Director Chloé Zhao
Director Chloé Zhao with Sundance producer Forest Whitaker
SONGS MY BROTHERS TAUGHT ME B+
USA (98 mi) 2015 d: Chloé Zhao
Anything that runs wild got something bad in them. You wanna leave some of that in there. Cause they need it to survive out here.
―Johnny Winters (John Reddy)
Premiering at Sundance in 2015, the film was also invited to Director’s Fortnight at Cannes, receiving a nomination for the Camera d’Or award for best first feature film. It may have been an article just like this one (Pine Ridge Indian Reservation Struggles With Suicides Among Its ... Julie Bosman from The New York Times, May 3, 2015) about an epidemic of suicides among teenagers on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, one of the largest communities of Lakota Sioux people in the United States, that initially grabbed her attention, revealing that more than 100 young people on the reservation attempted suicide in just four months. Initially writing a script entitled Lee that would follow a Lakota boy who committed suicide in 2013, Zhao had just finished her degree at New York University’s Graduate Film Program, spending three years moving back and forth between Manhattan and Pine Ridge, knocking on doors, meeting young people, familiarizing herself with Lakota culture, its communities, and indigenous history, eventually spending seventeen months living there. Inhabiting the poorest region of the country, there is no industry, technology, or commercial infrastructure on the reservation to provide employment, where 97% of the population live below the federal poverty line, with a median annual income from $2,600 to $3,500, the unemployment rate vacillates from 85% to 95%, school dropout rates are over 70%, with a teacher turnover rate that is 800% higher than the U.S. national average, alcoholism affects eight out of ten families, 50% of the adults over the age of 40 have diabetes, infant mortality rates are the highest anywhere on the continent, and at least 60% of the homes are severely substandard, without water, electricity, telephone service, adequate insulation, and sewage systems Many homes lack stoves, refrigerators, beds, and/or basic furniture, with many sleeping on dirt floors in a region that commonly reaches winter temperatures of 50 below, while there are no banks, motels, discount stores, or movie theaters, and half the adults battle addiction and disease, yet alcoholism, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and malnutrition are rampant (Pine Ridge Reservation - American Indian Humanitarian Foundation). On one of her return visits home, Zhao found her apartment had been broken into, with film equipment missing, including computers that stored various versions of the changing script, not to mention losing all footage previously shot, forcing her to start all over again from scratch, but doing it cheaper, changing the title and revising the story, becoming less narrative oriented and more improvisational, where the film is an impressionistic, stream-of-conscious mosaic of life on the reservation.
Centering around Indian youth, using non-professional actors, actual residents who live on the reservation, the focus is on a brother and sister, Johnny Winters (John Reddy) is finishing his final year in high school, living with his curiously adorable 11-year-old sister Jashaun (Jashaun St. John, the real star of the film) and their alcoholic single mother, Lisa (Irene Bedard, the only working professional), a woman trapped by her surroundings and culture, while troubled older brother Cody is in prison. Without telling anyone yet (except his brother, who urges him to get away from the Rez as quickly as possible), Johnny intends to leave Pine Ridge with his girlfriend Aurelia (Taysha Fuller), who plans to attend college in Los Angeles, with thoughts of becoming a lawyer. Meanwhile, he spends his time training horses and distributing illegal liquor on the reservation, breaking a tribal law that prohibits alcohol, a self-defeating job that only feeds into the overwhelming presence of addiction, a destroyer of lives for generations. Opening with Johnny training a beautiful white horse, offering words of wisdom in voiceover, “Anything that runs wild got something bad in them. You wanna leave some of that in there. Cause they need it to survive out here,” shifting to a panoramic vista with miles of undisturbed prairie grass and endless open sky, the film quickly establishes the conundrum of freedom and imprisonment that its characters inherently feel on the reservation. One of the side stories is Johnny working for Bill (Allen Reddy), an older man with a young rough-edged white wife, Angie (Eleonore Hendricks), an outsider who photographs him on his horse (perhaps a stand-in for the director), spending more time alone with her, smoking weed together, gathering the bottles needed for home deliveries, where an unspoken intimacy develops, usually given a suggested sexual charge, like the bad girl on the edge of town, in complete contrast with his smart and meticulously well organized girlfriend. Early on Lisa is informed about the death of her husband Karl who dies in a fire, likely drunk at the time, unable to escape. A famous rodeo cowboy with nine wives and 25 kids, he’s the father they never met, with unknown half-siblings suddenly thrust into their lives at the funeral, most with more human contact with their father than they ever had, including Cat Clifford, following in his father’s footsteps as a bull rider. One of the more poignant scenes of the film features Jashaun scavenging through the rubble of the fire (in this case, it was her actual home destroyed by a fire), gathering things that look important, including her father’s championship rodeo jacket which she wears like a badge of honor.
An intimate portrait of a marginalized community, there are visits into the heart of the Badlands, with its desolate, harsh beauty of weathered erosion, featuring dramatic landscapes with layered rock formations, including steep canyons and towering spires, yet also an eerie emptiness, integrated into Indian history and lore as a sacred and mystical place, treated as elegiac grounds by cinematographer Joshua James Richards. Peter Golub’s melancholy score adds another level of haunting complexity, giving this film a poetic resonance. Zhao prefers a more restrained, observational approach, which is particularly revealing in the delicate relationship between the more emboldened Johnny and a concerned Jashaun, who literally lights up the screen, stealing the film from her older sibling, as what viewers see is largely through her eyes. It’s a coming-of-age film for both, each searching for their own identity, with Johnny thinking it’s got to be better far away from here, and Jashaun perfectly comfortable with the way things are. Overhearing her brother speak of taking a trip to LA with Aurelia, she’s naturally hurt, thinking he’s going to run out on her, just like their father, where abandonment is such a cruel reality. Their mother tries to get her struggling life in order, staying sober, attending church, becoming a Christian, finding solace in what the gospel teaches, even paying a visit to Cody in prison, but his reaction is a stark reminder of all that came before, “Just don’t make God another man you abandoned your children for.” Among the more fascinating characters is Travis (Travis Lone Hill), a heavily tattooed ex-con with a thing for rap music, who accentuates the color green and the number seven in the clothes he designs, becoming Jashaun’s father figure when she needs it, as he’s a guy that doesn’t mince words. In hopes that he’ll make her a Pow-Wow dress, she agrees to go into business with him, as she knows arithmetic and can count out the change, selling his wares out of his car on the street, one of the few active means of employment shown in the film. The other is Johnny buying alcohol from liquor stores in Whiteclay, a border town in Nebraska that sells alcohol exclusively to Indians on the reservation. Many of the elders or reformed Lakota Sioux disparage the place, hold protests out front, and condemn it for the sickness and evil it has brought to the reservation, describing it as liquid genocide. While Zhao provides an unvarnished glimpse into life on Pine Ridge, the sounds of the wind blowing in from the plains and lightning flashing in the faraway hills is etched into the naturalistic backdrop, yet strangely permeating throughout is the sound of “Achy Breaky Heart” style cowboy music, where redneck themes of bawdy nights, jilted love, and broken hearts provide their own narrative, with Indians forced to embrace this seemingly incongruous cultural reality as it’s the only thing available on the radio in such remote and isolated settings. While Jashaun sees magical things about this place that elude Johnny, in the end, he discovers it’s harder to leave than he thinks, as it’s really all he’s ever known.