In the history of the indigenous story, storytellers were more often than not non-indigenous people on the opposite side of history. And so, many misunderstood associations and representations of indigenous elements like native fauna and landscapes made their way into grandiose accounts of indigenous history particularly in mainstream films. In these narratives, indigenous people are not only restricted to being one dimensional characters, but their native lands are also represented as barren wastelands with unexplored economic potential waiting to be colonized and developed. Furthermore, their relationship to animals is simply seen as mythical and dismissible. Thus causing intricate bonds between the natives, their land, and their animals to be disregarded and not given the opportunity to exist within the rigid borders of the silver screen.
For indigenous communities, reclaiming the indigenous narrative by pushing for indigenous self-expression and humanized representation has been a constant effort particularly by indigenous filmmakers and artists. Different forms of storytelling like web series and virtual reality projects have also been explored to help breakdown walls and bring the indigenous experience closer to people. However, these three films in particular, mostly made by indigenous filmmakers, all utilize native fauna and landscapes as powerful tools to reshape the given narrative, diversify it, and reclaim it by showing that indigenous cinema is unique, and can and does exist outside mainstream Western films.
Visions of an Island (directed by Sky Hopinka)
The first film, Visions of an Island, is an experimental film directed by Sky Hopkina who is a Ho-Chunk Nation national and descendent of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians. Itfeatures a Unangam Tunnu elder who narrates his and his people’s relationship to their indigenous fauna and landscapes. The film is flooded with beautiful shots of landscapes of an island, some of which consist of two different scenes sharing the screen as seen in the cover photo. By allowing different visuals and audio to sometimes share the screen and by carefully positioning certain shots, the film explores the limits of perspective and relativity when it comes to indigenous narratives. One of the key moments in the film is when the elder explains how numbers work in the Aleut language expressing how a big number, like 1000 for instance, is described in terms of “what you see” and the “area [of a landscape] it covers”. This scene is among many that give our indigenous narrator sovereignty and autonomy over his story and intricate relationships with his surroundings.
Inuk Hunter (directed by George Annanack)
The second film, Inuk Hunter, is directed by George Annanack, and instead of reflecting on native fauna and landscapes like Visions of an Island does, it reflects on their absence and replacement. The film seems to be inspired by the negative reactions to Inuit seal hunting in Canada which upset many Inuk hunters as it’s considered an Inuit tradition. Even though several films have been made about the media’s coverage of seal hunting as an evil act, this film takes a different approach as it removes the seals from the narrative and instead replaces them with a landscape of northern lights. And so, the main character is an Inuk hunter that does not hunt for seals but instead uses his camera to hunt for northern lights. In many instances in the film, such as when the hunter is using his torch to illuminate the way, writings in both English and Inukitut appear on the screen slowly revealing more information about the hunter and the associations Annanack is trying to elucidate.
Delivery from Earth (directed by Michael Becker):
This final film is set in an actual barren wasteland with unexplored economic potential -Mars. The film follows the event of the first human born on Mars through the perspective of a Navajo family living in New Mexico. Just like Visions of an Island, the film is full of shots of landscapes particularly of the surface of Mars. There is also the overarching question of what it means to be a Native American born on Mars - a completely different and foreign land. The film assigns purpose and significance to Native Americans in the realm of space exploration and science fiction which is beyond what mainstream films often do. As the director Michael Becker said,“space was once the great equalizer…the world stopped when there was a rocket or shuttle launch, and in crafting this film, I tried to consider what is the moment that would create that kind of interest in space exploration again?”
About the author
Lujain is an undergraduate student studying computer engineering at New York University Abu Dhabi who is particularly invested in engineering applications in the world of biotechnology and biomedicine. She is also interested in exploring science and technology in film as well as the cultural and political significance of cinema.