A time capsule of Bunker Hill’s Native Americans

By Saul Austerlitz Special to The Times

THE GAP between a film’s completion and its theatrical premiere is subject to some fluctuation, but 47 years is an unusually long delay by any standard. Kent Mackenzie’s Los Angeles film “The Exiles,” about a night (“any night,” as Mackenzie described it) in the lives of young Native Americans living on downtown’s Bunker Hill, finished in 1960 and reaching theaters only next month, is the subject of the year’s most unlikely cinematic resurrection.

Inspired by a 1956 Harper’s magazine article about Native American life, Mackenzie, a graduate student in USC’s cinema department, sought to learn as much as possible about the subject. He visited reservations, met with tribal council members and began spending time with young Indians who lived in downtown Los Angeles -- moved from reservations to the city as part of the federal government’s relocation program. “He spent at least a year doing the research on the film before we ever shot, hanging out with people, talking with people, getting to know them,” says John Morrill, who worked with Mackenzie on the film.

Lounging at downtown bars such as the Ritz and the Columbine, Mackenzie got to know the people who would ultimately appear as actors in “The Exiles,” which opens Aug. 15 at UCLA’s Billy Wilder Theater, re-creating moments that Mackenzie had observed during his months with them. The director then recruited passionate fellow students from USC such as Morrill to assist in their deeply unusual film. “Horrified that we might learn to make films the way everyone else seemed to be making them,” Mackenzie wrote in a thesis he submitted to USC about the film, “almost in desperation we started on ‘The Exiles.’ ”


Shooting began in January 1958 on a shoestring budget of $539 -- the entirety of Mackenzie’s bank account. A full 8% of the budget went toward beer and wine for the cast, and the 35mm film stock they used was initially procured in the form of “short ends,” partial rolls of unexposed film left over from other shoots.

“We’d get maybe 100 feet of film on a roll sometimes, and that would be enough to take only one shot,” Morrill remembers. “Then we’d have to reload.” Full rolls of film were eventually purchased, but money was always scarce and shooting was constantly interrupted by lack of funds. National security also took a bite out of “The Exiles’ ” crew, with first Morrill and then his replacement, Erik Daarstad, getting drafted into the Army. The film took so long to wrap -- closing in 1960 -- that one of its stars, Yvonne Williams, who was pregnant when shooting began, had given birth to that child plus two others.

In his USC thesis, Mackenzie described “The Exiles” as “a three and one-half year odyssey of poverty, well-meaning advice, alternating indecision and faith, and miraculous donations of financial aid for a film that nobody ever felt would earn a nickel but ‘had to be finished.’ ”

For its rebirth, “The Exiles” has two die-hard cinéastes to thank: Thom Andersen and Dennis Doros. Andersen, who had seen the film at a UCLA screening in the 1960s, first dragged the picture out of the darkness in which it had languished by highlighting “The Exiles” in his own 2003 documentary, “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” as one of the greatest realist films ever made about the city and an antidote to the endless procession of misguided, simplistic L.A. movies. “It’s a precious film just for its documentary qualities,” Andersen says. Other filmmakers agree, emphasizing its Native American focus. “It’s a treasure, because if ... we didn’t have this movie that’s been unearthed, we wouldn’t have this piece of our history,” says Chris Eyre, director of “Smoke Signals.” “It’s that important.”

Andersen’s seal of approval provided the impetus for Doros and his film distribution company, Milestone, which last year rereleased Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep,” to look into bringing the film to the public with some restoration help from the UCLA Film and Television Archive.

Though Mackenzie had wanted to make “The Exiles” a realistic, documentary-like film, the limited capabilities of equipment in the late 1950s cut into that possibility. “We couldn’t shoot synchronous sound,” Morrill says. “We tried, we started out, but the equipment was too bulky.” Mackenzie and his colleagues sought to borrow the documentary styles of the 1930s and 1940s -- the florid anthropological studies of Robert Flaherty and the precise formal rigor of British filmmaker Humphrey Jennings -- and translate it into a realist version of fiction filmmaking. This meant using nonactors to play versions of themselves, using available light whenever possible and using voice-overs taken from audio interviews Mackenzie conducted with his performers.


‘A lost moment’

IN ITS final form, “The Exiles” is almost unbearably intimate, allowing us to ride along for a raucous night on the town while simultaneously peering into its deeply conflicted characters’ souls. “These are the people that existed before there was any pride in being Indian -- before there was any public love and romance in the way we know it now,” Eyre says. The stream-of-consciousness voice-overs by each of the film’s characters and an introduction designed around Edward Curtis’ famous photos of Native Americans add narrative coherence and a sense of history to an otherwise tightly restrained movie.

“The Exiles” is not only a movie about the interior lives of its characters; it is also, in a way, a film about the interior life of Los Angeles, a city much photographed and rarely captured. “I feel like it’s preserving more than a film,” says Ross Lipman, who oversaw UCLA’s restoration efforts. “It’s actually a document of a lost moment in Los Angeles’ history.”

Andersen seconds the notion of “Exiles’ ” lost L.A. “There’s a vitality of life that’s in ‘The Exiles,’ and people watching it today might have a sense that it’s something that’s disappeared. There’s a feeling about the possibility of a certain kind of freedom existing in the interstices of urban life that’s increasingly under threat. I think audiences today will feel that.”

“The Exiles” played colleges and festivals but never received a theatrical release, which Mackenzie and his colleagues had hoped for. Instead, the film vanished and Mackenzie moved on to other work, including the Oscar-winning short “Why Man Creates” (which he edited) and the documentary “Saturday Morning,” an intimate look at a teenagers’ weekend therapy retreat released by Columbia in 1971. “Whenever people saw it, they loved it, it got very good reviews,” says Gary Goldsmith, who produced “Saturday Morning.” “But it attracted no audience.”

Never particularly commercially oriented, Mackenzie drifted away from directing, disillusioned by his inability to get his pet projects off the ground and died in 1980 after a series of seizures, beginning in the mid-’70s, had worn down his health. “Saturday Morning” was his last film. “He wasn’t at all interested in whether or not the movies were commercial,” Goldsmith says. “He was interested in probing into the troubles of people who were living very difficult lives.”