Maori filmmaker Barry Barclay coined the term Fourth Cinema to describe Indigenous cinema, referring to films being shown more or less exclusively on the festival circuit. Besides Sundance’s Native Program, started in the 1990s, Berlinale also launched its NATIVe programme in 2013, and several smaller film festivals choose to select exclusively Indigenous productions. Nevertheless, there is no real consensus on what Indigenous films really are. Scholar Houston Wood, author of ‘Native Features’, suggests positioning them on a continuum of non-Indigenous and Indigenous films, taking into consideration the crew members involved, the actors, the topics covered and the style used. Interestingly, the Canadian festival imagineNATIVE only accepts a title if a key member of the creative team, be it the director, the writer, or the producer, identifies as Indigenous; Jason Ryle, the artistic and managing director, would also prefer to treat Indigenous films as if they were German or Swedish and not as a genre, as it often happens nowadays.
Keeping all this in mind, Iranian-born Babak Jalali’s latest feature LAND comes across as a rather controversial case. In recent years, there has been an ongoing debate about who exactly should have the rights to tell Indigenous stories. Looking back at many classics such as Robert J. Flaherty’s NANOOK OF THE NORTH and DANCES WITH WOLFES by Kevin Costner, the outsider’s perspective has always been more prevalent, probably as a result of Native people being oppressed, and their homeland — colonised. Thanks to the democratization of filmmaking, though, more and more Indigenous people are starting a career in cinema and bringing their own stories to life. Consequently, the number of Indigenous films, of various formats and genres, has increased in the past few years, and several of them have received recognition and/or prestigious awards. Yet, Babak Jalali’s film exemplifies how outsiders still dare telling stories without including Indigenous talent in the creative process.
As the title implies, LAND focuses on a territory co-habited by white and Native Americans today, and reflects upon the hardships of the latter group, which to this day is still facing discrimination. The film tells the story of Mary Yellow Eagle and her family, their everyday struggles, and their interactions with the local white community. It looks like the Yellow Eagle family is destined to serve the role of the ‘typical’ Native American family that mainstream audiences are taught to recognise. Just like them, many Native Americans live in reservations, are unemployed and addicted to alcohol or other illegal substances. Moreover, suicide rates are higher than for any other racial or ethnic group. Mary’s oldest son, Raymond, has left his alcoholic past behind and is now working to provide for his family. Mary’s youngest son has just been killed – or committed suicide – in Afghanistan while serving in the US military. Her middle child, Wesley, is unemployed and an alcoholic, whom she drops off at the local liquor store every morning. He spends his days with his girlfriend and pals, leaning against the wall or resting their elbows on their knees, showing little signs of life. This image can only be perceived as devastating and poignant, just like the fact that hundreds of Indigenous women go missing or are murdered every year. The film does not however explore this specific topic, electing instead to depict only one Native reality.
In this reality, verbal communication occurs solely to disseminate important information, as a reaction to conflict, or to express resistance and frustration. The main conflict emerges when the youngest son dies. The fact that Native Americans serve in the US military might surprise some people, as they are basically fighting on behalf of those whose ancestors took their lands away. As a matter of fact, Native Americans already fought on the US’ side during WWII, and some Navajo veterans were in fact invited to the White House not a long time ago. Donald Trump’s most-beloved national symbol, the American flag, indeed plays a crucial role in LAND. Despite the family’s protests, the US Air Force insists on a military funeral for the youngest Yellow Eagle brother, so Major Robertson shows up with a coffin covered by that flag to remember him as a national hero who has died for his country. ‘He died for his work, not for his country’, says the mum to the Major earlier in the film, indicating her resistance to accept the USA as their homeland.
Mary Yellow Eagle and the rest of the women in LAND in general are either pulling the strings or outright leading their communities. As the conflict around Wesley escalates, the owner of the Bob’s Liquor Store accuses Mary of not being able to control her people anymore. She acts like a sheriff from an old Western, a genre openly referenced in the music of the film and in the typography of the credits as well. Considering the portrayal of Native Americans in Western films, the issue – and importance – of representation becomes crucial. Regardless of her age, Mary’s character demonstrates strength and faith in the future of her family and community. That is why it raises eyebrows that the family members speak English at home as if their Indigenous language has already disappeared. Similarly to other countries, the USA forcibly sent the Indigenous youth to boarding schools, separating them from their parents to assimilate them into the American dominant society. However, knowing that the actors acting as a family belong to different First Nations, the use of English makes perfect sense.
Foreign filmmakers such as Jalali usually miss out on this kind of nuances, and therefore they falsely strengthen the existence of one cohesive group of Indigenous peoples. Sometimes even Indigenous peoples are forced to act on the stereotypes known worldwide to achieve commercial success in cinemas. Without a systemic change and Indigenous filmmakers telling their own stories as they see fit, Indigenous cinema will never be able to amaze the masses and showcase diversity in terms of their ethnicity, interests, life, genre, and style. Babak Jalali’s LAND sits somewhere in the middle of the continuum of Indigenous and non-Indigenous productions. The vast, never-ending landscape in static long shots illustrates the essence of the Indigenous peoples’ respect for nature. It also counts as a characteristic element in Indigenous films. On the other hand, close-ups and medium shots take turns to fully capture the emotions on the characters’ faces, mostly confined to interiors. The sparse dialogue, the long takes, and restrained acting result in a film with a measured tempo that probably seemed suitable for the contemporary life of some but not all Native Americans.