Examining Complex American Indian Culture

Times Staff Writer

The Native American Film and Video Festival, presented by the UCLA Film and Television Archives in Melnitz Theater, Thursday through Sunday, offers a comprehensive view of the lives and culture of American Indians, their aspirations and the complex challenges facing them.

Arlene Bowman’s unsparingly honest 40-minute “Navajo Talking Picture” (1986) launches the festival Thursday at 7:30 p.m. with a study of an American Indian documentarian encountering unexpected difficulties in trying to film her elegant Navajo grandmother as she goes about her daily life, weaving rugs in her remote, simple home to supplement her Social Security checks.

To begin with, Bowman speaks no Navajo and her grandmother no English, so it’s not until she finds someone to translate for her that she learns her grandmother resents being filmed because it goes against her beliefs. Bowman, rather than her grandmother, becomes the subject of her own film, and “Navajo Talking Picture” is really about Bowman’s discovery of how little she knows or understands about her ancestral culture.


Chris Spotted Eagle’s 10-minute “Do Indians Shave?” (1972), screening Saturday, reveals good-humoredly how little the participants of a Manhattan Easter Parade, average Americans all, know about American Indians.

Sandra Sunrising Osawa’s 27-minute video “In the Heart of Big Mountain” (1988) cuts to the heart of the tragic consequences of the attempt to relocate Navajos from their sacred lands so ripe for energy development projects. Osawa focuses on three generations of women. At the center of the film is a handsome older woman, one of the few tribal elders fluent in English, who speaks of her determination to resist relocation. In the course of the film, we learn that her own mother died only recently, shortly after she had witnessed the bulldozing of a tree she apparently had held sacred all her life. By the end of the film, the tribal elder’s middle-aged daughter will also have died of a cerebral hemorrhage, but not before telling us that relocation (to a new $100,000 tract home with every modern convenience) has ruined her, that she longs to be near the site where she was born.

Other films and videos deal with tribal religions, myths, stories and songs and stress the importance of preserving oral traditions. On a positive note, Larry Cesspooch’s 20-minute video “Red Dawn” introduces us to Luke Duncan, a Ute telephone lineman who has managed to respect his native culture while finding pride in a mainstream job.

Of special interest to silent film buffs is the Sunday 5 p.m. screening of “The Vanishing American” (1925), starring Richard Dix in a Zane Grey story.

For full schedule: (213) 206-FILM, 206-8013.

The Films of Werner Schroeter, another UCLA Film Archives series, offers an all-too-rare opportunity to see the work of the least commercial film maker of the New German Cinema. It begins tonight at 8 with “The Kingdom of Naples” (1978), unavailable since its Filmex ’79 showing. A prodigious work of the imagination, as awesome as it is demanding, it expresses the unending misery and exploitation of Naples’ wretched poor, as exemplified by a brother and sister whom we see mature in the postwar decades.

Schroeter’s intensely operatic style becomes a way of illuminating profound social, political and moral concerns and of embracing a large and vivid spectrum of humanity.