Spiritual Flight in ‘Ancestor Eyes’

Ancestor Eyes, a 2008 short film by Kalani Queypo, is currently streaming on Skinsplex.com, a free streaming site that features short and feature-length works by Native American filmmakers. What is most notable about the 19-minute short, starring Tantoo Cardinal and Rulan Tangen, is its exploration of the journey one of its main characters takes on her way to the afterlife. The film has a genuinely strong spiritual bent that is common in movies by and about Indigenous people, which is rarely seen in current non-Indigenous cinema.

Willa (Tangen) is bed-ridden and suffers from a disease that is never identified in the film. Her mother Verna (Cardinal), a youthful older woman who takes care of her and spends her days hiking in the wilderness and films scenes from nature with her video camera that her daughter later watches in the confines of her drab, darkened bedroom. The film opens with Verna and her love interest Charlie (Raoul Trujillo) going on a hike, where they film an eagle soaring high above them. In the first moments of the film, we see Verna and Charlie flirting with each other as Verna films the eagle, an obvious but nice visual reference for the film’s theme of spiritual flight. In her bedroom, weak and bedridden, Willa watches the footage shot by her mother, and smiles when she hears the flirtatious banter between Charlie and Verna from behind the camera. Willa’s only means of pleasure seemingly comes from watching the tapes her mother makes and through the possibility that her mother and Charlie are possibly in love. The tapes are meant to make the dying Willa feel a connection to the outside world. But as the film progresses, we learn that it is Verna who must come to terms with the inevitability of death brought on by Willa’s disease.

Verna takes care of the frail, sick, much younger Willa, but Ancestor Eyes is about a dying person who helps a grieving person heal. When Verna returns from a hike with Charlie and discovers that Willa has thrown away her medication, Verna becomes upset with her daughter, and at her wit’s end, demands to know what to do in order to help Willa. In response, Willa tells her to “drop the business about the pills,” and to continue to see Charlie. Willa is oddly content with her illness. Verna films an outside world that she wishes her daughter could experience, but Willa is more concerned with Verna finding enjoyment in the world she captures with her camcorder. Without outwardly expressing it, Willa has come to terms with dying. During a key moment of reconciliation in the film, Willa says to her mother, “Can I tell you something, mom? You did good.” Note the look of elation of Verna’s face in close-up during this scene.

And so begins Willa’s journey to the next life. Her mother tells her the story of the keeper of the flowers, which is about a little girl who sits under the quarter moon one night and is visited by the Sky People, who explain to the little girl how all of the different plants of the world, when grown, will bring healing to her people. The Sky People give the little girl a magical satchel of seeds and two gourds of water, which she must carry up a mountain. The little girl accepts the difficult burden of carrying the sack of seeds and the gourds of water up the mountain, her path illuminated by the light of the moon. The little girl must plant the seeds until the entire world is covered, as Verna narrates the story to Willa, “in a lush landscape of healing plants.” There was a place for every seed and every drop of water. The little girl gave of herself, creating a blanket of nourishment for the world. The little girl would never return to her family. Willa’s eventual demise is visualized at the end of the film in a simple way that is striking.

I was there when she found her way to this earth. I give her back to the sky.”

In their last moments together, Verna talks about the moment that Willa was born: “When you were born, you knew too much. You looked at me through the eyes of your ancestors. I felt so lucky. I got to witness your spirit coming into this earth.” The film closes with reconciliation and acceptance. We hear Verna communicating with the hereafter in voice-over narration, “I’m calling out to all my relations. I give her back to you, the girl with the eyes of the ancestors. The girl who knew too much. Make a song for her to follow. Make a path for her to travel. I was there when she found her way to this earth. I give her back to the sky.”

Ancestor Eyes was made during the beginning of a growing tradition among Indigenous American filmmakers whose expression of spirituality underlines the belief that our existence on this earth is only part of a larger journey, that this journey is circular and not linear in nature; there is no end, only a continuation. As the film ends, Verna says in voice-over, “I am now the woman who knows too much. Now I’m the woman with the eyes of the ancestors.” Like the films of Sterlin Harjo (particularly in Four Sheets to the Wind [2007] and Barking Water [2009]) and in Jeff Barnaby‘s Rhymes for Young Ghouls (2013), we’re shown that life and death are not separate from each other. While Willa’s death is presented as a tragedy in this particular world, Verna realizes that she too will one day continue onto the next part of her journey. Willa’s role in the film became that of someone who gives solace to the grieving. Like the little girl in the keeper of the flowers story, Willa’s demise gives her the opportunity to let others heal.

-Scott Pewenofkit, Jr.

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