Indigenous Perspectives

There should have been something for everybody interested in Native American and First Nations cultures at the adult education center located at the Rotebühlplatz in Stuttgart: Between Tradition and Multimedia Life was the topic of this year’s Nordamerika Film Festival. More than 50 films, all recent releases, were projected onto the screen at Robert-Bosch hall in Stuttgart from January 19th to the 22nd, 2012. No less than twelve indigenous directors, producers, screenwriters, musicians, and actors were invited and traveled across the Atlantic to talk to the audiences about issues that move and interest First Nations and Native American people today in the films they make.

The interactions of a highly interested and passionate public with professional and engaged film makers, actors, musicians and directors from abroad – all this as part of an exceptional film program and associated events – created an intriguing alchemy for a first class international film event that is unique in Europe.

Festival visitors arrived from Poland, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, France, and as far away as Bulgaria. Even the cold and rainy weather could not stop them from coming to the film festival every day, which takes place for the fourth time this year. As always, the Nordamerika Film Festival is possible only because of the promotion and support of the City of Stuttgart, the Media and Film Company Baden-Wurttemberg (MFG), as well as the German-American Center (DAZ), as well as the very considerable support of several private sponsors. Together with dedicated partners like the VHS Stuttgart (an adult education facility), the Linden Museum, the German-American Center (DAZ), the Konrad-Adenauer foundation, UNICEF Stuttgart, as well as the University of Konstanz, the artistic director Gunter Lange (also from Lake Constance) has worked for two years to plan and organize this unique festival. The idea for this festival here in Stuttgart came about through Gunter’s cooperation with the American Indian film Institute & Festival (AIFI/AIFF) San Francisco where he, as the first European, had the honor to participate in the AIFI Festival from 1999 to 2001. Since 1975, this most renowned festival for indigenous films in North America shows the best in current Native American/First Nations film productions. With that, of course, indigenous media workers in North America have not only made an enormous contribution to the debunking of the stereotypical Hollywood Injun, but they have enriched the media landscape with fresh and high quality film productions.

Hollywood Indians, Reel Injun, or Blue in the Face are but a few examples of recent high-quality films that deal with the (still prevalent) dehumanizing effects the images of the so-called “Hollywood Indian” create. Or, did you know that the headband, as seen in many movies, is not originally part of an indigenous traditional dress code? Or, did you know that the headband – so often worn by those playing “Indians” in Hollywood movies – was basically invented (by Hollywood) to keep the wigs (of the usually Non-Indian actors) in place? In that context, Lynn Salt, director of A Good Day to Die, a film portrait about AIM and Dennis Banks, informed the interested audience in Stuttgart that Native Americans, by the way, know exactly how they are expected to conduct themselves in order to be perceived as indigenous at all This was one reason why during the siege at Wounded Knee, she explained, many Native American activists consciously dressed “Indian” because knew exactly what whites imagined “real Indians” to look like. At the time, this was a helpful tool to get the media’s badly needed attention.

In a lecture, Angela Webb, director of the documentary film Hearing Radmilla, also spoke to the audience about stereotyping. Here she quite consciously dealt with the prejudices Germans have towards Americans, Caucasian Americans, and particularly towards so-called “Indians.” Native Americans, by the way, have no prejudices towards Germans at all, she told the audience tongue in cheek. Or do they? She asked: “Do Germans constantly drink strong beer, eat delicious cakes sauerkraut, and run around in leather shorts?”

The well-known Canadian singer and actor Tom Jackson, (North of 60), and his wife Alison traveled all the way from Calgary to the festival. He talked about history of the film Medicine River, in which he acted together with Graham Greene. The audience was really happy when, after the screening, Tom Jackson sang some of the wonderful songs from his new CD I Will Bring You Near. He accompanied himself on the guitar. At the moment he writes new songs for a musical that is going to be performed in London; however, he told the audience, he would certainly enjoy taking the musical to Germany afterwards.

One of the most sought after personalities at the Stuttgart Festival was Dennis Banks, the well-known Ojibwa human rights activist. He traveled together with his daughter Glenda Roberts, who works on the Leech Lake reservation in Minnesota, where her father also lives. Aside from her managerial work at the casino, she is also a photographer, and assists her Dad with his organic food business. If Dennis isn’t busy following one of his many obligations, he works to develop his maple syrup and wild rice production, called Beyond Organic. He even had to defend this brand name in court, but the judge ruled in his favor. The concept of “more than organic” is permitted if nothing is added to the product. It may be that a similar concept will soon be introduced to the German market as well.

Together with the directors Lynn Salt and David Mueller, the human right activist answered a multitude of questions about the film A Good Day to Die, in which his life story as a co-founder of the AIM movement is told. The film – which, by the way, shows newly discovered historical footage from the 1970ies – explains the reasons behind the many conflicts that finally lead to the founding of AIM: the occupation of Alcatraz, the Trail of Broken Treaties, the Custer courthouse incident, and finally the siege of Wounded Knee 1973. The film is available through Journeyman-Pictures. Just like Tom Jackson, Dennis Banks also revealed his musical talent to the audience by singing a few beautiful songs. He was accompanied by the excellent Stuttgart guitarist Ulrich Wedlich, as well as a drum group (not all at the same time). When Dennis was a child, his music teacher had assured him that he had no musical talent whatsoever, but when, decades later, he listened to Dennis Banks’ music CD, the teacher had to admit that this may have been too hasty a judgment.

Angela Webb introduced her documentation Hearing Radmilla about the life of the singer and former Miss Navajo nation Radmilla Cody. Ms. Cody had already arrived from Flagstaff, Arizona, before the start of the film festival in order to give a well-received and excellent live concert at the Linden Museum. This exceptional singer whose performance revealed her broad range reaching from traditional Navajo songs to unusual interpretations of classical modern music, was accompanied by noted guitarist Ulrich Wedlich. Hearing Radmilla is a documentary that tells the story about difficulties and prejudices that can arise out of being bi-racial tribal member (who also has African-American roots) in a Navajo community, how domestic violence can lead a young woman to come into conflict with the law, and how she, her family, and her community overcome these overwhelming odds. This difficult topic hit the nerve of a captive audience. Angela Webb, the director, and Radmilla Cody, the protagonist of the film, engaged the viewers in a lively discussion around the problem of domestic violence, racism within minority populations, and how traditional Navajo values helped dissolve these conflicts. Only after the janitor complained, everybody agreed to finally vacate the premises. As a result of this exceptional documentary, Radmilla Cody and Angela Webb are already invited to take part in the well-established Native American Culture Week in Lake Constance (near the Swiss border) at the beginning of September this year.

Furthermore, the Turkish director Ece Soydam introduced her film On the Trail of Sitting Bull, which had been nominated as “Best Documentary” at the AIFF in San Francisco 2011. Her documentary was especially well received because it gave voice to an issue that has so far not been adequately represented in films about indigenous issues: a competent Native American critique of the old Bering Street migratory theory – cherished by Eurocentric cultural anthropologists everywhere. The Swedish director Nana Dalunde, who flew in from Stockholm, introduced her experimental film Apache Chronicle. It gives an insight into the life of five self-confident, autonomous and tough young Apache women living on the San Carlos reservation. These young women appear as carpet weavers, poets, skate boarders, artists and writers/directors who – despite the odds – have taken control of their lives between tradition and modernity.

The writer-director Guy Fay arrived from Paris presented his unique film Indian Rezervation Blues at the music film matinee. This film portrays indigenous musicians in Canada and the USA and gives an excellent insight into the versatile creativity of new indigenous music. The film Skydancer tells the story of the fearless men of the Mohawk tribe who at a dizzying height put together the steel girders for skyscrapers to make a living, by German director Katja Esson completed the screening of films on indigenous North America. Several hundred visitors and guests took the opportunity to take part in an intensive intercultural experience through the medium of First Nations and Native American film. We are glad to announce that this invigorating exchange of ideas – also evident through many personal conversations with the guests from the US and Canada – will continue with the Best of The American Indian Film Festival San Francisco in Stuttgart next year. We hope to see you there!

Authors: Norbert Mallik, Gunter Lange, R. Mayer, English translation: Regina Mayer
25. January 2012