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Dir. Sydney Freeland, 2014
The title of the debut feature from Navajo transgender filmmaker Sydney Freeland refers to Gallup, New Mexico the Navajo Nation border town which in the 80s, became a symbol of the tragic toll alcoholism took on the Navajo community and by extension, to many in America the failure of Native American community. Freeland’s film, as the title suggests, hopes to present a different portrait of Gallup and a richer view of contemporary Navajo life. The film follows three young protagonists from each gender in the Dine worldview: female, male, and nadleeh (transgender), over the course of several days as their lives intersect. These include: Luther (aka Sickboy), who is trying to stay out of trouble for a weekend so that he can join the Army; Nizhoni, an adopted and soon-to-be college student visiting from Michigan trying to track down her birth parents without her adoptive parents’ knowledge; and Felixia, an aspiring model looking for acceptance, but placing herself into precarious situations by selling sex acts online.
Structurally, the film recalls the hyper-link narratives that reached peak popularity in the middle of the last decade. Such approach is understandable, as films like Syriana and Crash explored space, both metropolitan and cosmopolitan, by examining the weight of individual characters’ action onto the lives of other characters within the narrative. It’s a narrative way of examining space, and at the same time trying to collapse that space onto, and to view, individual action. However, to call this a Navajo Crash would seriously misrepresent the films’ tone.
The film, executive produced by Robert Redford, was part of the Sundance Institute, and does bear the marks of Indie film workshoping. I’m not sure why it is, but Sundance films tend to always include quirky side characters, rather abrupt tonal changes between comedy and drama, and deal with unconventional familial relationships. These are also often characteristics of Native literature and storytelling, but can be difficult to translate well into a coherent film, so often Native films from Sundance exhibit these traits in doses that are often difficult to take. While it does exhibit some workshop-itis, Freeland’s film manages to transcend its clunkier Indie-film tropes. More than anything, I was impressed with Freeland’s charitable style. The thumbnail plot description I provided above suggests a harsh, gritty film. And while that could have certainly worked, at the same time do we really need another bleak portrayal of Rez life? And at some point grittiness presented as realism can easily transition into exploitation. Instead, Freeland is more interested in showing vitality and life. That isn’t to say that she is naive to the struggles of her location or her characters, but instead focuses on resilience. While the plot recalls the traditional Native American literature homing plot, the alienated/lost Indian returning home to find themselves, her characters are not lost; they are all going places: Nizhoni to college, SickBoy, if not to the army to finally becoming an adult, and Felixia eventually to New York. The film asserts that while the Rez may be a difficult place, it is still home and that home has value; it is the strength gained at home from family that allows its characters’ progress. In some ways Freeland’s style reminded me of Wim Wender’s ’90’s and early ’00 films that may not have worked as a whole but had an attention given to the characters that made for outstanding moments that transcended the film. It may also have been because the film is beautifully shot.
Adding to her charity of place and character (though Nizhoni’s parents are the one exception to that), Freeland has a solid sense of humor. Hyperlink cinema is a deathly serious cinema: 21 Grams, Crash, Babel. But this at times a pretty funny film. Not only because of the centrality of humor to Native American survival, it would be news if a Native film didn’t have humor, but also because this hyperlink film recognizes what those others of its genre do not: that when lives intersect they don’t have to end in violence, but sometimes instead end up in really uncomfortable, or funny situations. There’s a moment in the film when Felixia asks her grandmother if she and another character are “Navajo cousins or cousins cousins.” One of the realities of Indian Country is that family lines are often, and sometimes uncomfortably, intertwined. Aside from a great joke and real observation, it perhaps speaks to the foundation of the film’s charitable outlook: like it or not they might be family.
It would be interesting to see a Transgender viewer’s opinion about this film because of the three storylines, I was surprised to find Felixia’s the most conventional, particularly her encounters with a mean girl High School classmate. The episode felt far too much like a sitcom, especially given the possible trauma of the situation. It could be a common situation that many first-time filmmakers find themselves in: it’s extremely difficult, and in some ways the problem of art, to find the balance between personal expression and reaching a more universal or larger audience, or between personal confession and serving narrative purpose. And while that storyline may have felt conventional to me, it does also have some of the film’s most resonant scenes, including one in which Felixia’s medicine man Grandfather relating the story of the Nadleeh to his granddaughter.
The film doesn’t always feel like a first feature film, which is higher praise than it sounds. And the ambition and goodwill that Freeland exhibits overcomes the films clunkier parts. In the end, it feels like the first film in what is hopefully a longer filmography from Freeland; Drunktown’s Finest is an extremely promising debut and a crucial addition to what is becoming an interesting Navajo cinema.