Native Viewpoint SXSW films review: The Unknown Country, Long Line of Ladies and Big Water Summer
In my journalistic career as a film critic, I have never given all of the films in a single article three perfect tens.
There is a first time for everything.
I have been attending this year’s SXSW festival, and of special interest to those who appreciate content that showcases Native communities and Native storylines, SXSW delivered this year by showcasing three films which caught my eye and moved my heart.
The film titles are The Unknown Country, Long Line of Ladies and Big Water Summer, and they are shining beacons of light at this year’s SXSW.
When I review a film, I score based on how much I feel, how much emotion pours out of me toward the film and how much I think about it after I view it. All three of these films were incredible. They all gave me a lot to think about as well as incited a wide range of emotions and feelings.
Not only was I excited to be watching films with Native themes and storylines, I felt as if I was given gifts when I viewed them all.
Here is my score, summation, consensus or non-consensus with other Rotten Tomatoes critics and even a few predictions:
In my reviews, I give my score from 0 to 10 on a one point decimal scale. I feel I can be the most fair that way. As a film lover, I don’t give a lot of terrible reviews, because I appreciate the work that goes into them so much. That said, there are a few over the years that have garnered a “Rotten” on my Rotten Tomatoes critic page.
See related story: SXSW does a better job of Native representation in 2022: Here’s what’s happening
Here are my reviews:
The Unknown Country: 10/10
My one sentence summation: A beautiful film with a thoughtfully profound journey that slowly reveals itself. As a Native American critic, it is also an admittedly terrifying film considering the plight of MMIW.
Plot summary: An invitation to reunite with her estranged Oglala Lakota family launches a grieving young woman (Lily Gladstone) on an unexpected road trip from the Midwest toward the Texas-Mexico border. In this largely solitary journey with an unknown destination, Tana navigates the complex, post-2016 election social climate, and a natural landscape that is increasingly surreal. Along the way, she bonds with unexpected people that are as much a part of the landscape as the mountains and roads. At times at ease, at times on edge as a woman traveling alone, familiar faces and strangers shape her journey as she grapples with the pain of her recent loss and seeks to understand her place in the world.
My review: It didn’t take long for me to become completely immersed in this film which stars Lily Gladstone as Tana, who embarks on a traveling quest across winter highways in an attempt to connect with her family and her past.
There was so much to love about this film.
I think back to my years at San Francisco State University during a broadcasting class in which one of my instructors introduced me to the iconic media figure Marshall McCluan who was obsessed with media and the formulation of new ideas.
The Unknown Country introduces a unique style of storytelling that introduces new ideas and new ways of portraying a story via the medium of film. I’ve never seen it before. I learned about the intricate lives of random people, the richness of the stories they told were a beautiful aspect of this film.
I also loved the trajectory of the film’s journey. The film itself was a character, much In the same way Tana’s story tends to amble into new territories and new places that are unexpected, director Morrisa Maltz ventures off into a near documentary-style of filmmaking that caused me to wonder just what was reality and what was a story.
Along the way, Tana (Lily Gladstone) connects with her Oglala Lakota family — which to me was an incredibly beautiful aspect of the film. That said, inasmuch as it was wonderful, I also was faced with my own realities of life as a Native man whose own grandmother went to residential school, thus so much of my own Mohawk culture was never shared with me.
When Tana connects with elders in her family, as well as the amazing characters Jasmine and Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux, and Devin Shangreaux, I was moved to tears. When Tana connects with Grandpa August, portrayed by Richard Ray Whitman, I literally sobbed with the loss I have experienced in my own Native family.
There were so many beautiful moments. But there was also another narrative I came into contact with. Tana is traveling alone, hopping from motel to motel, to diner’s and small towns, consistently running into unknown strangers, and in respect to the film’s title, unknown country. As a Native journalist for over 17 years, who has reported on MMIW, MMIWG for so long, I often found myself terrified for Tana’s safety.
I realized that in many ways, having reported on so many stories, and told and reported on the plethora of families that have faced such agony and loss, that I do suffer as well with deep empathy for their incredible losses. Because I do have this empathetic post traumatic stress for the missing, and the murdered women and girls in Indian Country, I was terrifed for Tana’s welfare.
During SXSW, I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Lily Gladstone and Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux, so stay tuned for an interview in Native Viewpoint with these talented actresses.
Lily Gladstone IG post: https://www.instagram.com/p/CZfx8yupUEQ/
SXSW page: https://schedule.sxsw.com/2022/films/2053841
Long Line of Ladies 10/10
My one sentence summation: An incredibly heartfelt and familial rich film that respectfully showcases the traditions of a young Karuk community member transitioning to womanhood
Plot summary: A girl and her community prepare for her Ihuk, the once-dormant coming of age ceremony of the Karuk tribe of Northern California.
Long Line of Ladies is a stigma-breaking, female-directed short documentary that gives viewers a glimpse into the story of Ahty and the Karuk ceremony of Northern California. The documentary takes a significant step forward to normalize period conversations across genders by highlighting a culture that celebrates and uplifts its young women when they come of age.
Long Line of Ladies opens the door for more young girls and women to feel seen, respected, and included. The short film also amplifies the voices of supportive fathers, uncles, and grandfathers, who aren’t often seen speaking openly about menstruation in society, further breaking stigma across generations. Imagine if all cultures rallied around their young women to feel proud and empowered at this critical juncture in their development – we’d all be unstoppable!
My review: In my career as a journalist and film reviewer, I have seen quite a few films that showcase, tradiditions, ceremony and languages of Native people.
In the case of Long Line of Ladies, I perhaps have viewed the film I felt was most respectful and honorably done in the telling of the way a young Native community member makes the sacred transition to womanhood.
I was so impressed by the family bonds that were evident in this film. When thinking about something such as the completely natural female body’s cycle of menstruation, it is unfortunate to realize that historically, such things have been shunned — largely by religious institutions that have taught shame rather than normal human functions that take place during the transition of adolescence to adulthood.
Within this concept, is the incredibly unshameful way in which the young woman Ahty’s father honors and respects his daughter’s transition to adulthood.
I also marveled in the family and tribe’s honor to this cycle of life. Everyone collectively works to show their honor and respect to womanhood as well as give their full attention to the importance of the sacred feminine.
A sincerely, wonderfully breathtaking and beautiful film and tribute to women, aptly titled a Long Line of Ladies.
SXSW page: https://schedule.sxsw.com/2022/films/2054005
Big Water Summer: A Creation Story 10/10
My one sentence summation: I am immeasurably impressed by the amount of life, laughter and heartbreak packed so neatly into this short and delightful film
Plot summary: What can one person do to keep her community healthy?
Cherilyn Yazzie grew up on the Navajo Nation and after years of working in public health, she has returned to her ancestral land to grow produce for her community. As a social worker she tired of telling kids to eat healthy when that was often impossible: there are 13 grocery stores on the Navajo Nation, a reservation that is over 27,000 square miles.
Cherilyn and her husband are embarking on their biggest crop to date over a summer where nothing goes as planned. Faced with the chaos of a changing climate and devastating family loss, Cherilyn endures but will the farm survive?
My review: When I first saw a photograph of a smiling Cherilyn Yazzie, I expected a nice film, but I was even more impressed at just how much of a story the filmmaker Sophie Harris was able to pack into the storyline.
Cherilyn Yazzie, the driving force behind Coffee Pot Farms, is an energetic delight to watch on film. She is gregarious and fun, and her laugh is incredibly infectious. As the story progressed, I experienced a whirlwind of emotions, particularly the relationship with her father.
I wept with a smile during the story, and felt excited and proud for her resilience as a Native woman, as well as appreciation for the support of her husband.
Cherilyn’s strength is the backbone of this film, and filmmaker Sopihe Harris did a wonderful job in portraying how Native people and Native communities, no matter how much the cards might be stacked up against them, still press on to survive, thrive and ultimately fight to beat the odds.
Filmmaker Sophie Harris told Native Viewpoint she wished to express a special thanks that her film was presented by GoDaddy.
SXSW page: https://schedule.sxsw.com/2022/films/2054051
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Vincent Schilling, Akwesasne Mohawk, is the founder and editor of Native Viewpoint. With over 16 years of experience as a Native journalist and former member of the White House Press Pool. Follow Vincent on Twitter at @VinceSchilling or on any other of his social media accounts by clicking on any of the icons below.
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