Barking Water, Silly Me

I went to the NMAI Heye Center on July 9, 2009 for the screening of Barking Water, a film by Sterlin Harjo, whose NMAI Film + Video Festival panel discussion I attended back in March. Harjo was on hand for questions after the screening.

Barking Water is the story of old flames, Irene and Frankie, who reunite for a road trip after Frankie learns that he is dying. Harjo noted that he has a big family and has been a pall bearer enough times that it has led him to contemplate the connection between life and death a lot. He noted that his previous film, Four Sheets to the Wind, begins with a funeral. The film’s road is paved with funny and touching moments with friends and family and with the memories of Irene and Frank’s past together. Perhaps because this is an unconventional love story – between older characters, between ex-partners, in dire circumstances – we are able to see that despite past hurt, love endures. During the Q&A, Harjo noted that he specifically sought out the actors who play Irene (Casey Camp-Horinek) and Frankie (Richard Ray Whitman) because he wanted to film a romance with an older couple. I thought that was pretty cool because you don’t see it often and because in this movie, you get a sense of the trials that real life relationships go through, not just the neatly packaged happily-ever-after stories I grew up on.

Never one to miss an opportunity to show his good sense of humor, Harjo also noted that he wanted those actors because he had seen them portray a spirit and a warrior, respectively, and (or but) knew their potential as actors. I took this as a comical reference to the fact that this movie didn’t cast the actors in stereotypical Indian roles. The movie was an authentic and sweet story about contemporary Native people. My use of the word authentic is strange since I don’t mean it in the way that it has often been used in the past (and maybe even the present) to denote an authentic vision of static Indians. I specify authentic because of the moving moments in the film but also because the NMAI staffer who introduced the film (I apologize because I can’t remember her name) was raised in Oklahoma and noted that Harjo did a great job of capturing the spirit of the place and giving the moviegoers an authentic feel for the place.

Harjo’s comment about spirits and warriors left a particular impression on me because it related to what I wanted to ask him about the film and with bigger issues about Native film. There were several scenes in the movie that I thought might have deeper significance to Seminole/Creek people (Harjo is Seminole/Creek). I am still working on my shyness when it comes to asking questions during Q&A so I didn’t ask what I wanted to which was a question I have for all Native filmmakers and that is: who is their target audience and if it is a mainstream audience, how do they approach the portrayal of Native culture without being too didactic about it? Although Latin American indigenous film and video includes feature films, many of the ones I’ve seen are documentaries and focus on cultural and political issues so there is no concern about imparting cultural knowledge in subtle ways. Since filmmaker communities’ target audience is their own … and other native communities, not the mainstream public or academics, there may be a reason to explain traditions in order to carry them on into the future. Or, there may not be a need to be explicit since most people in that community will understand the significance of a certain detail or act. But when a film like Barking Water comes along that seems to be directed at a general audience (although he didn’t get into specifics, Harjo happily noted that someone had picked it up for distribution — which in turn made me think of his remark about bootlegging in the last panel and whether this changed his mind about it), I wondered what I, because I am not from this community, was I missing? (I almost said, “I, as a non-Native” but caught myself because someone from the Hopi or Navajo community might miss the reference, too; although we tend to group people into groups like “Native American” or “Latino”, there are so many differences. There’s lots more to say about that, but I digress…) Were there scenes that had a bigger cultural significance but which were going over my head because they were not more explicitly explained? Or was that the intent? If you’re from the community you’ll get it and if you don’t, that’s okay? Okay, so why was I silly (see my post title)? Because, after listening to the responses to the questions asked I found out that … [insert train whistle music here] all the scenes I thought had deeper meanings were actually included for aesthetic purposes and/or by chance. Ha! The two times I’ve heard Harjo speak, he has made me laugh but I can just hear him laughing at me this time (I don’t know Harjo; I’m just using that “friend in my head” reference that radio host – and now talk show host – Wendy Williams likes to use. Oh, we have a ‘lil bit o’ everything in this blog, baby! That was George Costanza style.)

And then again, maybe it’s not so funny. Why? Because, like the spirits and warriors comment: why was I seeking some more profound meaning? Am I still caught up in that “authentic” in a backwards kind of way view of things? I don’t know. I’d actually be interested in the bigger significance of something I would have caught on Dynasty way back when, having not been born with a silver spoon in my mouth… But, you get my point. (And also, on a, wait just a minute there level, an audience member commented on a scene in the movie that makes reference to America belonging to Native Americans which I thought was interesting because the way that it was phrased in the movie, it felt like it could be read that way or be read on a romantic level. But, since Harjo thanked her for her comment, without saying that it wasn’t how he’d intended it, I was sitting there wondering, is he just being polite or was it really meant that way? Then I thought, well if that was indeed what was implied by that scene in the movie, then there was another political or social element to it that I had not even read into so maybe I don’t always do that? Guess you’d have to see the movie to see what I’m even talking about. I don’t want to spoil your interpretation of the scene.)  In any event, I have to ask these things in order to decolonize my brain and eyes.

I’m also uncomfortable even asking who native filmmakers’ target audience is because firstly, why should it be any different than any other movie? The implication of asking this question might be that Native films are somehow in their own category or a little different. And yet, we do categorize them as Native, right? I think I’ll revisit all these issues in more length as the blog progresses and with hopefully more insight as I go along.

So, it was a good movie and the discussion afterward even better since it got me thinking about these other questions I have. Also, on a more technical note, the way the film was shot, with a documentary style/road trip feel, as Harjo put it, and using certain visual techniques (random or not) – well, I liked it a lot visually. Also, just thought you’d like to know that this movie must be in the running for some type of record; it was shot in 17 days! (Another funny thing that came out of an audience member’s question is that in real life, that road trip which in the movie spanned several days would have only taken 3 ½ hours! Maybe not a profound bigger picture but definitely something insiders would have chuckled about.) I liked the soundtrack as well. I liked how some songs were paired with scenes that evoked a totally different type of feeling and the fact that the songs were very soulful (particularly the native language song in the church scene). I think several of us in the audience liked it enough that we would seek it out. I think someone in the audience said it may have been “line singing.” So, keep a look out for distribution and for the soundtrack; I will post when I hear about them. And, check the trailer out here. Until next time…

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