"For a subject worked and reworked so often in novels, motion pictures, and television, American Indians remain probably the least understood and most misunderstood Americans of us all."

-John F. Kennedy in
the introduction to The American Heritage Book of Indians

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

When Cultures Collide: Even the Rain Film Review

I recently jumped at the opportunity to review the new Spanish film Even the Rain.


This film follows the fictional Spanish film director Sebastián (Gael García Bernal) as he struggles to shoot a controversial film about the Spanish conquest of the New World.  Moved by the plight of the indigenous Taíno as expressed in the writings of 16th-century Spanish priest Bartolomé de las Casas, Sebastián pens a script that he feels will finally portray Columbus and his Spanish brethren for what they were... brutal, genocidal, conquerors who savagely subdued and forcibly converted the native Taíno population in the West Indies.

The only problem is that the Indians are actually Quechua and the Caribbean is the mountain highlands outside Cochabamba, Bolivia. Such inaccuracies are no mere oversights but rather the brilliant plan of director Sebastián and his film partner Costa (Luis Tosar) to recreate their version of the Spanish conquest on a shoe-string budget.

When a Bolivian government plan to privatize the local water supply leads to popular uprisings, life starts to imitate art. Will the director be able to finish his beloved project or will the very real indigenous uprising playing out before him cause it all to come crashing down?

As Spain's entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 83rd annual Academy Awards, Even the Rain draws on an eclectic mix of talent. Perennial favorite Bernal is his usual high-strung self in the role of the obsessive director Sebastián, the perfect foil to Tosar's rough-edged yet sensitive Costa. Both of them are outshined by first time actor Juan Carlos Aduviri, whose breakout performance as two indigenous leaders, one fighting Columbus and the other the Bolivian government, really sets the film in motion.

The real star of the film however is the script penned by British screenwriter Paul Laverty. Drawing on his first-hand experience traveling through war torn Central America in the 1980s, Laverty creates a tale of filmmaking gone awry that dares to let it's characters waver in morally ambiguous territory right until the end. He injects just the right amount of flawed humanity into the characters to make them and their perilous decisions into a film drama of the highest caliber.

 The final scene of the film within the film  (Source: Examiner.com)

In the hands of less experienced filmmakers, Even the Rain could easily have turned into an overly preachy, hit-you-over-the-head metaphoric tale about the brutal legacy of colonialism. The film makes it absolutely clear that there was and still is great injustice in this "New World." What isn't clear is just what exactly are the protagonists going to do. Finish the film about the historic oppression to only turn a blind eye to the modern injustice or dare to get involved in a very real and deadly conflict?  It is this ambiguity and the subtle and smart ways it goes about answering these questions where the film succeeds.

Few films dare to tackle both the egotistical, money-driven world of modern filmmaking and the high drama of humanity fighting for its most basic rights. Even the Rain does just that. The result is a work whose message is so abundantly clear yet it is so downright gripping to see it unfold.

Daniel (Aduviri) dressed as the character Hatuey shares a moment with the director Sebastián (Bernal) (Source: nytimes.com)


Even the Rain does something unique.  Most films about the indigenous people of the Americas are either costume dramas set in a clearly historic past (The Mission, Dances with Wolves) or they are modern pieces about the realities of indigenous life today (Smoke Signals, Frozen River).

Even the Rain deftly combines these two cinematic genres to create some of the most poignant commentary yet seen on film about the enduring tensions between Native and non-Native people.

The irony is not lost on the audience when the supposedly sympathetic Sebastián, so in love with the kind words of Bartolomé de las Casas, snaps at his indigenous actors, practically demanding they complete a critical scene for his film.  In a sense, he becomes a modern Columbus, a man lording over these indigenous actors, using them to propel his own personal creative vision towards completion.

 Sebastián (Bernal) surrounded by his actors (Source: Examiner.com)

On the flip side, Daniel (played by first time actor Juan Carlos Aduviri) is a man committed to his community who just happens to be cast as the historic indigenous leader Hatuey.  Daniel also leads the real-life water riots that rock Cochabamba at the expense of his continued commitment to the film.  Why would a man care about creating some cinematic masterpiece when he and his community are systematically being deprived of their most basic human rights?

This tension between a man obsessed with a film and a man committed to his community not only provides the main drama but the main lesson in the film.

As someone who actively writes and comments about indigenous issues, it was a lesson I took to heart.  I have to be careful not to end up like Sebastián, so obsessed with some high-brow, philosophical, creative endeavour that I loose sight of the real humanity behind the issue.

I give Even the Rain 3.5 out of 4 stars and declare it required viewing for anyone interested in indigenous depictions in cinema or the history of Latin America.

For more on Native films check out this previous Top 10 list:

Forget Avatar: 10 Compelling Films of Real-Life Indigenous Struggles

Note: This review is based on my original review available here:


BLOG NOTE:  Today marks the one year anniversary of Drawing on Indians and what a year it has been.  From Findians to Hipsters, Western Sky to Tribal Chic, it's been a crazy year of cringe-worthy appropriation and thought-provoking activism.

I'm going to take some time off from the blog to focus on other things in my life (job, school, family, etc.) but I encourage you all to check out the other fine blogs featured in the right hand column.  I have a thousand ideas just waiting to hit the page so see you in a few!


Friday, March 4, 2011

Wounded Bird the "Crow" Indian in Rango

This past week I had the pleasure of attending an advanced screening of the new animated film Rango.

 (c) 2010 - Paramount Pictures (source)

Here's a good plot summary from Wikipedia:

"Rango is a chameleon who lives in a terrarium and constantly seeks to fit in with his surroundings. He finds himself removed from his contemporary American southwest surroundings and ends up in an Old West town in the middle of the Mojave Desert called Dirt, which is populated by various desert critters garbed like characters out of Western fiction. Thinking himself a hero, Rango establishes himself as the town's sheriff, not knowing that people who have held that title do not fare very well in Dirt."

My review for the film is available here.  I gave it 2.5 out of 4 stars:


As I write in the review:

"The film plays like a classic Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western crossed with a Nickelodeon kid's comedy with a little Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas thrown in as well. As a Western, the movie has everything from high noon gun battles to bitter fights over water rights to the stereotypical stoic Indian who once again seems incapable of speaking in complete sentences."

That last part refers to the character Wounded Bird.

(c) 2011 - Paramount Pictures (source)

In the film, Wounded Bird plays a bit part as the token town Indian.  He's quiet, mystical, and knows exactly how to track in the wilderness, just like the classic Hollywood Indian.

That being said, he is the source of some comic relief with his one-liners and ends up being a clearly heroic figure in the end.  Then again, the bad pun where Rango refers to Wounded Bird's "ingenuity" only to say "no pun intended" put a bad taste in my mouth.

The official film website over at http://www.rangomovie.com/ includes this description of Wounded Bird:

"A solid creature of the Crow Nation. Wounded Bird draws his inspiration from Native American Indian principles of harmony and quiet observation. His tracking skills are legendary and he's big in Finland for some reason."

I disagree.  Wounded Bird draws his inspiration directly from the scores of Indian depictions in countless Hollywood Westerns.  Rango is filled with every other Western cliche- saloon brawls, corrupt mayors, spineless townfolk, a mysterious stranger- so why not the quiet mystical stereotypical Indian!  It wouldn't be a true homage without one!

Personally, I'm a fan of subverting tired cliches and stereotypes to challenge our expectations and get those cerebral juices flowing.  Rango does just that when the Beans character (voiced by Isla Fisher) subverts the traditional female role to become a gun-slinging, posse riding hero in her own right.

So why couldn't they have done the same thing with Wounded Bird?

(c) 2011 - Paramount Pictures (source)

I wonder if writer/director Gore Verbinski ever stopped to think about the Wounded Bird character or simply threw him in as another element in this ode to the Spaghetti Western.  Considering Verbinski made his mark directing the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, a fine trio of films full of old cliches and stereotypes, this new character shouldn't come as any surprise.  It's just another example of modern Hollywood's love affair with the classic Hollywood Indian, even if he's an animated bird in a kids comedy.

And in case you're wondering, Wounded Bird is voiced by Gil Birmingham.  He is of Comanche ancestry and is best known for his role in the Twilight series.  I haven't heard his or anyone else's take on the character but I'm always open to other thoughts.