I attended the US premiere of "Shana: The Wolf's Music," and I don't think I've ever looked at my watch that many times during a film. Not just because the pacing is uneven and ultimately draining, but the stereotypes are debilitating. The film is rife with Noble Savage tropes, which can be as dehumanizing as the demonized images of Natives I’m sure that they knew well enough to avoid.

 

We are presented with a laundry list of clichés:

  • Commune with spirits in a Hallmark Production SFX fashion? Check.
  • Drunken dad? Check.
  • Dead mother? Check.
  • Ghost mother who can be seen and talked to only by the drunken dad? Hey, why not? In fact, let's give her no lines at all.
  • Didactic character who speaks in sentences beginning with "Our people"? Of course.
  • Grandmother spirit who gets all Mr. Miyagi with the protagonist? Check.
  • Animal messengers? Oh boy, you know it!

 

It's all here. I mean, if you wanted to play stereotype bingo, you better make it a blackout, because otherwise the game would be over too fast.

 

I guess I failed to notice that it was based on a Swiss novel (the original title translates as "Shana, the Wolf Maiden," published in 2000), so I was unprepared for this kind of off-key representation. Its author, Federica de Cesco, served on the board of the Lakota Foundation, which funds (or funded, I’ve heard from locals that the school either shut down or never actually started up) a Waldorf School on the Pine Ridge Reservation, and has “booster” clubs in Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands. This may explain the prevalence of Plains-style, panindian flourishes in the story, even though the book itself takes place near Vancouver where the film was shot. The book, according to the film makers, is “beloved” in Switzerland, and is assigned to Swiss school children, who also have viewed the film in classes.

 

I can understand enough of the handwritten reviews posted at shanafilm.com to note that Swiss schoolchildren appreciated there being “real Indians” in the cast, and that they liked the film’s “authenticity.” Casting representation is important, and while I appreciate the commitment to hiring Native actors, this film is not for Native people. Clearly, this film (and seemingly the novel upon which it is based) serves the interests of non-Native audience members first and foremost, especially the need to adhere to stereotype so as to appear authentic. I say this flatly, even if it offers a few crumbs of Indigenous relevancy here and there.

 

I do not know if these small touches are in the novel. The film mentions that Canadian residential school staff abused kids who spoke their Indigenous languages, and the new school teacher models the importance of learning the home language. She even has to counter resistance from her students, some of whom are dismissive of their own language. However, we do not see any actual conversation in the language. Instead the language is relegated to the classroom, ceremony, or the spirit world. This undermines the stated importance of Native language, and instead transforms Native language into an aesthetic expression rather than a communicative one.

 

Shana also expresses her ambivalence over playing the violin in terms of cultural alienation. She says things like “Whoever heard of an Indian playing violin?” and “There’s no place in the world for a violin playing Indian.” These lines may have been an attempt to unsettle ideas about the fixity of tradition, but they make little sense, since she learned how to play from her mother while living in the community, since several community members express their admiration for their musical ability, and especially since there are flashbacks shown of Shana and her mother playing violin at community events—in ceremonial dresses, no less. They and their talents were highly valued, and built in to the social and cultural fabric of their community.

 

Ultimately, the story celebrates assimilation and the outright letting go and leaving behind of traditional ways. And in this case, leaving behind connections to family—Shana is warned at several points that she has to move on from her mother’s death, and ends up leaving her dad and home to attend a music school “in the city.” This is the same old absolutist binary of rez versus urban, and indirectly Indian versus White.

 

Once again we are treated to a story of a young person who goes through tragedy, alienation, and loss but finds enough mystical solace to rise above her circumstances and find success off the rez. Apparently the only connections necessary to maintain our Indigenous identities are mystical, so we should feel free to leave our lands and families.

 

Oh, and bonus points for trying to say that education has replaced the buffalo as the key to "our people's" survival. Especially with the story being set in the Northwest (and partially shot on Vancouver Island). Newsflash: buffalo didn’t come here, and not every Indigenous culture of North America reveres buffalo.

 

This film is so old-school Vanishing Race™ romanticism that I was almost shocked. Worse still, it screened at the children's film festival and thereby instilled this goofy mentality further into the popular imagination. Non-natives were happily engaged during the film and the Q&A while, for example, my kid was facepalming and eyerolling more often than I was checking the time. She was especially irritated at the producer's glowing commentary on how "interested" and "appreciative" German audiences are of Indigenous stories and cultures, because she had some experiences dealing with exactly that "appreciation" on her travels to Europe. It wasn’t “cool” as the producer insisted; in fact, my daughter found it downright creepy. Yes, there were some German accents represented in the audience, and one child sitting behind me lamented twice that the film itself wasn’t in German. I guess, despite all that I have pointed out in this review, he still felt that the story wasn’t serving his own interests enough.

 

I know how that kid feels. This movie wasn’t made for me, my family, or my community, either.

 

But hey, at least I didn't hear any eagle screams or cedar flutes. And I was glad that it was a coming of age film not centered on a boy. But then again, it may as well have been. The Shana universe was apparently completely desexualized (all couplings represented were already over through death or divorce) and aromantic (outside of its elegism and noble savage tropes, that is).

 

The film makers did partner with the Lower Nicola Indian Band near Merritt, BC, and has a local cast of almost all first time actors. I regret not asking about the relationship between the production and the community. I did hear that the director (Nino Jacusso, an Italian who lives in Switzerland) lived in the community for four months. There were personal touches to the sets. For example, on Shana’s wall hung a piece of artwork that was signed “Sunshine,” the actor’s real name. Sunshine’s brother, who also attended the premiere along with their mother, indicated that the set designer took a lot of stuff from their family home to dress the set.

 

I hope that the cast was more than this sort of set dressing.

 

I was left wondering what impact the community connection had on the script. There were touches on real issues, but they were just floated out there, lacking impact and never really dealt with, or (like the importance of language) outright contradicted elsewhere in the film.

 

I was also curious about the wardrobe. The grandmother spirit, for example, appeared to fit the regional style, and she looked great. The translucent, glowy ancestor spirits that danced with Shana also looked appropriately adorned. But I am wondering about the ceremonial dresses of the main character and her mother, which appeared to be the standard-issue buckskin and fringe, with symbols in red on them that looked like they came from a Boy Scout manual. The moccasins looked woodlands style, and the construction of them overall looked more like costume than regalia. I can understand if the community wouldn’t want actual ceremonial dress, or even the appearance such, to appear on film, but comparison between Shana’s and her mother’s dresses and the spirits’ dresses shows a mismatch that could be read as a decline in tradition or some other disjuncture. It seems more likely that the buckskin dresses were brought by the European crew, while the other regalia may have been locally acquired or designed.

 

So while there were some local touches here and there, the production could have partnered with any tribe anywhere with no real impact on the film’s plot. It certainly didn't disturb the use of plains-style panindian clichés as a part of the story—especially the nonsensical bookending of the plot with the metaphor of education being “the new buffalo for the people.”

 

They say that “the Indian uses every part of the buffalo.” I know plenty of highly educated Natives, and not one of them uses every part of their education. Mainstream education, and especially Western higher education, is a mixed bag ranging from the useful to the destructive. Most of it is secularized and individualistic. Much of it is unabashedly White supremacist. Once we notice these features of education, it becomes impossible to compare it to the ongoing relationships that (not all) Indians have to the buffalo.

 

While I would never seriously suggest that a film crew use every part of a community, I think that this film would have been better with deeper involvement in the script by LNIB members. As it is, the level of community engagement seemed to have only minor impact on the film. Instead, the film largely holds steadfast to preconceived ideas about “Indians.”

 

And that is disappointing.

 

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0 #1 Tal Connor 2015-05-04 12:50
Thank you so much for the lengthy review. Your writing helped me understand exactly what to expect from this film. I was looking for a review before recommending this film to one of my young students who plays the violin. It's unfortunate that perspectives into issues such as these are not yet popularly circulating or being explored in classrooms. I, for one, am doing my best to teach my students to embrace their social skills, empathy, instincts, critical thinking, creativity, and curiosity - some of the most important parts of education.
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