A reel shame

The documentary Reel Injun examines Hollywood's depiction of native people.

Filmmaker Neil Diamond casts a critical eye on Hollywood's depiction of native people

Director Neil Diamond delves into the depiction of First Nations people in Hollywood in the documentary Reel Injun. ((Domino Film))

Hailing from the Cree community of Waskaganish, Que., filmmaker Neil Diamond is responsible for several award-winning documentaries and docudramas that focus on aboriginal life and issues, including One More River (2004), which looks at a 2002 decision to construct a Hydro-Québec dam on Cree land.

In the documentary Reel Injun, which opens Feb. 19, Diamond tackles the depiction of First Nations people in Hollywood. Starting in the silent era, Diamond traces the history of native stereotypes in film. Along the way, the filmmaker meets with an array of insightful interview subjects, from director Clint Eastwood to Canadian actor Adam Beach (Flags of Our Fathers) to activists Sacheen Littlefeather and Russell Means. Diamond himself narrates the film, exposing Tinseltown's skewed worldview with a tone that is at once serious and sarcastic.

Diamond spoke with CBC News about Hollywood, the future of aboriginal cinema and striving for balance in a film that could have been "very, very angry."

First Nations actor and activist Russell Means has appeared in films like The Last of the Mohicans, Pathfinder and Rez Bomb. ((Domino Film) )

Q: What prompted you to take on this project?

A: When I first moved away from my hometown, my reserve, I went to school down [in southern Canada]. I would get all these questions from other students, and even from other adults — from Ottawa, Hull. They would ask if we still lived in teepees and if we rode horses and if we spoke Indian. I thought, where do people get these ideas about us? The only place we see Indians riding horses and living in teepees and speaking Indian is in movies, and I thought: this is where the majority of people get their ideas about native people. So I thought, there's an idea for a film.

Q: Reel Injun goes through the list of stereotypes about Natives, from the Noble Savage to the Drunken Indian.

A: I don't think we've seen a film since the late '70s that doesn't have the noble, spiritual native guy. As soon as he started speaking, a flute played or an eagle cried, and I would just cringe every time I heard that, you know: 'Oh my God, here comes the flute; here comes the eagle. I bet this guy is going to say something really important.' So, those stereotypes still exist. It's just so hilarious.

Q: The title Reel Injun is provocative, but the tone of the film is informative rather than preachy. Were you consciously striving for that balance?

A: A film like this could easily have been a very, very angry film, just because those images are so offensive. They don't even come close to telling the true story of what happened to native people. But that approach to the subject would just turn people off. It's better to make them laugh or cry than make them angry.

Q: You've said you worry some people may think the film is not critical enough.

A: Only native people would think it wasn't critical enough. Everyone else would be fine.

Activist Sasheen Littlefeather became famous in 1973 for giving a speech on behalf of Marlon Brando, when he boycotted the 1973 Academy Awards ceremony to protest the treatment of American Indians by the film industry. ((Domino Film) )

Q: What do you want native people to take from the film?

A: I think most native folk would think the subject is funny, and I think a lot of native people don't know the history. They've never really seen those images. They don't know that back in the day, back in the silent era, the Brad and Angelina were a pair of native people: James Youngdeer and Mona Darkfeather.

They were producing, writing, directing and starring in their own films. Two of the biggest directors in Hollywood were native people. They were telling stories of native people. Then that changed when sound came. That's something that a lot of native people don't know. They think, 'Oh, first native filmmaker? Chris Eyre with Smoke Signals.' But no, there were Natives making films back in the silent era.

Q: One of the most interesting parts of the movie comes when you visit a native-themed summer camp. They enact wild rituals that they feel are authentic.

A: I remember during that scene in the cafeteria, I was standing there watching what was going on, and a guy who worked at the camp, I think he was a counselor or something, just comes up to me and kind of whispers, 'You're not offended by this, are you?' It was so funny. I didn't know what to say. I was like, 'It's kind of weird.' It was an interesting experience. There were no native people there. In a way, it's flattering. I'm flattered that people still gravitate to that whole idea of being a native person.

Actor and filmmaker Clint Eastwood, who is interviewed in Reel Injun. ((Domino Film))

Q: What kind of reaction has the film been getting?

A: It premiered at [the Toronto International Film Festival] last summer, and we got really good responses from mostly native crowds in a huge theatre at the AMC in Dundas Square. People laughed at all the right moments and cried at all the right moments. Then it opened at the imagineNATIVE Film Festival in Toronto about a month later, and the reaction was just electric. The house was packed, and they were cheering and laughing, and it got so they were laughing so much I just wanted to stand up and say, 'Can you not laugh so much, there's another joke coming after this one!' I'd never been to a screening like that.

Q: The end of the film suggests that progress is being made to dispel these old myths and create a new kind of cinema. Then again, the biggest movie right now is Avatar, which some people are calling a 3-D Pocahontas.

A: Yeah, I call it Dances with Pocahontas in Space. It's amazing how that image is still so strong; storytellers still gravitate to it.

Q: What needs to change in Hollywood?

A: It has to go back to the way it was when Hollywood first started. You have to have native producers, directors, writers. We have actors, but I don't know how many directors there are. We have to go back to Youngdeer and Mona Darkfeather, where the Brad and Angelina of the day had power. And native films have to be distributed. There was this brilliant film I saw that was at imagineNATIVE, and it played at Sundance. It's called Barking Water — it's a road movie. It was just brilliant, so funny. But who's going to see that film except festivalgoers? There's no distributor for it.

Q: Reel Injun, on the other hand, has gained a pretty high profile.

A: Yeah, it's amazing. It's playing all over the place. I just got back from Finland, where it's gotten great press. There's another festival that wants it there. New Zealand wants to play it. Of course, the Germans love native people; they want to play it there. It's great.

Reel Injun opens in Toronto and Vancouver on Feb. 19. It airs on The Passionate Eye on CBC News Network on March 28 at 10 pm ET/PT.

Stephanie Skenderis is a writer based in Toronto.