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Indigenous Cinema and Visual Language(s): Why Should We Be Teaching These Films?

by Ethan Tussey

by Pam Wilson for IN MEDIA RES

I’ll admit it. I have multiple personalities. My early training in anthropology has constantly pulled me into cultural and ethnographic exploration; my graduate training in critical and cultural studies keeps me always already in analytical mode with a focus on cultural politics, while my right-brained persona is deeply drawn to the visual stylings of photography and film as well as the shapes of narratives.  The place where I’m best able to integrate my many selves is in consuming—and studying—indigenous media.  For years, I’ve kept this interest ghettoized outside of my everyday teaching of classes in mass media, film studies, and intercultural communication.


But this year, after publishing Global Indigenous Media with Michelle Stewart, I came to realize that keeping my passion for indigenous media a secret from my students was not only depriving me of the pleasure of sharing but was also short-changing them from being able to see the world through the eyes and distinctive cultural perspectives of native filmmakers. I had been perpetuating, in practice, the very disappearing and denying and closeting of indigeneity that I have critiqued in theory.


So that has begun to change—and with wonderful responses by my undergraduate students. I’m realizing the importance of “opening up the canon” to effect a better understanding of the diversity of visual and narrative cinematic styles on a global cultural scale coupled with an understanding of the distinctive issues faced by indigenous cultures.


(1) I'll open with a recent short film, Conversion by Nanobah Becker (Navajo, 2005), which integrates archival and dramatized footage to beautifully tell a story about the impact of Christian missionaries on a Navajo family in 1950. 


Since so many excellent contemporary examples of indigenous media have already been highlighted this week, I decided to select several classics of indigenous media available online that might be great additions to your media studies, film/television history, intercultural communication, or visual anthropology course:


(2) A segment of the classic footage of the late 1960’s from anthropologist Sol Worth’s Navajo film project, later written up with John Adair in Through Navajo Eyes (the full text of which is available online), which set out to discover: what kind of visual and temporal style and aesthetics might Navajo use if they were trained to use the camera?  What would they choose to record, how might they frame and compose their images, and how might they lead our eyes to “see” their world from a Navajo perspective?

(3) A brief clip (there is also a second one on YouTube) from Basically Black (1973), an adaptation for Australian national commercial TV (the first all-Aboriginal television series, on ABC) of National Black Theatre’s stage show that set out to use “humour to subvert the arrogance of the dominant ideology.” BB was the creative work of a team of Koori Black Power activists including Gary Foley, who was also a leader in the 1972 Tent Assembly in Canberra.

(4) A clip from the esteemed 1985 poetic documentary Itam Hakim Hopiit by Hopi photographer and filmmaker Victor Masayesva, Jr., which presents a narrative about a Hopi elder using a distinctly Hopi cultural and visual language. As Michael Renov writes, " ...The film offers a cultural bridge of a very different kind, evoking a culture and an environment through the look and sound of it and the fluidly majestic pace of its impart the drama of distant rainstorms across desert landscapes or cause one to gasp in astonishment at the rainbow that enters the frame during a revelatory pan, for indeed the lyricism of Masayesva, Jr.'s imagery and the tone of reverence for the earth, whose caretakers the Hopi consider themselves to be, has the power to transport the viewer."

(5) The short experimental film, Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (1989) that helped launch Australian aboriginal artist and filmmaker Tracey Moffatt into international acclaim. The stylized and non-naturalistic mise-en-scene and cinematography address race relations in Australia. Quoting Lynne Cook, “Stylization and artifice are the hallmarks of Tracey Moffatt's art, irrespective of medium. For whether working in film, video, or photography, she is never engaged primarily with producing reality, with taking pictures, but with making pictures. The worlds that Moffatt constructs, usually via a form of nonlinear narrative, typically fuse personal memories within a larger historical compass.”


(6) A trailer for Alanis Obomsawin’s remarkable documentary Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993) [the full film is available online here], an evocative narrative of the two-and-a-half month 1990 armed Oka crisis between the Mohawk Community and the Canadian forces in Quebec. While most journalists were evacuated, Obomsawin stayed and covered the crisis alone with a video camera and tape recorder, bringing a powerful immediacy to her perspective.

There are many other classics, though quite a few are only available from distributors and are not yet available online, even in excerpts.  There are also many recent short films and television programs online (explore IsumaTV) as well as a growing body of superb indigenous features (keep an eye out for Shane Belcourt’s Tkaronto and Sterlin Harjo’s Barking Water), as well as countless documentaries ranging from the cultural to the political to the artistic to the personal--and often integrating all four.  And then, of course, there is the new wave of indigenous animation, which is visually stunning….


Add some indigenous films to your curriculum, and your students will never see the world the same way again.  I'd love for us to use this forum to share ways that indigenous media pieces are being used pedagogically. 


Through Navajo Eyes

Through Navajo Eyes

from Through Navajo Eyes (1966)
Creator: Sol Worth
Distributor: Sol Worth
Posted by Ethan Tussey