Winter 2010 Documentary series
Wednesday, March 31, 2010 at 7:00pm
Directed by Neil Diamond, Catherine Bainbridge
Screenplay by Neil Diamond, Catherine Bainbridge
Starring Adam Beach, R. Michael David, Clint Eastwood, Charlie Hill, Sacheen Littlefeather, Russell Means, John Trudell
Rated PG ·
See below for details on Qallunaat: Why White People Are Funny
For decades, Aboriginal people were frequently represented in Hollywood films, but these depictions were almost always deeply negative and wildly inaccurate. Worse still, as the feature documentary Reel Injun carefully observes, this screen presence had a very real impact on Aboriginal people and on non-Aboriginal people’s ideas of who they were.
Director Neil Diamond takes us on a highly entertaining road journey in which he interviews a broad range of Native actors, directors, writers, journalists and stand-up comics as they discuss how these negative representations affected their own self-image and how key positive images inspired them. Adam Beach and Clint Eastwood talk about Beach’s critically acclaimed performance as an alcoholic war veteran in Flags of Our Fathers. Wes Studi, one of the busiest Aboriginal actors in America, discusses the landmark casting of Chief Dan George in Little Big Man. Reel Injun also features a revealing interview with Sacheen Littlefeather, the Native actress who attended the Academy Award ceremony in 1973 on behalf of Marlon Brando, who declined his Godfather win to protest discrimination against Aboriginal people by the film industry and the American government. Littlefeather recounts a disturbing anecdote telling how several people had to hold John Wayne back from dragging her offstage, so infuriated was he by her speech and Brando’s statement. And one of TIFF’s own programmers, CBC radio personality Jesse Wente, offers his perspective on Aboriginal screen history.
But Reel Injun is much more than a litany of directors’ mistakes and Hollywood insensitivity. Diamond features footage of films authored by Aboriginal people around the world, including Once Were Warriors, Whale Rider and Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. As The Celluloid Closet did for gays and lesbians and Hollywood Chinese did for Asians, Reel Injun illustrates how complex a minority group’s relationship to the big screen can be. What emerges is an intricate, emotional trip that ends optimistically, with Aboriginal people finally able to tell their own stories in their own languages. For all of the sorrow, Diamond sees good reason for hope, depicting a varied group of filmmakers who have ultimately found their distinct voice onscreen.
Qallunaat: Why White People Are Funny is a humbling portrait of what it must feel like to be the object of the white man’s gaze. Fresh and orginal, this documentary has that rare ability to educate with wit.
What’s so funny about white people, otherwise known as Qallunaat to the Inuit? Well, among other curious behaviours, Qallunaat ritualistically greet each other with inane salutations, repress natural bodily functions, complain a lot about being cold and seem to want to dominate the world.
This docucomedy is a collaboration between filmmaker Mark Sandiford and Inuit writer and satirist Zebedee Nungak. Zebedee is CEO and head researcher of the mythical Qallunaat Studies Institute (QSI). According to Nungak, “Qallunaat ought to be the object of some kind of study by other cultures. The more I thought about the way they have studied us over the years it occurred to me, why don’t we study them?”
In its use of archival clips, Why White People Are Funny pokes as much fun at the illustrious history of NFB documentaries as it does at society in the south. Of course, well before the NFB came into existence, and at least as early as the classic 1922 feature Nanook of the North, white society has been fascinated with native subjects, studying them as exotic specimens, documenting their cultural and social behaviours. That tendency to frame a world of Eskimo “others” dominated both film Why White People Are Funny brings the documentary form to an unexpected place. Those who were holding the mirror up to Inuit culture finally have it turned back on themselves. The result is not always pretty, but it sure is amusing. From the Inuit point of view, visitors from the south are nothing less than “accidents waiting to happen.”