The Festival du Nouveau Cinema has made a serious commitment to screening Native films. Films from Quebec, Canada and the United States. And it is not a Johnny-come-lately attitude of theirs in an effort to cash in on some perceived trend. It is something they have focused on for several years now. American director/screenwriter Chloé Zhao’s debut feature length film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, is part of this year’s crop of films featuring Native actors and storylines. It has obviously caught the attention of film festival programmers as it was at Sundance earlier this year. Some serious exposure for this small film.
The Pine Ridge reservation is where Johnny (John Reddy – first film) lives with his family. Despite his young age he has a big decision to be made right in front of him. He is just about to graduate from high school and has the opportunity to go to Los Angeles for university with his girlfriend, Aurelia (Taysha Fuller). This, however, would mean him leaving his family. A move to Los Angeles would provide him with a safe environment and hope for his future rather than the violent and crime filled life he has known. The big reason Johnny does not want to leave is to stay with his 13-year-old sister, Jashuan (Jashuan St. John – first film). Jashuan does not want the only stable person in her life to leave her behind in the care of her heavy drinking mother and the latest in her long string of boyfriends. His older brother is in jail and his mom Lisa (Irene Bedard – from television’s Longmire) is trying to raise the family on her own. On top of everything the family finds out that the absentee patriarch of the family has died unexpectedly. Johnny head and heart are full of things pulling him in different directions.
The story is a Native one, but it is also a universal one about family, coming of age and leaving the nest for children. This is a film that will touch and move the viewer in several different sections and ways. For the first half of the 98 minute film it goes along rather unremarkably like many other indie films are known to do. Then it switches focus and gears to something completely different. From a largely silent first 45 minutes it changes into a verbose almost poetic film.
The different is great! Suddenly parts of the story start meshing together to make a full story; one that, when it comes together, really clicks. The story is based upon the many juxtapositions that life is based upon. If there is ugliness there is also beauty. At the same time there is misery there is hope. In other words, even within the darkness there is light. No matter the circumstances or part of the world. Rather than focus on what Native communities don’t have or the unfairness of their condition Chloé Zhao turns her camera on the positive. Family and love amongst a family unit no matter the circumstances shines through. This is not an overt political statement against the plight of Native communities, though it is there obviously some attention paid to it; it is a call for Native populations to get through life by relying on family and that bond.
Making the story even more powerful is the beautiful way the film is shot. At certain points it adds a depth and colour to the story making it all that much more impactful. Filmed over a period of four years on a reservation in South Dakota, Zhao uses all the beautiful wide open spaces available to her. Matching the wide open nature of the landscape the story is told in a sparse fashion. A perfect marriage of story and picture. Some might find it underwhelming and too slow for their liking, but this is real life and an honest story. All together all these elements make Chloé Zhao a young director to look out for as there is a maturity and an ability to tell a story that is remarkable for a first time behind the camera.