Blog Directory CineVerse: Singing the praises of a cinematic study of native peoples

Singing the praises of a cinematic study of native peoples

Monday, August 1, 2022

Before ChloƩ Zhao took the cinematic world by storm when she directed the Best Picture Oscar-winning Nomadland and captured the Academy Award for Best Director (only the second of three females to claim that trophy), she created a lesser-known work that earned her kudos and admiration from cineastes worldwide: Songs My Brothers Taught Me. Our CineVerse squad focused on this feature last week and came away enthralled. Below are talking points about the film we shared (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

How did this film surprise, captivate, impress, or interest you?

  • There’s a naturalistic look and vibe to this film, thanks in large part to the casting of primarily nonactors (many of whom are residents of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota), choosing to film without a complete script, and featuring many shots and scenes that feel spontaneous. All of these elements grace Songs with a documentary-like feel and realism. It helped that the director reportedly lived on the reservation for four years before production.
  • The movie doesn’t feel exploitive or misrepresentational of the Lakota people or Native Americans.
    • reviewer Vince Leo wrote: “Making a cross-cultural film as an outsider is always a tricky proposition, as it can be very easy to misrepresent the culture depicted. Indeed, Hollywood's depiction has often been criticized in depicting Native Americans as either savage or full of eternal wisdom, and Songs My Brothers Taught Me certainly avoids those stereotypes, giving us a rare look at an American community that isn't often represented in films of any sort in the modern day.”
  • It cuts against our expectations and isn’t predictable. Johnny doesn’t leave at the conclusion as we anticipated, he resists the affections of Angie, and the tension between him and the other bootleggers doesn’t turn into a significant subplot or lingering source of conflict. Also, the ending is fairly ambiguous. We don’t know what will happen to these siblings, their mother, or their community in the near- or long-term future.
  • Arguably, the picture suffers from a fragmented narrative and tonal inconsistencies. We feel the tension and uncertainty coursing through Johnny, who must eventually decide if he will move away with his girlfriend, but this plot isn’t followed consistently. Expository dialogue is, thankfully, discarded in favor of allowing a scene to unfold naturally with the help of visual context.
  • The outdoor photography is often sublime, capturing the natural beauty of the badlands and their desolate visuals.

Major themes

  • Feeling stuck and duty-bound to kin, community, and location despite a strong desire to branch out on your own.
  • The sociocultural and psychological/emotional effects of addiction, economic hardship, and intergenerational trauma upon an ethnic group, in this case indigenous peoples.
  • Will the sins of the father be visited on his children? Johnny and Jashaun have irresponsible and negligent parents; most of the movie silently ponders the degree to which these siblings may fall into the same traps as their parents and be faced with many of the same challenges as they age—including alcoholism and poverty.
  • Honoring your culture and ethnic traditions. While the Native Americans on this reservation have assimilated western culture and its trappings, we see occasional examples of how they proudly incorporate indigenous songs, art, and spirituality into their lives.
  • Family is forever, or blood is thicker than water. Johnny ultimately cannot abandon his sister and the reservation, nor can his father’s 25 children forget their roots and ignore their lineage.

Similar works

  • Naturalistic and visually arresting movies by Terence Malick, including Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and Tree of Life
  • The Last Picture Show
  • Pather Panchali
  • Salaam Bombay
  • Winter’s Bone
  • Sami Blood
  • The Dynamiter
  • Four Sheets to the Wind
  • Shouting Secrets

Other films by Chloe Zhao

  • Nomadland
  • The Rider

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