The film Barking Water takes viewers on a journey alongside a man who has reached the end of his life. We ride with Frankie in his battered station wagon, hear the rhythmic soundtrack of his thoughts, and root for him to find forgiveness on his way home.
This may sound like one sappy road trip to some, but think about it: Every man must face his own mortality at some point.
"This story happens to be about a native person, but it will resonate with anybody," says Lisa Falk, director of education at the Arizona State Museum. "It's about life."
That universality is the broad message of the Native Eyes Film Showcase, a four-day event spotlighting feature films and movie shorts by Native Americans representing roughly 10 different tribes. The 5-year-old program was co-founded by Falk and Vicky Westover, of the UA's Hanson Film Institute.
The universal appeal of the films aims to help dispel the cowboys-and-Indians stereotype that persists in the United States.
"You're not getting caricatures," says Falk. "Native people are writing and directing and starring in their own movies, saying, 'We have stories to tell.'"
Barking Water director Sterlin Harjo, of Seminole/Creek origin, has already proved that he can weave together a tale that tugs on people's heartstrings. His film Four Sheets to the Wind received major acclaim at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.
Westover calls Harjo "the up-and-coming director to watch." Westover and Falk will screen the 85-minute Barking Water at the Crossroads 6 Grand Cinemas at 2 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 15.
Another storyteller to be featured is Comanche filmmaker Julianna Brannum. Brannum plans to fly in from Los Angeles to interact with the audience at a preview of her new documentary LaDonna Harris: Indian 101. She will show snippets and an introduction to the film, which is about the progressive politician, but the film will not be completed until next summer. The preview is at 4 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 12, in Room 164 at UA's James E. Rogers College of Law.
"This film differs from those that most audiences see, showing an alternative positive view on what native people are doing—with (Harris) as a midcareer professional," Brannum says.
Brannum says indigenous people are the most under-represented minority in film by far. She blames inopportunity for the lack of exposure.
"It's just that the major outlets for distribution aren't interested," she says.
However, both Brannum and Westover say that they are making progress, and that more Native American voices are getting out into the mainstream. But why do movie-making big shots hesitate to back projects that come from a Native American perspective?
"Our personal experiences are so unique," says Brannum. "The intricacies of our historical experience with the federal government can be confusing for non-native people to try to navigate. For example, we spend our whole lives explaining to people why we're fighting for a particular issue ... like our land."
Indeed, Falk says that one of the major underlying themes of Native Eyes is the interaction between native people and the law, be it with tribal, Canadian or U.S. authorities.
"(Tribes) may be sovereign nations, but they interact all the time with U.S. law," says Falk. "Between treaties and negotiations ... the two are so intertwined."
This struggle to "have one foot in two cultures—Native American and white culture," as Westover puts it, comes through in Club Native, a film by Tracey Deer. It looks at the "blood quantum" of the Kahnawake Mohawk reserve, which is grappling with the issue of how much native blood a person must have before they can be accepted by a tribe.
"What determines your identity?" Falk asks. "If you are born in America, who says you are an American? We (Americans) assume identity, but it's not always that simple."
She says that this search for identity—knowing oneself—is another common theme; it appears in all four of the feature-length films included in the showcase.
According to Brannum, mainstream America made a transitory effort in the 1970s to understand the plight of native peoples. She believes the current activist effort through film shows that the country is now ready for a widespread acceptance of the stories that Native Americans have long kept to themselves.
"A renaissance is starting to happen again," she says. "It is a constant struggle, but we now have a new generation that we have to try and speak to."