New Native Cinema, Part I: Smoke Signals

Eva Rickard as Kara in Merata Mita’s Mauri (1988), the first solo feature-length film written and directed by an Indigenous woman.
Eva Rickard as Kara in Merata Mita’s Mauri (1988), the first solo feature-length film written and directed by an Indigenous woman.

In the first of a two-part celebration of Native cinema, Leo Koziol (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Rakaipaaka) applauds the twentieth-century Native filmmakers who broke through to the big screen.

Note: this article may contain images and stories of people who have passed away.

Making his way to the stage At the 92nd Academy Awards, Taika Waititi took Indigenous filmmaking to the pinnacle of mainstream success. His WWII comedy drama Jojo Rabbit had secured six nominations, and he had just won Best Adapted Screenplay. On the stage of Hollywood’s Dolby Theater, with a global audience watching, Waititi took a moment to encourage other Natives to make movies:

“I dedicate this to all the Indigenous kids who live in the world who want to do art and dance and write stories. We are the original storytellers and we can make it here, as well. Thank you. Kia ora.”

Twenty-one years into the 21st century, and Indigenous films made by Indigenous filmmakers are cutting it on the world stage. Our time has arrived.

This century, there have been two Indigenous wins of the Caméra d’Or for best first feature film at Cannes: Inuk filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk’s Atanarjuat (ᐊᑕᓈᕐᔪᐊᑦ), and Samson and Delilah, from Warwick Thornton (Kaytetye, Alice Springs). Native films, made by Natives, invariably fill berths at A-list festivals. Both Berlinale and Sundance have Native programs to lift up and mentor Indigenous filmmakers. 

Indigenous filmmakers now have a Native film festival circuit. The biggest fest is imagineNATIVE in Toronto, and there are dozens more Native American festivals scattered across the continent, plus gatherings in Australia, Aotearoa/New Zealand (including one I run), Tahiti, Hawai’i, across the Sámi lands (Finland to Russia), and across Latin America.

The festival class of 2020/2021 included Beans and Wildhood at TIFF, Wild Indian and Coming Home in the Dark at Sundance, Don’t Say Its Name at Fantasia, Night Raiders at Berlinale and TIFF, and The Drover’s Wife at SXSW.

Looking at the bounty of Native films helmed by Indigenous filmmakers, one would think it was always like this, but it most definitely was not. By the end of the twentieth century, barely a half-dozen Indigenous writer-directors had completed a feature film.

Taika Waititi with his adapted-screenplay Oscar for Jojo Rabbit (2019). — Photographer… Anthony Behar/​Sipa USA
Taika Waititi with his adapted-screenplay Oscar for Jojo Rabbit (2019). Photographer… Anthony Behar/​Sipa USA

As the ‘golden era’ of Hollywood progressed from its birth in the 1920s right through to the 1970s, the depiction of Native peoples was, time and again, a caricature: brutish, uncouth savages with cannibalistic tendencies; wise, sage medicine men with magical powers; alluring, bosomy Polynesian princesses with rather lax dress codes. For an engrossing look at this, check out the 2009 documentary Reel Injun by Neil Diamond (Cree), Catherine Bainbridge and Jeremiah Hayes—highly recommended viewing, frustratingly hard to find (save for Prime Video).

Non-Natives played our roles in brown-face (Roberta Haynes in Return to Paradise) or red-face (Burt Lancaster in Apache). The regalia and cultural icons of living Indigenous cultures were simplified (every Indian rode a horse and wore a feather headdress). John Wayne made a career of killing “damned savage Injuns” and Western audiences cheered when the brown Natives were cut down and massacred.

Only in rare instances were Native people portrayed sensitively by Native actors: Tahitian performers Anne Chevalier and Matahi in FW Murnau’s Tabu (1933), the Inuit actors in Robert J. Flaherty’s docufiction Nanook of the North (1922) and the Samoan performers in his Moana (1926). And for Tahitian actress Jocelyne LaGarde’s role as Malama Kanakoa in George Roy Hill’s Hawaii (1966), based on the epic James Michener novel, LaGarde received the first ever Oscar nomination for an Indigenous and Polynesian actor. She also won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress. It was her only acting role.

Academy Award-nominated actress Jocelyne LaGarde with Julie Andrews and Max von Sydow in George Roy Hill’s Hawaii (1966).
Academy Award-nominated actress Jocelyne LaGarde with Julie Andrews and Max von Sydow in George Roy Hill’s Hawaii (1966).

The 1970s and 1980s saw attempts made at reconciliation towards North American Native stories—Little Big Man, Dances with Wolves, with supporting-actor Oscar nominations for Chief Dan George (Tsleil-Waututh Nation) and Graham Greene (Oneida) respectively. And several filmmakers made open-hearted attempts to include Indigenous voices. (Notably in Australia, Nicolas Roeg with his 1971 drama Walkabout, and later, Rolf de Heer, Stephen Maxwell Johnson and more.) But the directors and screenwriters were still invariably white and male, with the stories invariably including a ‘magical Native’, and a white savior (or two).

No decade created the conditions for change more than the 1980s. In part, because activist campaigns for land and human rights often also led to more opportunities for Indigenous communities to access training and funding, particularly in the arts. Motivated politicians in small countries with distinct cultures saw the value of investing in local stories (such as in Ireland, with the establishment of the Irish Film Board in 1981—up until then the nation was mainly used as a location for foreign productions).

Alongside state interventions, the creative filmmaking highs and ‘DIY’ culture of the 1970s birthed film geeks and movie mavericks across the board—including Native tech-nerds, who developed their film literacy while tinkering with cameras and sound equipment and getting themselves onto production crews and casting lists. 

In 1982, Cree songwriter Buffy Saint-Marie became the first Indigenous person to win an Academy Award, a prize she shared with her husband, Jack Nitzsche, and Will Jennings, for writing the Best Original Song ‘Up Where We Belong’, from An Officer and a Gentleman. Later that decade, Sámi director Nils Gaup was honored with a Best Foreign Language Film nomination for his 1000AD-set adventure film, Pathfinder (‘Ofelas’).

Mikkel Gaup in Nils Gaup’s Academy Award-nominated Pathfinder (1987).
Mikkel Gaup in Nils Gaup’s Academy Award-nominated Pathfinder (1987).

In New Zealand, the government of the day introduced a tax-incentive scheme that spurred a mini-boom in independent filmmaking. Non-Indigenous filmmakers like Roger Donaldson (Sleeping Dogs, Smash Palace) and Geoff Murphy (Goodbye Pork Pie, Utu) had genuine local box-office hits in a nation used to experiencing a ‘cultural cringe’ at its own stories. Some of these movies made it into A-list festivals, and some of these filmmakers went on to careers in Hollywood (as Waititi has done today).

There was a real underground spirit woven into the films being made at that time, and many of the independents were crewed by Māori and Pacific people chomping at the bit for their own chance to make a feature. One of these filmmakers, Barry Barclay (Ngāti Apa), laid down a challenge: to make the first all-Native-crewed feature film.

Barry Barclay’s Ngati (1987). 
Barry Barclay’s Ngati (1987). 

Barclay achieved his goal in 1987 with Ngati, set on the remote, rural East Coast of New Zealand, an area of the country largely populated by Māori (as the godwit flies, just a short distance from where Waititi filmed Boy). The film, penned by the prolific Ngāti Porou writer Tama Poata and produced by John O’Shea (Barry’s mentor) went on to screen at Cannes’ Critics Week, and Barclay coined a new term for Native film: Fourth Cinema.

If mainstream Hollywood fare is first cinema, art-house European second, and movie makers of the so-called Third World are third, then Native film as a genre is Fourth Cinema: the camera on the shore, awaiting the colonizer’s arrival.

A second Māori-made dramatic feature soon followed: Mauri (1988), directed and written by the activist filmmaker Merata Mita (Ngāti Pikiao and Ngāi Te Rangi). Mita had already made documentaries through the 1970s and 1980s about the Māori land occupation movement and the controversial South African Springbok rugby tour of New Zealand (rugby is akin to a religion in New Zealand, and the tour split the country in two due to South Africa’s then-current racial segregation policy, apartheid). With Mauri, she became the first Indigenous woman in the world to direct a dramatic feature film, with a distinctly decolonized creative approach.

Left: Merata Mita. Right: Alanis Obomsawin. — Credit… Gil Hanly and National Film Board of Canada
Left: Merata Mita. Right: Alanis Obomsawin. Credit… Gil Hanly and National Film Board of Canada

As Mita began traveling to international film festivals, a major meeting took place. In like-minded Abenaki filmmaker and activist Alanis Obomsawin, Merata found her North American counterpart. Much like Mita, Obomsawin had embedded herself in a Native activist community and was able to document an intense standoff over Indigenous lands on the outskirts of Montreal—the Oka incident, captured in her landmark 1993 film Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance.

Mita and Obomsawin became firebrands for change around the world, and started a movement to decolonize the screen. It’s a story wonderfully told in Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen by Hepi Mita, the son of Mita and the aforementioned Geoff Murphy. (The Sundance-premiered 2018 documentary was picked up by ARRAY and is on Netflix.) Merata, Alanis and others began to push internationally to lift up Native filmmakers telling their own Native stories.

Tracey Moffatt in her ghost anthology, beDevil (1993). 
Tracey Moffatt in her ghost anthology, beDevil (1993). 

Aboriginal filmmaking received a gift in the 1990s, when acclaimed photography and video artist Tracey Moffatt stretched her vision out, becoming the first Australian Aboriginal woman to direct a feature film, with her 1993 ghost anthology beDevil. The mythology-inspired film screened in Un Certain Regard at Cannes in 1993. Rachel Perkins followed Moffatt with Radiance, her first of many features informed by her Arrernte and Kalkadoon nations heritage, and her activist parents.

In 1994, Māori filmmakers came once again to the fore with international smash Once Were Warriors. Based on a book by Alan Duff and directed by Lee Tamahori (Ngāti Porou), this gritty drama made stars of Temuera Morrison (best known as Boba Fett, and truly the reigning chief of the Space Māori) and Rena Owen (All American Girl; also a Space Māori, from her time as Nee Alavar in Episode III). Tamahori went on to direct a Bond flick (Die Another Day) and a string of Hollywood action and thriller films.

Temuera Morrison and Rena Owen in Lee Tamahori’s Once Were Warriors (1994), written by Alan Duff and Riwia Brown.
Temuera Morrison and Rena Owen in Lee Tamahori’s Once Were Warriors (1994), written by Alan Duff and Riwia Brown.

In the US, Chris Eyre’s 1998 dramatic comedy Smoke Signals was a break-out hit both at the box office and critically for its Cheyenne and Arapaho director. A Native-directed, Native-written work adapted by Sherman Alexie from his own story, it won the dramatic Audience Award and Filmmakers Trophy at Sundance, and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize.

Other Indigenous cultures across Latin America, in Nordic Europe and throughout Asia became inspired to rise up and tell their stories, starting to make their own short films (often the most accessible gateway), and setting the goal of making features.

There have, of course, been documentaries, tele-features, video art and more Indigenous-made screen media along the way, helmed by celebrated Native producers, directors and writers. But features matter. Narrative features, especially. They are the holy grail of cinematic storytelling and we are, as Taika said, the original storytellers. Our stories deserve space on the screen. We know that, because non-Native filmmakers have been telling them for us for over a century. In telling our own stories, we affirm our sovereignty.

As Mita once said:

“The revolution isn’t just running out with a gun. If a film I make causes Indigenous people to feel stronger about themselves, then I’m achieving something worthwhile for the revolution.”

Adam Beach and Evan Adams in Chris Eyre’s Smoke Signals (1998), written by Sherman Alexie. 
Adam Beach and Evan Adams in Chris Eyre’s Smoke Signals (1998), written by Sherman Alexie. 

Decolonizing the screen takes time, and feature films are a tough climb to package, to make and to distribute. But Native storytellers have reached the point where they can make Indigenous narrative features that hold their own at the best festivals in the world. And there are many stories still to tell, in languages that have never been heard in world cinema. Take Óscar Catacora’s Eternity (Wiñaypacha), Peru’s entry in the 2018 Oscars’ Best Foreign Language Film category. It was the first film to feature the language of the Aymara.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Though you could count on two hands the number of Indigenous-helmed feature films by the end of the twentieth century, the scene was set for a renaissance of Native cultures, and the emergence of a diversity and complexity of Native-made cinema that had never been seen before.

Next: the new Indigenous voices of the 2000s.

INDIGENOUS-MADE Films to Watch FREE Online:

Patu!—Directed by Merata Mita. Watch

Under the Southern Cross—Directed by Gustav Pauli. Watch

To Love A Maori—Co-directed by Ramai Hayward. Watch

The National Film Board of Canada has made 200 films available on its Indigenous Cinema website.

Further Reading


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