Real to Reel: Reel Injun

Getting the real story

• Director: Neil Diamond
• Writers: Catherine Bainbridge, Jeremiah Hayes, Neil Diamond
• Producers: Christina Fon, Linda Ludwick (Rezolution Pictures), Adam Symansky (NFB)
• Production companies: Rezolution Pictures,
National Film Board
• Featuring: Wes Studi, Sacheen Littlefeather, Adam Beach, Clint Eastwood, Zacharias Kunuk, Jesse Wente
• Distributors: Domino Film and TV (Canada), NFB (U.S.)
• International sales: Films Transit International
• Budget: $1.5 million

Given how ever-present native peoples were in Hollywood movies, it’s odd how epically misrepresented they were. For decades, when the western was one of the predominant genres in America, scads of the films portrayed natives as the slow-speaking bad guys.

Now, Montreal filmmaker Neil Diamond (no relation to the singer) has delved into the issues surrounding on-screen representations of native people in Reel Injun, a feature-length documentary.

Much like The Celluloid Closet did for gays and lesbians, Diamond’s doc shows us the litany of Hollywood’s misrepresentations, some of them funny, most of them just painful.

Diamond has interviewed a broad range of filmmakers, journalists and actors about native portrayals, including thesps Wes Studi and Adam Beach, filmmakers Clint Eastwood and Zacharias Kunuk, CBC film critic and TIFF programmer Jesse Wente, and Sacheen Littlefeather, the actress who famously declined Marlon Brando’s Oscar on his behalf.

Anecdotes and commentaries are intricately interwoven with clips and Diamond’s own first-person narration. The overall impact is poignant, again revealing the collective impact the screen can have on the lives of an entire group of people. ‘Once we started to really explore the possibilities, it all just exploded in my face,’ says Diamond.

The director says his research led to a series of revelations regarding native people and the screen. ‘In fact, now that native people are making their own films, we’ve actually come full circle. I learned that in the silent era some of the most influential people working in Hollywood were natives, as actors or producers. That changed when sound came in.’

And the doc packs an uplifting story arc, as it culminates with recent cinematic breakthroughs for native-authored films like Atanarjuat, Once Were Warriors, Whale Rider and Smoke Signals.

Matthew Hays is a programmer in the Canadian features section of TIFF.