Consuming Native Images: a reflective analysis and case study
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The story I choose to tell here is one of many tied to a documentary project in Southeast Alaska. Carved from the Heart: a portrait of grief, healing and community is a film that touches on multiple issues-substance abuse, suicide, domestic violence and community healing to name a few. That I choose race and identity as the central themes of this paper stems mainly from the fact that it was the story that spoke to me as I watched the film and observed viewer response. Far from being the only response i witnessed, it became my focus because I felt it served as a method of dealing with the images presented before me and making sense of the story captured on screen. My narrative is broken into four sections. The first of these speaks to identity and calls into question current conceptions of multiculturalism. While early documentary films hid behind anthropology, using its methodology to create a discourse that moved their objectified Other from the realm of entertainment to that of research, current documentary films tend to cloak themselves in the discourse of multiculturalim. Though ultimately similar to these earlier "research-based" films in terms of how they convey meaning and construct identity, the move from a scientific to social discourse carries with it several implications. By drawing on multiculturalism, documentary expands its potential market. At the same time, it becomes subject to the demands multiculturalism currently presents, namely the desire to smooth differences and suppress tension in a world where the status quo remains unchanged. In our world of shifting and increasingly intersecting identities, the white, male, anglo, heterosexual represents a growing minority (numerically), yet his culture continues to alienate those who do not (or cannot) conform to its demands. Multiculturalim, as it is currently Conceived, does little to confront this continued oppression. Rather, it merely creates new structures that serve to reinstate old legacies the (constructed) presentation of dominant culture as norm, the creation of a (constructed) essencialized Other-performer, and the ability to capitalize on these two constructions-only this time in a manner that the Other now self enforces, splitting into factions as we stumble toward an empowerment that proves too limited for claims on true equality. Acting in the interest of a dominant culture that maintains its power through anonymity and exclusivity, we deny ourselves that same empowerment, which can only come through the freedom to choose and define group membership in a world where identities are not mutually exclusive nor entirely static. In the move from scientific to social, documentary film loses little in the way of legitimacy. Already, it has solidified and worked to reinforce its own discourse, at times even usurping the power of those discourses (cinematic and anthropological) that worked to create it. Through drawing on these two discourses and subsequently moving away from them (thus loosening their accompanying restraints), documentary gains momentum as a political force. Yet, as a society, are we ready to critically assess truth when it presents itself (visually) on the television monitor or cinema screen? Jaded academies would lament, Can we distinguish truth from fiction in this new format? Outside the packaging, is there enough substance to make a critical argument, let alone be critical of the argument made? Certainly, these questions lie open to argument. However, more importantly, we must ask ourselves, Do we have the skills to recognize the way film manipulates in its effort to pass fact for truth, if and when it does present an argument? Visual texts, like any other (written or oral), do make arguments, in the sense that they conjure a reaction and/ or leave with us images that we may draw upon in the future, regardless of what (lack of) evidence they may present initially. How do. we attempt to understand and critically address these sounds and images as they move through space? Where do we position ourselves in relation to the filmmaker and the subject captured on screen? What are our respective roles and responsibilities as viewers and writers-to ourselves, to each other, to the story being told? These are the questions I address in section two. In section three, I attempt to historically contextualize substance abuse and violence within the Native community, drawing on Native writers struggling to break genocidal silences and shatter myths that construct such problems under simply a moralistic framework. Often, when viewing a documentary film we ask, Is it a true story, does this image represent what really happened? In some senses, this is the question I am attempting to address here. At the same time, my hope is that having explored the issues presented in section two, this question will assume a secondary position to What does this mean if I believe it? What can this story say? What world can it create? Narratives are powerful, there would be no need to apologize for evoking their presence if they were not. In creating a vision of the world, however brief or two-dimensional, the storyteller evokes as much through his/her words as s/he does through his/her silences. S/he asks us to put faith in his/her understanding of things as they are and as they should be and, through doing so, to lend the meanings s/he has created power-to hurt, to heal, to guide, to lead astray. The power of a story, however, relies on our belief in it. It is our acceptance of texts (through words or silence) that encourages others to believe (or remain silent), that lends power or denies it, so that those who follow us can know the truth as we choose it. In section three, I ask that you attempt to re-envision the story presented in Carved from the Heart from a Native-centric perspective, to recognize an experience with alcohol and violence in Native communities as being unique and embedded in a historical experience with colonialism and genocide. I ask that you think about the story presented, contextualized in this experience and ask yourself how the story needs to be told for the people it is told about. Then, I ask that you step back and imagine you no longer have that context. What would this film say to you? In what ways would the story be the same/different? How does it construct the world/what understandings does it ask you to share? These are the questions I attempt to address in section four through examination of viewer response at screenings in Alaska and my own interpretations of the images presented. Together, these four sections represent an exploration of the many questions I grappled with during my time in Sitka, Alaska. In some ways, it is only a narrative on top of a narrative on top of a narrative and, in this way, it becomes difficult to distinguish which stories belong to whom. These people, who were there, what did they think before their story was told back to them? Whose reality is this, where does it begin and end, how does it change as it moves from mouth through eye to hand through eye and mouth again? In this process, where do 1 find myself and how do I see my other, with whom I now share this story? With this in mind, the narrative is set in motion, though the reader must forgive me if I forget where one story ends and the next begins.