On March 11th The Walker Art Center hosted the Twin Cities premiere of Chloe Zhao’s debut feature, “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” a quiet story set against the backdrop of Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The film tightly follows the tender relationship of eleven-year-old Jashaun Winters (Jashaun St. John) and her older brother Johnny (John Reddy). In the wake of the death of their estranged, bull-riding father, Johnny’s secret plan to leave the reservation for Los Angeles with his girlfriend becomes more attainable. He buys his late father’s truck and his situation becomes more violent as his side-job of bootlegging alcohol reaches an impasse. For all of the reasons he needs to leave, leaving Jashaun looms as an increasingly cruel intent.
“Songs My Brothers Taught Me” is subtile storytelling told through portraiture. Although the story opens and ends with Johnny’s first-person voice over, the story is demonstrative and shown, not told. There are no overt explanation that alcohol is illegal on Pine Ridge, Johnny is warned about “the protests” and Johnny is beaten, but Zhao isn’t interceding and offering up a textbook history lesson for her characters’ situation. The story doesn’t take on the responsibility of educating white people. This is an important and surprising nuance of the film. So many films that focus a lens on reservation life are in the business of offering up explanations and elucidating Natives for an outsider’s eye. That is because many films about Native people are usually made for a non-Native market.
In 2002 Native Amerian director Chris Eyre pointed out a big problem with Natives on film. Native people rented movies but often didn’t have access to theaters on many reservations. He premiered his film “Skins” at Pine Ridge from a mobile theater that sat one hundred people in a semi-truck as part of the film’s “Rolling Rez Tour.” Eyre had filmed “Skins” entirely on Pine Ridge and wanted to make sure the people could see his film first… for free. Although many films have been made on or about Pine Ridge, the Lakota community there had no theater until 2012 when the Nunpa Theatre (nunpa means two in Lakota) was opened. A small victory resides in the fact that “Song My Brothers Taught Me” is showing at Nunpa Theatre in the community where it was produced.
The film also features some very insightful, nuanced perspectives that no-doubt reflect on Zhao’s capacity for quickly adapting to communities. Her work has been compared to Terrence Malick for its pacing, quietness and beauty. But, unlike Malick, who directed The New World (2005) a film about John Smith and Pocahontas, Zhao created a contemporary portrait, a deeply thoughtful film that doesn’t perpetuate the idea that Native people belong to a romantic, idealized past, but that we belong, create and thrive today.
Much of the story relies on characters teetering on the edged of two states. Irene Bedard, the voice of Disney’s Pocahontas who also played Pocahontas’ mother in Malick’s The New World, plays the role of Lisa Winters, the repentant alcoholic mother of Johnny and Jashaun. Lisa seeks redemption in church looking for a heavenly father for her fatherless children, while Johnny and Jashaun walk the cathedrals of the Black Hills. The landscape is a character in this film, the tight framing on the characters faces in interior spaces is opened up in the instances where the landscape floods in. This also seems Malick-esque.
Another angle to the inside/outside community element of this film’s production is that the director, Chloé Zhao is Chinese-American filmmaker who immigrated to the United States by herself when she was fourteen years old. She spent four years making Songs My Brothers Taught Me and adapting to the community. Many directors hop from community to community seeing places as slates for films, yet not being fully vested in any one community. Zhao’s next film may be telling as to what themes and patterns she establishes over her career, and I look forward to seeing where she goes from here.