Usually, when established artists place their names on another work, their involvement in its release is somewhat arbitrary (see “Quentin Tarantino Presents,” for example). The purpose of Charles Burnett and Sherman Alexie presenting Milestone Films‘ re-release of “The Exiles,” however, has a stronger reasoning that’s both practical and profound. Last year, Milestone released Burnett’s great unheralded classic “Killer of Sheep,” a 1977 film that deals with race issues not unlike the ones at the core of “The Exiles.” Alexie, an established Seattle-based writer and poet with a few films to his name, focuses exclusively on issues facing modern Native Americans, which “The Exiles,” although completed in 1961, amazingly does as well.
One of only two features directed by the late Kent Mackenzie, “The Exiles” follows a handful of young American Indians (basically playing themselves) over the course of fourteen hours in Los Angeles. Struggling with city living after leaving reservations where life seemed unsustainable, this diverse bunch of excitable characters find themselves oddly out of place. In one scene, a character puts on his best James Dean, looking slick in a leather jacket and bouncing around to the blues at a local bar (the original soundtrack was provided by The Revels); later, his penchant for rhythm and motion is directly applied to his cultural roots.
This unspoken grasping for balance haunts the movie, which favors near-verite observation over simple conflict-resolution. Despite getting neglected over the years, “The Exiles” surely deserves a place in the history of American independents alongside John Cassavettes‘ “Shadows,” but its cautious depiction of a situation rarely reported even today gives it a permanence that has held up over the decades. Burnett and Alexie got on the phone with indieWIRE to talk about some of issues raised by the film, its similarities to “Killer of Sheep” and how the current release fits with the rest of the modern film community. “The Exiles” opens at the IFC Center in New York City on Friday.
indieWIRELike “Killer of Sheep,” “The Exiles” never received a proper theatrical release. When did the two of you first encounter it?
Charles Burnett: It was during the time Thom Andersen was doing “Los Angeles Plays Itself” (in 2003). He said, “You must see this film.” So I saw it and I was really taken by it. Sometime later, Dennis (Doros) picked it up. Every time I see it, it’s a moving thing for me.
Sherman Alexie: I saw it about ten years ago at U-Mass Boston. I gave a reading there, and a teacher mentioned that he was going to be screening the film the next day in one of his classes. So I went and was stunned by it. I mean, I had no idea it existed. I did research on it — there’s very little out there — but looking on the Internet, I found the sparest amount of information about Kent Mackenzie. It wasn’t until a couple years after that I learned he was actually dead. I got a copy of the movie of the professor that I watched every few months. I think it’s a vital film.
Charles, “Killer of Sheep” and “The Exiles” share the concerns of impoverished minority groups. Did that common theme resonate with you?
CB: Yeah, actually, it’s strange. After I had read about (Mackenzie) a bit, I found that he was affected by the filmmakers I had been affected by. We came to the same sort of view of making films. It was quite surprising to me. He was ten years ahead of me. I started in the late sixties and he started in the late fifties. He had already worked out his aesthetics, but I have only heard about him recently. It’s too bad he wasn’t known. I think it would have saved all of us a lot of experimenting.
iW: It’s a reminder that our perception of film history is constantly changing.
CB: Absolutely. I think Ross Lippman (of the UCLA Film Archive) plays such an important role in giving us the right context. It would have been a shame if this film hadn’t been discovered. I enjoy watching it over and over again.
iW: Sherman, you directed “The Business of Fancydancing” in 2002 and scripted “Smoke Signals” in 1998. Both films prominently feature Native American characters. Did your appreciation for ‘The Exiles’ impact your filmmaking?
SA: A little bit. The thing to remember is that Mackenzie was making a film based on other people. My art is based on me and the people I know. He was still an outsider. Certainly, one of the great things about the film is that it’s about urban Indians. Much of my written work is about the urban experience. Indian artists have been doing very little with that. We’re very reservation-centric. The fact that a film from the 1950s is urban, while we have failed to do that much ourselves, is very interesting.
iW: Why is that?
SA: I think it’s the idea — the misconception — that reservations are more authentic. When you’re talking about Native artists, by and large, you’re talking about people who never lived on the res, or left the res. We use our art to feel more connected to the tribe. It seems the way we do it is by writing about the res. I think the art has always been trying to find an identity, rather than writing about the identity it actually has.
iW: Mackenzie insisted on calling his film a documentary, because he cast locals and used their real interviews as voiceovers in the film. Do you think this label still works when describing the work?
CB: We had this debate about Robert Flaherty and his films, “The Louisiana Story,” “Nanook of the North” and all of that. All of those were reconstructive, based on what he observed. He recreated what people were going through. It wasn’t necessarily to entertain; the mission was to inform. All those elements lend themselves to documentary more than fiction.
iW: Would you call “Killer of Sheep” a documentary for the same reason?
CB: Well, I tried to do the same thing. I wanted it to look like a documentary. I’m very much aware that it was a written story, scripted and things like that. It was based on things I observed. I tried not to put my particular point of view in there, in terms of how I would resolve things. I wanted to set the camera up in the community it was shot. But people can argue if I say it’s a documentary and I have no defense. I just wanted it to look like a documentary.
iW: Sherman, do you think “The Exiles” avoids the common American Indian stereotypes?
SA: Yeah, nobody has any magical spiritual powers. They’re just regular folks. They could have come out of a John Cassavettes movie. That’s one of the revelations of the film. It seems so funny to me to be talking about revelations in a film that’s forty years old. I think one of the issues is that for many of the filmmakers, because we have so few opportunities, we try to shoehorn every possible message imaginable. In film, we don’t get that many chances, so we end up making everything into a political document rather than an artistic film about people’s lives. We’re obsessed with politics. As an outsider, Mackenzie wasn’t as obsessed with it. In that regard, being an outsider probably helped him.
CB: I think it’s a question worth asking, because we asked ourselves that question in the sixties when trying to determine what a black was. Also, there’s a great film called “Nothing But a Man” (directed by Michael Roemer, who was born in Germany). You can’t argue that that’s not a really good film. It certainly expresses, as some of the best black films, the black community. You have to look at that with an asterisk and place it somewhere very high up. I think we have the same problems. I take my cues from Sherman Alexie, and people like that, and he really likes (“The Exiles”) and finds it informative. You’re always going to get arguments, but what you can say is that it called my attention to issues of Native Americans in many ways.
iW: Does “The Exiles” have the potential to reach new audiences like “Killer of Sheep” did?
CB: It was made as a student film, not for theatrical release. I never bothered with the rights and that was it. People had interest in distributing it earlier in the game but they were intimidated by the rights. When Milestone came about, they were passionate about getting it out. It takes people with a certain know-how. This film certainly deserves to have people see it. It will alter people’s awareness of the issues in the American Indian population.
iW: Did “Killer of Sheep” have that impact on the African American population?
CB: When it was made, it was part of a social change thing, where people were talking about issues and you wanted to make a film where you look at it and say, “How can I do something?” That was the purpose of the film. Now, some of these issues exist, but probably even more so. When I look at “Killer of Sheep,” there’s a certain kind of innocence, almost nostalgia.
iW: It’s now commonplace to report that the marketplace for independent film is too crowded, but the slow progress of films like “The Exiles” and “Killer of Sheep” shows that it has always been hard to release certain films.
CB: I think it’s harder now. There were art houses and people had a more affinity for understanding film culture. I remember when a Fellini, Kurosawa and Bergman were out there, we were waiting for them the way people waited to see “Iron Man.” At some point in the eighties and nineties, it started to drop off. The whole institution of making films changed.
SA: Hollywood makes video games now. The really interesting films Hollywood used to make, the independents are making now, which are pushing out the smaller pictures, which don’t get made or distributed. These resurrections are a natural reaction to the mainstreaming of Hollywood. I went to see “Hancock” this weekend. Oh my god, it’s awful. The best stuff being made now is on TV. “Mad Men” really illuminates the complicated lives we haven’t seen about the 1950s. In a weird way, this little film about Indians in Los Angeles says a lot more about the country than “Hancock.”