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There's No Manufactured Gloss At The Indigenous Film & Arts Fest

South Pacific Pictures
A still from 'White Lies,' one of the films playing at the 11th Indigenous Film & Arts Festival.

For 11 years, the Indigenous Film & Arts Festival has shown good films that would never play in Denver otherwise. For that, we owe this persistent small festival our thanks.

Most movies shown in conventional movie theaters look like they were cooked in the same pot. In his last years, actor Gregory Peck used to say that he thought Hollywood's goal was to design a single infinitely reproducible picture. The mainstream film companies have pretty much done that. What we label art house movies generally come from a set of shared ideas about what films can be, or ought to be. They're built alike; they work on a limited range of character and situations.

Even the pop fantasies resemble each other – not always literally, but in the sense that their makers are careful not to color too far outside the lines.

Films from the mainstream world tend to present things foreign as exotic, but that's also a way to curtail strangeness and control the ideas of "normal" and "acceptable." The people who make our popular movies – again for the most part – are not about to open their minds and wallets and admit that what's exotic for us may well be someone else's normality and realism, but it's obvious: the realist English language film My Old Lady doesn't act like what Maori filmmakers in New Zealand are doing.

The value of The Indigenous Film & Arts Festival is that it shows stories and people who differ from what the commercial world of the movies likes to think is normal and the films in the festival refuse to present themselves as exotic. They're pictures that reflect different ideas of reality from others. The sights in indigenous films are normal for the people who make them and live them, and it's fascinating for outsiders to see through those eyes.

This May Be the Last Time is a documentary by Sterlin Harjo, an Oklahoma Seminole, that's about two different things at once, although the film sees those things as deeply connected. The picture starts with a story about Harjo's grandfather who was a young man in 1962 when his car crashed into a river in Oklahoma and he died. For a few days, no one could find the body, which was, of course, disturbing.

At the same time, the movie looks into what are called the Muskogee Creek hymns. These are Christian hymns sung in the Seminole language in Seminole churches in rural Oklahoma. Through a twisty route, those hymns in different form are also sung by African-Americans in the South, Appalachian whites, and people in Scotland. The well-known song – "This May Be the Last Time" – wound up with The Rolling Stones and Ry Cooder.

One connecting element is Scottish missionaries, who converted Seminoles and other Indians along the forced march called "The Trail of Tears" after 1830. Another key element is jazz musician and Yale music professor Willie Rauff. It's a remarkable story, and it does connect to the missing body of the filmmaker's grandfather.

A very good dramatic film in the indigenous festival called White Lies is based on a novel by Maori writer Witi Ihimaera, with a screenplay and direction by Mexican filmmaker, Dana Rotberg.

The film takes place in the early 1920s and centers on a Maori healer, Paraiti, summoned by an arrogant rich white woman to perform an abortion. Until the 1960s, New Zealand white people's law forbade Maori medical practices. But the film is far richer than simple law-breaking by an oppressed minority.

The rich woman is actually herself Maori, and her maid – who turns out to be her mother – regularly bleaches the young woman's skin. So the film is about identity and shame and secrecy, and what in this country was called "passing."

What floored me is that the story is based on the life of actress Merle Oberon, star of the great 1939 version of Wuthering Heights. Oberon was part-Asian Indian; her maid was in fact her mother.

One product of the Indigenous Film Festival is that when you probe the surface, "us" and "them" are less separate than we think.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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