Navajo Talking Picture: Cinema on Native Ground

Navajo Talking Picture: Cinema on Native Ground

Navajo Talking Picture: Cinema on Native Ground

Navajo Talking Picture: Cinema on Native Ground

Synopsis

Navajo Talking Picture, released in 1985, is one of the earliest and most controversial works of Native cinema. It is a documentary by Los Angeles filmmaker Arlene Bowman, who travels to the Navajo reservation to record the traditional ways of her grandmother in order to understand her own cultural heritage. For reasons that have often confused viewers, the filmmaker persists despite her traditional grandmother's forceful objections to the apparent invasion of her privacy. What emerges is a strange and thought-provoking work that abruptly calls into question the issue of insider versus outsider and other assumptions that have obscured the complexities of Native art. Randolph Lewis offers an insightful introduction and analysis of Navajo Talking Picture, in which he shows that it is not simply the first Navajo-produced film but also a path-breaking work in the history of indigenous media in the United States. Placing the film in a number of revealing contexts, including the long history of Navajo people working in Hollywood, the ethics of documentary filmmaking, and the often problematic reception of Native art, Lewis explores the tensions and mysteries hidden in this unsettling but fascinating film.

Excerpt

“Could you ask her why she thinks I’m using her?” in a darkened room in a dusty hogan on the Navajo reservation in northern Arizona, Arlene Bowman, a young Navajo filmmaker, is working with an inexperienced translator to make her grandmother understand the question. More than language divides the two women on this day in the early 1980s. Young and urbane, Bowman is one of the first Native women in the film studies graduate program at ucla. Her grandmother, Ann Ruth Biah, is a traditional woman accustomed to life without electricity and other conveniences, and she does not want a camera crew hounding her while she prepares dinner. Taking turns in the shadows of the poorly lit kitchen, the two women seem to look past each other until finally, after the translation process lumbers forward and shades of meaning seem to disappear between the generations, the grandmother answers her persistent granddaughter. “I don’t like it,” she blurts out in Navajo, referring to the film production with a bitterness that transcends linguistic difference. She describes the cultural prohibitions against such “picture taking” among older Navajos such as herself and then turns to the translator, not her granddaughter, and says, “I don’t know why she keeps bothering me with this.” Not even ten minutes into the film, the audience might be inclined to ask the same question.

Almost thirty years after she first pointed a camera at her traditional Navajo grandmother, Arlene Bowman’s Navajo Talking Picture remains a provocative and unsettling work of nonfiction cinema. Even today, tempers flare when film festival audiences have a chance to watch Bowman’s relentless pursuit of her grandmother. the filmmaker is well aware that audiences have a passionate response to the film: “Camps are set up,” she says. “Some people become hostile and shout at one another. But I’ve been told that when a movie creates a lot of emotion, it is a sign of a good film.” Some reviewers commented on the positive qualities of the . . .

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