Navajo Talking Picture: Cinema on Native Ground

By Randolph Lewis | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

“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.”1 Some reviewers commented on the positive qualities of the

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Navajo Talking Picture: Cinema on Native Ground
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Indicenous Films ii
  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Illustrations viii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Series Editor’s Introduction xiii
  • Introduction xvii
  • Chapter One- A Brief History of Celluloid Navajos 1
  • Chapter Two- Navajo Filmmaker 49
  • Chapter Three- Reaction 72
  • Chapter Four- Intent 88
  • Chapter Five- Ethics 105
  • Chapter Six- Native Ground 124
  • Chapter Seven- Final Thoughts 161
  • Navajo Talking Picture Production and Distribution Information 175
  • Notes 177
  • Further Reading 209
  • Index 211
  • In the Indicenous Films Series 216
  • Other Works by Randolph Lewis 217
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