justin eagle gauthier | yl voice | feb. 2017
The complex cultural tapestry of both the Oglala Lakota and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation has never been fully portrayed to the outside world. There's only one way to begin to understand reservation life – to live there. Filmmaker Chloé Zhao spent substantial time learning this simple fact. Early in her experience at Pine Ridge, an elder told her she would gain trust if she put in the time living with the people. Zhao took this lesson to heart and spent many months over the next four years living on Pine Ridge while she filmed her vision of a fictional narrative story set within the community.
“Songs My Brothers Taught Me" is a fraught meditation on the lives of a young brother and sister. Zhao's decision to cast non-actors for the lead roles was a gamble, but John Reddy and Jashaun St. John both delivered moving and powerful performances in their respective roles. The film strives for authenticity and it achieves an impressive facsimile through its fictional narrative. Zhao utilizes a very documentarian feel in this project. It serves the story well and amps up the realism.
Though Zhao claims the sole writing credit, the dialect spoken in the film is so specific that it becomes apparent that her casting choices guided the finished product. Considering Zhao is an Asian-American filmmaker attempting a dramatic narrative-driven film in an indigenous community, the end product is outstanding. She managed great performances from non-actors and told a compelling tale.
It's also worth highlighting that cinematographer Joshua James Richards was gifted with one of the most stark and beautiful landscapes on the continent to film, and together he and Zhao made beautiful choices in capturing the cinematic potential of the Badlands.
In terms of originality, the film seems to be a genuine peek behind the curtain of reservation life for the uninitiated. Those familiar with or living in this lifestyle will recognize an all too sharp focus on the negative. Yes, there are moments of sublime beauty in this film, but Zhao falls too comfortably in line with many conventions of indigenous portrayal. Many of these conventions are truisms but audiences have seen these faults projected on screen before.
“Songs My Brothers Taught Me" should be experienced as a contemporary portrayal of reservation life, but I'm more interested in how it will be viewed retrospectively. Perhaps at a time when both the Oglala Lakota and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation have received their just cinematic due.
Menominee Tribal member Justin Eagle Gauthier has been featured in several literary journals. He is currently enrolled in the LoRez MFA program in creative writing studying screenwriting at the Institute of American Indian Arts.