about the diversity in the multiplexes and at the Academy Awards this year, I see very little evidence to back it up. These days, if a movie is set in another country, in another language, and isn’t part of some studio’s Oscar campaign, it has a week-long shelf life….in a so-called art-house theater…after Juno has finished its three-month run.
All the more reason to get thee to the Walker Art Center for its indispensable Women With Vision series, a global hotpot of movies by and about people who are virtually invisible outside the film festival circuit. The three-week series opened last night with the premiere of Older Than America, a Minnesota-set thriller that takes on the physical and mental havoc inflicted on generations of Native Americans forced to attend federally funded Christian boarding schools. The stated mission of these schools, the last of which closed in 1975, was chillingly unambiguous: Kill the Indian, Save the Man.
Shot in the Cloquet area two years ago and moving on to a big premiere at South by Southwest on Monday, Older Than America explores the ripple effects of cultural genocide on the lives of a small group of family and friends on the Fond du Lac Reservation in northeastern Minnesota. Central to its crowded story is the character of Rain, a teacher who has terrifying visions we quickly realize are tied to the trauma her mother experienced in the town’s since-shuttered boarding school. Rain’s mother was institutionalized in the local psychiatric hospital by a Catholic priest (Guthrie vet Steve Yoakum) who has a creepy sort of hold over Rain’s aunt and sinister plans for Rain as well.
First-time director Georgina Lightning (also the film’s co-writer and star) introduced the screening last night along with actress Tantoo Cardinal and Minneapolis’s own mini-mogul, producer Christine Walker. A Cree from Hobbema, Alberta, Canada who moved to LA to become an actress, Lightning has been nurturing the project in one form or another for years, frustrated at how little has been told about the boarding schools and how far-reaching its effects have been in the Native community where suicide, alcoholism, and abuse rates are off the charts.
The film does not yet have a theatrical distributor, has a mostly Native American cast (Wes Studi, Adam Beach, Dennis Banks, Tantoo Cardinal) and was financed largely by a California casino tribe. It was, Lightning is proud to point out, a sovereign production—not a product of Hollywood money or Hollywood thinking. “I never had anyone looking over my shoulder or questioning my choices,” she said during the post-show Q&A. “This story could never have been told this way if it hadn’t been told by a Native American filmmaker and if it hadn’t been made with Native American money.”
There’s a lot to admire about Lightning’s decision to call her own shots. Yet, curiously, by choosing to make a mystery story out of what is otherwise a thorny tangle of relationships and compromises born of a devastating legacy, she’s turned a powerful piece of history into a Hollywood genre film—one that calls for more plot, less character, no nuance. Her film suffers greatly for it. It feels rushed and the dialogs stilted.
Here’s the thing though: You’d be a fool if you underestimated the value of a film (and the power it can have) when it represents people and stories normally neglected by commercial filmmakers. If you’re used to being forgotten by Hollywood, such a film can be an oasis. Take a look at what’s playing at the Walker’s Women With Vision series these next few weeks. It’s time for something new.
Women With Vision continues at the Walker through March 29 with feature-length films and shorts from around the world and our own back yard.