Sherman Alexie stands at the back of a dark, crowded theater at last month’s Palm Springs Native American Film Festival, scanning the audience for reactions. The festival is showing the film made from Alexie’s first screenplay, Smoke Signals, in honor of its 10th anniversary, and he’s keen to see how it has held up over time. “I don’t know if I can watch the whole thing,” he says, “too many flaws.” Onscreen, Alexie’s memorable road-trip buddies Victor (Adam Beach) and Thomas-Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams) sit in a trailer watching old cowboy-and-Indian movies. “The only thing more pathetic than Indians on TV,” says Thomas, “is Indians watching Indians on TV.” The crowd erupts with laughter and Alexie smiles. It’s a great line, and at the time it was written it was certainly true. Despite the dawn of political correctness in the ’90s, depictions of Native Americans as either bloodthirsty savages or as the stoic, spiritual antecedents to hippie culture continued to dominate the big screen.
But Smoke Signals threatened to change all that. The first major film written, directed and acted by Native Americans, Smoke Signals was both a critical and commercial success. Selected for the dramatic competition at Sundance and winner of the festival’s Audience Award, it was bought by Miramax and went on to bank $6.8 million at the box office on a budget of less than $2 million. More importantly, it offered Native Americans starved for positive and accurate depictions of themselves something they could watch and be proud of.
The film’s success appeared to be a harbinger of a new wave of Native filmmaking. What’s happened since? “Absolutely nothing,” according to Alexie.
Indeed, a Native film with the cultural impact of Smoke Signals has yet to be replicated, and Alexie feels partly to blame. After their film took off, he and director Chris Eyre were bombarded with offers to work together again, but instead of capitalizing on the momentum, the two had a falling-out. Alexie, who was already well known in the literary world as the author of more than 17 books, drew the lion’s share of the film’s media attention and chose to roll with the praise, leaving Eyre feeling neglected.
“Basically we acted like typical Hollywood assholes,” says Alexie.
The two split ways with mixed results. In 2002, Alexie wrote and directed The Business of Fancydancing, which despite an interesting, semiautobiographical narrative about a reservation-born poet’s struggle to maintain his cultural roots in the white world, was missing Eyre’s directorial precision and went straight to DVD. Meanwhile, Eyre directed the thoroughly forgettable Skins, as well as several films for television (including 2003’s Edge of America), all of which lacked Alexie’s artistic edge.
If the creative duo who launched the Indian world’s first hit has sputtered, the world of Native film has continued to grow, albeit slowly. In 2001, Inuit director Zacharias Kunuk’s The Fast Runner won the Camera d’Or Prize at Cannes. This year, the Palm Springs Native American Film Festival received more than 360 submissions, up from 180 the year before. Perhaps most notably, Smoke Signals star Beach earned strong reviews and serious Oscar buzz for his portrayal of Ira Hayes in Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers.
Sundance, where Smoke Signals first began its amazing run, has also continued to provide a major outlet for Native filmmakers. This year, Creek director Sterlin Harjo’s Four Sheets to the Wind screened in the dramatic competition and went home with a Special Jury Prize for its leading lady, Tamara Podemski, who plays a reservation girl struggling to cope with city life and the loss of her father.
Yet despite a series of critical successes and the unwavering support of Sundance, which has used the festival as a showcase for Native films dating back to the first edition in 1985, commercial viability has remained elusive.
“Sundance shows around 120 feature films, and only a fraction get picked up and distributed,” says Bird Runningwater, associate director of the Sundance Institute’s Native American and Indigenous Initiative. “But it does seem that, most often, Native films fall into the category of those not being picked up.
Four Sheets to the Wind might be one of the best films out there that no one has ever seen. Despite drawing favorable comparisons to the box-office dynamo Garden State, and despite Podemski’s lauded performance, the film has yet to land a theatrical distribution deal. “It’s heartbreaking because we saw firsthand how audiences responded to the film,” says Podemski. “Someone just needs to get the balls to put it out there.”
Ironically, Podemski found out after talks with several high-level executives, the problem with the film is that it isn’t “Native enough.” “This is a regular film about a family that just happens to have a full Native cast,” she explains. “And I was told that the industry just doesn’t know what to do with that yet. They only know how to market something that is noticeably ‘Native.’”
That people can’t yet see the film is especially crushing for Podemski. For a Native actress, positive and challenging modern roles are difficult to come by. “There’s definitely a tendency to want to dress us up in buckskin,” she says.
Smoke Signals director Eyre agrees. “I don’t think a lot of people see value in telling stories about modern Indians,” he says. “But I don’t see the value in films that show the past. They all end the same way — the Indians die.”
The blame doesn’t fall entirely on the industry, however. Palm Springs Native American Film Festival programmer Thomas Harris, who screened all 360 of this year’s entries, says many Native filmmakers rely too heavily on the tragic realities of reservation life and not enough on substantive storytelling. “Right now, the ratio of documentaries to narratives is about 80/20,” he notes. “Which makes sense, because, with digital technology, documentaries can be made very cheaply. But there just aren’t enough narrative features out there.”