Saturday, August 26, 2017

Wind River

WIND RIVER           B+      
Great Britain  Canada  USA  (107 mi)  2017  ‘Scope  d:  Taylor Sheridan

It is the great shame of my nation the manner in which it has treated the native inhabitants of North America.  Sadly, my government continues that shame with an insidious mixture of apathy and exploitation. (...)  There is nothing I can do to change the issues afflicting Indian country, but what we can do as artists — and must do — is scream about them with fists clenched.  What we can do — is make sure these issues aren’t ignored.  Then the people who can effect change will be forced to.
—Taylor Sheridan, Cannes 2017

A film that continues exactly where the writer/director Taylor Sheridan’s last film left off, Hell or High Water (2016), in an endlessly empty landscape seemingly in the middle of nowhere.  Somewhere between the profound disturbances of David Lynch’s nightmarish TWIN PEAKS:  FIRE WALK WITH ME (1992) and the setting of another Tony Hillerman novel, whose evocative mystery stories are set among the Navajos of the American Southwest, this film is set in the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, home of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Indian tribes, where barren conditions lead to bleak lives, where the high school drop-out rate is 40%, unemployment is 80%, and life expectancy is only 49 years, with suicide rates twice that of the rest of the state, along with rampant crime and drug use, where child abuse, teenage pregnancy, sexual assault, and domestic violence are inescapable conditions arising out of a pervasive sense of hopelessness.  This particular story arises out of a New York Times feature by Timothy Williams in 2012, Brutal Crimes Grip Wind River Indian Reservation - The New York Times, offering a particularly grim view of life on the reservation, challenged by a follow-up letter from an Eastern Shoshone tribal member, Reply to The New York Times Article 'Brutal Crimes Grip an Indian ..., who challenges many of the assertions.  Nonetheless, one of the film’s startling revelations is that no government statistics are kept of missing women on Indian reservations, so no one has any idea just how serious the problem may be.  This particular story dramatically highlights just how offensively denigrating that policy is, showing an inherent disrespect for women, taking great pains to paint an accurate picture of Native Americans, whose personalities are etched in a different kind of history, in stark contrast to others, including their deadpan humor, while openly acknowledging the fatalistic conditions that surround them, yet they find a way to imbue their lives with a quiet dignity, where holding onto their grief is a central part of their lives.  This follows a similar format as Hell or High Water, using a white lead, Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), with an Indian sidekick, Ben (the indomitable Graham Greene), the Tribal police chief, where their stoic personalities beautifully offset one another, as if they’ve been ingrained by the same mind-numbing conditions, yet live separate and distinct lives.  Both are excellent here, offering profound insight into survival instincts, where these guys know things the rest of us couldn’t even imagine.  This is an impressive homage to Native Americans without being showy, always paying respect to their way of life and the kinds of things they’ve learned to value in their lifetimes.

The film has an ominous opening, with a woman running barefoot across a frozen tundra, which is followed by wild predators closing in on their natural prey, as a pack of wolves creeps ever closer to a herd of goats in another snowy landscape, but in this case, one of the wolves is picked off by rifle fire, and then another, until the final one runs away.  From behind a row of sage brush, we meet Cory Lambert, an agent of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, hired to track down animals preying upon local livestock, where he’s an expert tracker and a sure shot.  In the course of his observations, he notices mountain lion tracks that lead him to a frozen corpse, a young 18-year old girl he recognizes, Natalie, Kelsey Asbille (Eastern Band Cherokee), who’s been sexually violated.  Reporting the incident, the reservation police call in the FBI, as homicides on Indian land are classified as federal crimes.  Meanwhile, he stops off to pick up his half-Indian son from his ex-wife, Wilma (Julia Jones), who are Arapaho, to take him to his grandparents, where there are eerie photographs of another girl that same age on display in the house.  This scene is beautifully staged, as there is an uncertain divide between the former couple, suggesting something went terribly wrong, as a wounded expression is written all over their faces, but nothing is spoken about it, only the photographs reveal the brokenness of their lives.  Afterwards we learn they lost their only daughter in similar fashion, where the two girls were once friends.  This anguished silence runs dead center throughout the film, where we’re never far from its influence, as people are forever haunted by their absence.  Even his son is worried that something will happen to him, where he has to reassure him that the girls just got lost in the snow.  By the time the agent arrives, FBI Agent Jane Banner, Elizabeth Olsen, so good in the indie thriller 2011 Top Ten Films of the Year #5 Martha Marcy May Marlene while also excellent as Jack Kerouac’s would-be wife in Kill Your Darlings (2013), arrives in a near comical entrance, having flown out from Las Vegas in heels and a windbreaker as the nearest agent, where she has no snow gear and would perish in the cold under these conditions.  Her unfamiliarity with the region is reflective of the government’s blind view of Indian culture, as they continue to exhibit so little understanding.  The autopsy reveals that despite evidence of an attack and considerable frostbite to her hands and feet, extending to her legs from prolonged exposure, her lungs burst from inhaling sub-zero air, where she was obviously running to escape something horrible.  As a result, this is not considered a homicide, so it reverts to tribal jurisdiction, where the agent sticks around, with the help of Lambert, pursuing all leads.  The dead girl is the daughter of one of Cory’s friends, Martin, Gil Birmingham (Comanche), in another expertly staged scene, again showing a stark contrast in the way grief is handled on the reservation, something that totally dumbfounds Banner (and the viewers), remaining absolutely clueless about tribal ways.

Part of the backstory of the film was a contribution of $10 million dollars from the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana, which was more than 90% of the budget, making this a rare instance when Indian tribes invested money in motion pictures, which apparently influenced a more accurate depiction of Indian culture.  This is another film scored by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, among the best in the business in creating anguished moods in quiet tones, combined with extraordinary outdoor cinematography by Ben Richardson that immerses viewers in the wintry chill of the film.  This haunting atmosphere, though shot largely in Utah, is an effective setting for the film, feeling like you’re at the end of the road, as if civilization ends here, as it’s all wilderness up ahead, reminiscent of older westerns like André de Toth’s Day of the Outlaw (1959) where hostile outdoor elements become a central character in the film, eventually consuming the featured characters in a picture of doom.  Something similar happens here, but it’s much more open ended, offering more than a glimmering ray of hope, yet the characters embark on a similar trail.  This is a film about searching for answers, including some that have become ingrained into the mindset of the characters who are all too familiar with what happens here, including a younger generation that has lost their way, as drugs mixed with criminality become a lifestyle, where these kids are the picture of dysfunction, even in such a raw and primitive setting where there is little police presence, where the depiction of the reservation’s lost boys is eerily similar to the picture of Ciudad Juarez in Sicario (2015), an earlier film written by this director.  This investigation takes on a similar labrynthian journey exposing the kinds of hidden corruption that monopolize places like this, where our nation has an ugly history with Native Americans, blinded by greed and an insatiable desire to rob them of their resources.  For a writer renowned for writing dialogue, what stands out here is the minimal yet extremely effective use of dialogue, where Ben reveals the essence of what it’s like living there, “We have to drive 50 miles to go five, welcome to Wyoming.”  Splitting up, Ben and Jane head for an oil rig to find the victim’s white boyfriend, while Cory sets off in a snowmobile to pursue tracks in the snow, telling Jane, “You look for clues, but you need to look for signs.”  What follows is a mysterious glimpse of outsiderism, as these guys working the oil rigs are a piece of work, leading to a brutal confrontation mixed with a flashback sequence that precedes the young woman racing barefoot through the frozen snow in what amounts to a nearly incomprehensible six miles, something few could do, yet emblematic of an astonishing kind of heroism that will never get recognized.  We soon discover that when a Native American is raped by someone who is not a member of her tribe, tribal courts cannot prosecute, which may explain why Native women are 2.5 times more likely to be victims of rape and sexual assault than any other ethnicity.  Expressed throughout with unusual sensitivity, the contemporary aspect of the film reveals a profound and gripping reality about the complexities of relationships between different peoples and cultures, where some gaps will simply never be bridged.  

Monday, August 21, 2017

Whose Streets?

WHOSE STREETS?                 B                    
USA  (90 mi)  2017  d: Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis         Official site

An explosive film that reveals, among other things, that activism is not pretty, or filled with romanticized ideals, but is dedicated and hard corps work that involves confronting constant rejection, continually placing your body in harm’s way, and rarely are you ever allowed to feel the satisfaction of your efforts, as mainstream media minimizes what happened in just a few short seconds, or offers misleading comments and editorials, where much too often it seems like all your efforts are in vain.  Yet that’s just after day one, as the next day you have to get up and do it all over again.  It’s hard to keep the juices flowing and not burn out, as it requires so much energy, as the work continually saps your strength, where you’re on the losing end of most confrontations with police, as they have more brute force, more weaponry, can inflict more serious damage, and the media almost always sides with them, often reporting verbatim what comes from press releases that confirm the police side of the story.  But anyone that’s ever been part of a protest movement knows that’s just the nature of the game, something you must be mindful of, where you can’t let it get you down.  Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, as democracy must be learned by each new generation.  As Thomas Jefferson once said, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”  All of which suggests that real democracy is a messy business, where people are liable to be battered and bruised, where it’s easy to get your feelings hurt.  It’s reminiscent of how Tina Turner used to introduce “Proud Mary,” Ike & Tina Turner - Proud Mary - YouTube (6:03), revealing “We never ever do nothin’ nice and easy.”  While the film does have a ragged-around-the-edges feel, which is certainly not conducive to “easy” watching, where this is a film about moral indignation and righteousness and anger, using a scattershot approach that may not be for everyone, as it skips over large chunks of time, but the passion is genuine.

Opening with a quotation from the infamous 1856 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision, a landmark ruling that denied blacks basic human rights, concluding that Americans of African descent, whether free or slave, were not American citizens, instead they were “beings of an inferior order, so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”  As odious as this sounds, this was the law of the land, as it basically divided the country into two halves, one that believed in slavery and one that didn’t, where the case became a lightning rod for sectional bitterness and hostility that was only resolved by war.  More than 150 years later, despite electing our first black President, many institutions, especially the police force, remain thoroughly entrenched with his racially divisive mentality, though refuse to believe it, where this film in particular shows how racism in American society has stayed embedded within our society.  The film provides an on-the-ground view of the Ferguson Uprising, where the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year old black man, by a white policeman sparked an angry response from black residents, especially after leaving his body on the ground for several hours, preventing even his family from coming anywhere near, where hostility was rising almost immediately, eventually met by increased militarization from the police, wearing riot gear during peaceful marches, including leashed dogs, like Alabama and Mississippi in the pre-Civil Rights era, firing rubber bullets and tear gas into the assembled crowds, which only angered them more.  The filmmakers openly side with the marginalized blacks who are protesting against a police cover up, while also pleading to be treated as human beings, basically re-arguing the Dred Scott case, but on the streets of Ferguson.  One of the quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. is especially pertinent, observing that “a riot is the language of the unheard.”  Street protests continued on a daily basis for over two weeks, then started up again when a decision was made whether or not to charge the police officer, where every night the city was transformed into what resembled a war zone, where people were tear gassed even while standing on their own front lawns. 

One of the biggest advances in fighting for social justice has been the use of the cell phone camera, allowing average citizens around the world to become film documentarians, much like Haskell Wexler’s brilliant film, Medium Cool (1969), where protesters on the streets of Chicago in 1968 chanted “The whole world is watching” in front of television cameras covering the events, where their actions became front page news.  In this film, the directors use their own footage of marches, looting, and police confrontations, where coverage is mixed with interviews with other activists, local TV news reports, and social media tweets, which include a participating public, with someone chillingly mentioning “I just saw someone die, OMFG.”  Adding to this are frequent characters seen returning to the front lines, including Brittany Farrell, a nursing student and single mom who brings along her 6-year old daughter Kenna.  In a strange twist, after dropping her daughter off at school, we see Brittany get married at City Hall to her activist lover, Alexis Templeton, both of whom place social activism at the top of their agenda, and together they form Millennial Activists United.  David Whitt is a Ferguson resident who lives in the Canfield Green apartments directly across the street from where Michael Brown was gunned down, who indicates the security camera from his building was pointed at the street, but has been mysteriously replaced by a different camera.  Whitt is a constant presence and has taken it upon himself to become a professional observer, joining a national organization called Copwatch, where he uses his camera as a surveillace device to monitor police brutality and document police interactions.  Due to his notoriety, his lease was not renewed and he along with his family were forced to move to a different neighborhood. 

Perhaps the spokesperson for the Ferguson Uprising is local hip-hop artist Tef Poe, whose passionate and fiery oratory provides an alternative urban narrative that resonates deeply, questioning where black leaders, and specifically black clergy are during this recent rebellion, as they failed to show up.  Unsurprisingly, no charges are brought against the police officer, which happens so often that it already feels like a throwback to another era, yet it’s a continuation of the present, with a disenchanted crowd once again assembled outside police headquarters.  As we see and hear the chants on the front lines, with placards that read “Don’t Shoot,” keeping their hands up in unison, as Brown allegedly had his hands up when he was shot, perhaps the chant that feels most synonymous with the making of this film is “This is what democracy looks like,” as this film documents what seems like a neverending standoff between police and angered community residents who simply refuse to continue being oppressed.  This hit home with the sole black officer lined up in front of the police station, a young woman in a sea of white cops, who seemed to clearly understand the plea for justice, as this has been a long time coming.  Whatever progress might be made always takes place long afterwards, where there’s never any guarantee something good will come of it.  Parts of the untold story are the effects of repeatedly getting gassed, or being slammed to the ground and arrested, with many individuals losing their jobs or receiving a flood of death threats, where a sad truth, unfortunately, is that Ferguson remains an impoverished and segregated community.  While the film may feel a bit indulgent, like patting themselves on the back, yet withstanding all, Maya Angelou has suggested, “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.”  The film is dedicated to Darren Seals, a leading Black Lives Matter activist who was found shot dead in a burning car shortly afterwards, and Josh Williams, a black teen who was sentenced to eight years in prison for admitting to starting a fire inside a Quick Mart during a 2014 protest, acknowledging, however, that the store was completely demolished before he lit the fire.  Just as a note of comparison, a day earlier a retired white St. Louis policeman, Ronald Oldani, age 66, was sentenced to five years in prison for possessing more than 100 computer files containing child pornography.