Friday, November 20, 2009


Indie films and Native Americans -- okay, “Indians” -- seem like a match so natural as to be inevitable. The newest one I’ve seen is “Frozen River,” just now being mentioned on the new West Lit blog. (The cowboys have discovered the Indians! And they’re female!) This film is also highly suitable for the discipline called “border studies” which might be described as something like philosophical geography.

The Mohawk Nation preserves its autonomy strongly enough that their reservation/reserve sovereignty persists on both sides of the Canadian/US border, which is a river because many of the early treaties between nations of all sorts defined territory by physical features like rivers or mountains. Through Montana the border is the edge of the drainage of the Missouri/Mississippi rivers, created by a row of small volcanic hills and then defined by surveying the 49th parallel. The Blackfeet Nation is on both sides of the line, but it is not contiguous. The US side is against the line, but the Canadian side is scattered into small areas. Nevertheless, in theory tribal members have free passage between the countries. It’s sometimes hard to convince border agents of that. Mohawk have more successfully insisted that their boundaries take precedence over the national line.

Two women, one played by Melissa Leo (my favorite “Homicide” detective) and the other by Misty Upham. Misty is Blackfeet and must be part of the family of “Doc” Upham who used to play in club bands with Bob Scriver. She grew up in Seattle, a part of the Indian community over there. Every Upham that I’ve known has been pretty remarkable for brains and enterprise. Leo, who is coming up fifty, looks her age (she’s a smoker -- that’ll do it) and Misty dumped her Pocahontas image by cutting her hair and gaining 65 pounds. (I’m not sure she realized what that would do to her health, but she has taken forty pounds back off.) This is a reality story, not a reassuring little parable. The two women collide more than they meet, and bad fortune throws them together into a scheme to make money by running third-world illegal immigrants across the border from Canada to the US. They don’t need a boat because the ice on the river is multiple feet thick in winter when temps go far below zero, though sun in the daytime produces a layer of slush.

Another border is between the Indian woman and the white woman, sociological but not economic -- both are at the edge of survival. Thanks to racial profiling, a white woman is not likely to be stopped by off-rez police, so she has a smuggling advantage. On-rez it’s the Mohawk who has the sympathy of the officials so long as she doesn’t ruffle the Tribal Council hens. (Mohawk keep the pattern of tribal matriarchy.) The ties between them are about their children: Leo’s husband was an addict and gambler who took off with the family’s hoard of money meant to buy a new trailer. Upham’s husband is dead, gone through the ice while smuggling, which is how she got into the racket, but he left her pregnant. Since she’s living in a tiny camp trailer with no water (she sleeps in her coat), she can’t keep her baby. So the strong bond is children, the most basic human motive for women. This pushes the plot and resolves it in the end.

Such a setting provides plenty of suspense and the same kind of bleak but sublime long horizons against the sky as on the prairie. The cast was mostly local with white bit parts most likely to be doubling crew members. There is a growing pool of experienced tribal actors, especially on the Canadian side where the government supports arts. Budget was under one million dollars. It was Courtney Hunt’s first writing and directing undertaking.

When one looks at amateur painting, the most usual deficit is in “values,” which means the dark/light dimension, white-gray-black. Colors, composition, drawing and so on may be pretty good, but the sameness or skewing of values will give away inexperience. Likewise, the element most often missing in Indie movies is what Marshall W. Mason calls “beats” in his book, “Creating Life on Stage: A Director's Approach to Working with Actors,” which is drawn from his career with the Circle Repertory Company in NYC. When one listens to the voice-over comments for an Indie, the chatter is most likely to be excitement over how “felt” the story is, how realistic, how from the heart, plus a lot of memories of good times and scary times. When one listens to an old pro Hollywood or London director, the talk is far more technical and analytical, much more about art-form concerns. “Beats” are a way of divvying up the timing and emphasis into a coherent and controlled whole, rather than taking a sort of general scenario approach.

On the other hand, as Hunt points out, this story has children and dogs in it, found at the last minute and barely guided in what they did. Equipment was limited so camera angles were confined, there was no studio, and even local merchants controlled what could or couldn’t be done. (The local trailer sales emporium was leery of the low-class image of trailers.) This movie was made simply with heart and faith. It was “found” as much as composed.

One of my all-time favorite movies about Indians, “Loyalties,” is a big budget version of a similar theme that would be interesting to watch alongside “Frozen River.” One of Tantoo Cardinal’s early films (I would not hesitate to suggest that Misty is the next Tantoo.), it happens much farther north in Cree country. Anne Wheeler, who started out very much like Hunt, is the director but she had professional English actors and a budget. That story is about an English doctor who mysteriously arrives with his family to work in the Boonies. His wife is confused and paralyzed by the environment so the doctor hires a local woman to help her -- that’s Tantoo. When I looked at the remarks, I was gratified to see that people said that though they’d seen the film twenty years ago or more, it remained vivid in their minds. Same here. The two women become friends and then more than friends when she and the English woman must protect the children at a high cost.

Today, a time when immigrants are treated with such suspicion and when the long tradition of citizens being able to cross the border peacefully without a passport has ended, we all need reminding that it is the fate of our children that should be our ultimate loyalty.

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