Public discussion around Killers of the Flower Moon has underlined how seldom portrayals of Native Americans have been central to mainstream films—and how far short even an earnest, fact-based effort like Scorsese’s film can fall in that regard. While the Osage characters are sympathetically shown as victims, they seem one-dimensional as individuals. They’re viewed entirely from the outside, while there’s at least some attempt to get into the minds of the principal white figures.
Each year a tonic to that kind of perspective arrives in the form of the American Indian Film Festival, the SF-based institution that was the first of its kind, and remains the longest-running. Its 48th edition runs this Fri/3 through Nov. 11, offering both virtual screenings and on-site events, the latter at a variety of venues primarily in the city. (There’s also a “Fireside Chat” between comedian Jackie Keliiaa and actor Jana Schmieding at Berkeley City College on Thurs/9.) While there will be one Hollywood project on tap—a preview at the Kabuki on Fri/10 of Marvel Studios’ upcoming miniseries Echo, with Alaqua Cox as the titular deaf superheroine, and veteran Native luminaries including Tantoo Cardinal, Graham Greene, and Cody Lighting in support—the festival exists foremost as a platform for indigenous voices, histories, and creative independence.
There is usually a considerable amount of work from Canada, because that country’s governmental support of the screen arts (largely to keep local talent from being entirely obliterated by Hollywood imports) has sustained a rich output of First Nations films—something you’ll find very limited equivalents to in the US. That is certainly the case this year, starting with opening night selection Bones of Crows. Marie Clements’ two-hour drama sprawls over decades to illustrate the devastation wrought by official policies on tribal peoples, particularly the Canadian Indian residential school system. Believing forced assimilation with mainstream society was best, it ripped about 150,000 children from their homes and cultures, placing them in state- and/or church-run boarding schools.
But the conditions in those schools were often poor, allowing for a range of ills including whopping tuberculosis death rates and sexual abuse. While those institutions are long gone now, their grim legacy continues to be exposed, with indeterminate thousands of unreported child deaths (and their unmarked graves) being investigated—prompting latterday apologies from both Prime Ministers and the Pope.
Here, a fictive Cree family suffers the brunt of that sanctioned harm, its children separated from loving parents in 1930, traumatized by a bigoted system and sometimes predatory staff (including the inevitable sadistic nun) that not all of them survive. The scars linger all the way into the present day in this ambitious narrative. If Bones of Crows sometimes seems heavy-handed, a dirge of suffering, you can hardly indict it for being unfaithful to reality. This material is so packed with drama, the 2022 feature has already been spun off into a five-hour broadcast miniseries diving more extensively into a century of the Spears’ family history—a format that might well be even more rewarding, given its epic scale.
Other features in AIFF this year include several additional Canadian contributions: Gail Maurice’s seriocomedy Rosie, in which an orphaned girl is deposited in the bewildered lap of a punky boho aspiring artist “auntie” in 1984 Montreal; Shelley Niro’s similarly angled if less antic Cafe Daughter, whose own newly motherless child protagonist explores the indigenous heritage hitherto denied her in Saskatchewan two decades earlier; and Alexander Lasheras’ The Beehive, which begins with an unprecedented rain of comets and ends in full-blown sci-fi creature horror. Banchi Hanuse’s Aitamaako’tamisskapi Natosi: Before the Sun is a nonfiction portrait of a young ranch-raised Siksika woman who trains to compete in a fabled bareback race.
US narratives include Jack Kohler and Katy Dore’s thriller Gift of Fear, where the discovery of old bones on reservation lands uncovers crimes both past and ongoing. Among full-length documentaries are Brooke Swaney’s Daughter of a Lost Bird, following a Lummi woman’s quest to recover the family and cultural connections lost through childhood adoption, and Montana Cypress’ Tough Skin—which I’ll be taking a pass on, as its subject (alligator wrestling in Florida) remains one of the most unpleasantly terrifying spectacles I’ve ever seen in real life.
There are several themed shorts programs, throwing a spotlight on animation, drama, activist women, tribal traditions, sports, youth outreach and more. Aspiring filmmakers are encouraged to attend the free “Funders Panel & Networking” event at the Magic Theatre on Fri/10. Those with some achievement already under their belt will be celebrated at the AIFF Film Awards gala the following night at California Academy of Sciences—a premier event on the Native cultural calendar for decades.
Apart from that ceremony, as well as opening night at the DeYoung, Echo and a handful of other programs, much of the festival’s fare this year will be grown gratis at the SF Public Library’s main branch, Sat/4 through Wed/8. For American Indian Film Festival’s full schedule and related info, go here.