Review: ‘Rhymes for Young Ghouls’ and Surviving the Apocalypse

imagesrhymesTo non-Native audiences, Rhyme for Young Ghouls will seem mythological in its presentation. The film establishes a real-world framework around a story based on the conventions of popular genres. A title at the beginning of the film tells us that Canada’s Indian Act was responsible for giving Indian agents sweeping power to place them in boarding schools, where physical abuse was widespread.

The fictional reservation where the story takes place, the Red Crow Reserve, is filmed like a post-apocalyptic landscape, where the Indians are “zombies” because of the drugs they buy from teenage Mi’gMaq girl Aila (Devery Jacobs) and her uncle Burner (Brandon Oakes). They started selling drugs to survive after Aila’s father Joseph (Glen Gould) was sent to prison. They use the money from their drug enterprise to pay off a sadistic school headmaster, Popper (Mark A. Krupa), to keep Aila out of the country’s notorious boarding school system.

Rhymes for Young Ghouls is haunted by the effects of Canada’s boarding school system, and by the ghosts that follow Aila throughout the film. But like Aila herself, Rhymes for Young Ghouls also has an unapologetic toughness about it. The film tells Aila’s story through an intricate pastiche of myth, magical realism, revenge fantasy, apocalypse and horror films. While in great peril, Aila traverses the land of the dead, and survives.

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As in apocalypse and horror films, survival is the name of the game. Aila was abandoned at the age of seven, when her mother committed suicide right before Joseph is sent to prison. When Joseph is released years later, he discovers that she has tight control over her father’s old drug terrority. In order to avoid being sent to the local Indian boarding school, Aila must pay off Popper. When the local authorities are tipped off to a drug deal involving Aila’s friend, Aila’s drug money is stolen. When she hatches a plan to get her money back, Popper becomes the archetypal relentless movie monster, who hunts down Joesph and Aila.

A story told by one of the film’s elders is perfectly representative of the struggles that Aila endures in her struggle for survival. Aila tells a  story through an animated that features  a hungry, vicious wolf searching a wasteland for food to eat. The wolf comes upon a tree with the dead bodies of Mi’gMaq children hanging by ropes from its branches. Crazed by hunger, the wolf rams the tree, and all the bodies fall from the branches. In a hungry fervor, the wolf devours the bodies of the children, and, by the end of its feast, becomes so ashamed that it cannibalizes itselft. The wolf is a stand-in for the system that swallows up indigenous kids and assimilates them into the dominant culture. The dark wasteland of the elder’s tale consists of a smoggy cityscape of tall buildings, smokestacks, and bare trees. Visually, the tale comes to life right out of a sketchbook that holds Aila’s artwork, a trait that she acquires from her deceased mother (Roseanne Supernault) as a way of showing her continued existence, even after death. The rendering of the elder’s story by Aila with a hellish wolf and an unnatural wasteland give glimpses into the perspective of the world that Aila holds. For her, the world is a dark place for Indians.

A theme of cultural survival is underlined through the presence of Aila’s mother. Inside the movie’s horror allusions, ghosts, contrary to typical horror genre conventions, are not treated as malevolent beings. Aila’s mother acts as a sort of spirit guide. Her mother’s presence in later parts of the film represents the continuity between the present and the past, and the continuity that runs between life and death. The presence of Aila’s mother speaks to the continuation of life that informs many indigenous beliefs, after we’ve left our physical bodies. Ghosts haunt the frames of Rhymes for Young Ghouls, all of them leading back to the personal and historic pain felt by the characters.

Using the Horror Genre to Achieve Indigeneity:

Rhymes for Young Ghouls may be the first truly indigenous horror film. One of the film’s major successes is the way it uses aspects of the horror genre without trivializing the real-life horrors that inspired Rhymes. The film’s tough-as-nails nature allows Aila to do battle with Popper, and presents her struggle as one between good and evil, between the oppressed and their colonizers, between knife-wielding slasher and potential victim. The broad characterization of Popper as a typical horror movie villain works better than it does in traditional horror films because the characterization is informed by the past trauma that the Mi’gMaq have experienced through exposure to the boarding school system and government policies. The film takes many of its ideas from the horror genre, but, unlike other films that parody or riff on horror conventions, the convention address the institutional abuses indigenous people have suffered in Canada.

Mi’gMak writer/director Jeff Barnaby make the referential genre elements work because his film is so genuine. According to the film’s press notes, Barnaby was inspired by all of the violence and abandonment that he witnessed as a child. One of the worst tendencies  New Millennium film is the ironic use of genre elements and the similar use of structural flourishes like bad projection, lens flares, scratchy frames, and bad sound that are ironically appropriated from grindhouse movies and B-movies of the past. The worst culprits of this style are filmmakers like Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, Rob Zombie, and Ana Lily Amirpour, whose films often make reference to the exploitation and B-movies that inspire their work, but serve no end beyond their usage as personal references. In this way, their images are not attached in any way to the real world. And so they just float in an existential void, useful only to fulfill a smug sense of ironic distance. And what’s so problematic about these directors’ ironic appropriation of B-grade mistakes and genre elements in movies like Death Proof, Kill Bill, and the insufferably hip A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is that the referential styles of these postmodernist movies show no personal sense of identity, history, or politics in the same way Barnaby demonstrates in Rhymes for Young Ghouls.

Barnaby takes elements from the horror genre and infuses them with life experiences that give genre appropriations greater meaning. Barnaby’s stories are informed by his Mi’gMak background, and they are genuine expressions of his people’s’ experiences, filtered through different film forms. This is why the slasher/monster movie dynamic of Popper pursuing Aila works so well; their conflict is infused with the history and pain of real people.

“Every beating they take recharges their fuel cells, and instead of tapping out they dust themselves off and knuckle up and move forward. We are all of us survivors, descendants of this Indian.”

 

Barnaby’s use of these elements are redeemed by his motivation to tell a story about a type of Indian who stares loss in the face and keeps charging forward. Native American tribes have seen their worlds end, but, according to Barnaby, there is a kind Indian who just won’t take it, and won’t give up. Barnaby wrote in the film’s press notes, “Every beating they take recharges their fuel cells, and instead of tapping out they dust themselves off and knuckle up and move forward. We are all of us survivors, descendants of this Indian.” Aila is that Indian. Like many films that achieve indigeneity through genuine cultural expression, Rhymes for Young Ghouls is about survival.

-Scott Pewenofkit, Jr.

ARTICLE: Rondeaux’s Unconventional Realism

Sterlin Harjo‘s new film Mekko has started a successful run on the film festival circuit, where it had its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June and its international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in mid-September. The film tells the story of Mekko, a Creek man who’s been paroled after serving a 19 year prison sentence for killing his brother. With nowhere to go, Mekko begins living on the streets of Tulsa, where he is absorbed into the local homeless Native American community. The local homeless population is terrorized by a man named Bill, who Mekko believes is an evil spirit.

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The film’s star, Crow/Cheyenne actor Rod Rondeaux, takes his first leading role with Mekko, after years of working as a stuntman in Hollywood and taking small parts in other films, like Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff. With Mekko, Rondeaux seems to be joining the ranks of character actors whose work stands out because of their unique backgrounds and unconventional qualities as performers. I first saw Rondeaux in the documentary Reel Injun, which was a survey of decades of Native American misrepresentation in the film industry. He was featured briefly in Reel Injun and talked about his life as a horse trainer before working on film sets as a stuntman. Rondeaux stood out in Reel Injun because of an unnameable authenticity generally lacking from the performances of well-known leading actors. Later, when I saw him in Meek’s Cutoff, he once again stood out as a performer who had an unpolished authenticity that unconventional character actors often bring to roles that make the studied acting techniques of more famous leading men appear transparent and obvious.

Like some great character actors, Rondeaux has the unique ability to add real-life texture to his performances. And realism was important to the way he approached playing Mekko. In an interview with FourthCinema he says of his role, “I tried to bring the reality to the part. After all, 19 years in prison would have changed you as fast as times are now moving. Fear, intimidation, and the uncertainty of how my family would take me in had to be real.”

In a recent interview with Tulsa Public Radio, director Harjo cited Werner Herzog‘s odball masterpiece Stroszek (1972) as an influence on Mekko. A direct line can be drawn between Mekko and Stroszek, where Herzog used Bruno S., a formerly homeless street musician, to play the film’s title character. Like Rondeaux, Bruno S. was in possession of the type of rough-hewn demeanor and acting style that gave the film its sense of realism. Bruno S. and Rondeaux come from hardscrabble backgrounds, and they both posses a lack of formal acting training that sets them apart from conventional leading men. Look for great Termite Art tendencies in the few leading performances from Rondeaux, including Meek’s Cutoff.

Rondeaux stressed the importance of realism for the role when talking about parts of his own personal life that informed how he played Mekko: “…for a time I was homeless when I moved to LA, staying in a shelter for a few weeks until a friend of mine took me to Kansas for a movie.”

Outside of his stunt work, Rondeaux had no previous training as an actor. He grew up on the Crow reservation in Montana, where he worked on the rodeo circuit for most of his life. Recalling the path that led him to his current stunt/acting career, he says, “I rodeo’d for 40 years -team roping, riding bulls, steer wrestling -and a friend of mine drug me to an audition for core riders in 1996 for TNT’s Crazy Horse, shot in South Dakota. I got the role of stunt double for the lead, Michael GreyEyes. I moved to California in 1997 and got into the stunt business from there.”

As a director, Harjo himself must have recognized the great, unconventional acting qualities that Rondeaux possesses. Rondeaux says, “Sterlin saw a picture of me leaning over a fence looking at horses in a corral and decided then and there that I was Mekko.”

Mekko has gotten positive reviews from Variety and a handful of online publications. For Rondeaux, his reception as a leading actor at the Toronto International Film Festival has been equally positive. About his experience at TIFF he says, “The attention [was] somewhat overwhelming.  But I believe the crowd and the people that watched the film were genuinely surprised that we had such a realistic, modern-day kinda dark movie coming out.  Real real real.”

Scott Pewenofkit, Jr.

Review: ‘Drunktown’s Finest’ Finds its Way Home

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Sydney Freeland‘s debut feature Drunktown’s Finest explores notions of identity and connections to home, which are the two most common themes in Indigenous cinema. The film’s three main characters struggle with their connection to their Navajo homeland in a way that is fresh and timely in its approach. The film’s title alone reclaims the dehumanized view of Indians that is portrayed in popular media.

Three intertwining stories comprise Drunktown’s Finest, and all center around characters who, one way or another, try desperately to leave or come to terms with the Navajo reservation. The film opens with a beautiful time-lapsed shot of Dry Lake, NM, as one of the film’s main characters, Nizhoni (Morningstar Angeline), laments, “They say this land isn’t a place to live, but a place to leave.” Nizhoni was adopted by a white couple years earlier and returns as a young woman to complete community service on the reservation before heading off to college in Michigan. Amid the film’s identity theme, Nizhoni struggles as a Christian to understand life on the Navajo reservation while secretly searching for her birth parents.

Luther “Sick Boy” Maryboy (Jeremiah Bitsui) gets arrested for assaulting a police officer one drunken night, just days before he is to leave his pregnant girlfriend behind on the reservation to join the army. After one stroke of good luck, in which an army official gets him off the hook for the assault charge, his life spirals downward over the next few days. Luther’s life represents desperation, and lack of opportunity on the reservation but his struggle to leave is reconciled at the end of the film. The ending of the film stresses the importance of staying close to one’s family, no matter how much you hate the place you come from.

Drunktown‘s third main character, Felixia (Carmen Moore), is a trans Navajo girl who has aspirations of becoming a model. She turns tricks for money so she can leave the reservation, and, similar to Sick Boy and Nizhoni, believes leaving home will lead to better opportunities. Moore grows naturally into her role as Felixia and gives the film’s best performance. Felixia’s status as a trans woman is rarely stressed in the film. Unlike Nizhoni, Felixia struggles less with her identity as a Navajo, but her imperative to leave home is just as deeply felt.

Felixia is the first trans/gay character I’ve seen in a smalltown-set film whose sexual identity is rarely, if ever, contested. One scene where she is humiliated by a fellow entrant at a modeling audition is more about her antagonist’s opportunism than it is about humiliating Felixia because of her sexuality. Near the film’s end, Felixia’s grandfather (Native Cinema staple Richard Ray Whitman) tells her a story about the “Third Gender,” which underlines the importance of the interconnectedness of family and demonstrates that Felixia’s sexuality is never questioned and always accepted. As Felixia prepares to leave the reservation at the end of the film, her grandfather ends his story by telling her, “No matter where you go, you will always have a home here.”

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The film ends with one minor character completing Kinaalda, which represents a Navajo girl’s entry into womanhood. The ceremony marks the young girl’s journey into adulthood, and also the journey into maturity taken by the three main characters. The final image of Drunktown’s Finest touchingly visualizes this journey.

Drunktown’s Finest appropriates a familiar formula, that of alienated young people who yearn to leave behind the limited opportunities presented to them in their small towns. Dome of Heaven (2011), another relatively recent Indian-themed film directed by author Diane Glancey, also explored the same kind of story. Dome of Heaven told the story of a rural Oklahoma Native girl who struggled to leave behind her drab small town so she could go to college. Where Dome of Heaven and Drunktown’s Finest differ are in the ways Indian characters and their surroundings are depicted. Glancey’s staid film was just as drab and dull as most small towns in places like Oklahoma, and her film seemed peculiarly drained of life and spontaneity. On the other hand, within the same kind of story, Freeland possesses a keen eye for the rhythms of her film’s setting, and of the people she depicts. The rocky desert landscape, the tawdry neon glow of liquor store signs, tricked-out Southwestern cars driven by young criminals, the eerie sight of a dead horse on the side of a dark highway, all contribute to a setting that pulsates with the chaos of real life.

Freeland, like some of the best Indigenous filmmakers currently working, has a strong sense of time and place. And like many Indigenous films made in North America, Drunktown’s Finest talks back to many of the negative portrayals of Indians in other media by naming itself after a 20/20 TV special with the insulting title ‘Drunk Town, USA,’ which was about alcoholism on the Navajo reservation. The reference to the 20/20 special shows that Freeland has the presence of mind as a filmmaker to re-appropriate images of Native Americans. She reshapes depictions of Indigenous people who, in the hands of non-Indians (Glancey included) are nothing more than the persistent stereotypes that have been shown in other films with Indian characters.

Freeland’s film shows that there is nowhere else to go but home.