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  • The New Navajo Cinema:Cinema and Nation in the Indigenous Southwest
  • Randolph Lewis

Something new is happening on Navajo land, cinematically speaking. It is the culmination of a long story that I can barely evoke here: the century-long trajectory of western filmmaking on Navajo soil that reached its peak in John Ford's epics of the 1950s before beginning a sharp descent in cynical New Hollywood projects of the 1970s and then finally crashing into the red rocky soil of Monument Valley in the new millennium. Today the old racist mythology of celluloid Navajos lies in ruins, dead to the world except for a few vestigial twitches on Turner Classic Movies and other nostalgic outlets. More significant is that which is taking the place of the old myth making of the West: a group of Navajo filmmakers are imposing a new sensibility on the Southwest that has little to do with what came before.

This article offers the first glimpse of an emerging school of Navajo filmmakers with a focus on three relative newcomers: Larry Blackhorse Lowe, Nanobah Becker, and Bennie Klain. Along with several dozen other Navajos working in narrative, documentary, and experimental film, these artists are beginning to cohere into a national cinema that has few precedents in Native North America, a fact that has gone almost entirely unnoticed. I argue that a national cinema is a powerful concept in an indigenous context: it is a form of strategic essentialism that benefits Navajo filmmakers on symbolic and practical levels, but it also focuses attention on Navajo lives in a way that may sustain the political sovereignty of the vast Navajo Nation. As much as is possible within the inherently transnational medium of cinema, these are films of Navajo particularity, quiet assertions of indigenous nationhood that dramatize Navajo lives, explore Navajo concerns, and emphasize the vitality of contemporary Navajo culture in its many forms. Thus the new Navajo cinema is doing important cultural work that serves a larger political function: Native sovereignty depends not just on laws and jurisdictions but also on a distinct sense of peoplehood that cinema can articulate and perpetuate with uncommon delicacy. Although it may seem premature to label a few dozen projects as a budding national cinema, I argue that a quiet nationalism can be found in the cinema of the indigenous Southwest and that the very act of locating it is a political gesture whose significance has received little comment. By pointing to what I describe as the heuristic qualities of national cinema formation, I hope to push the theorization of national cinemas in a useful new direction.

This article has four parts. After first weighing the conceptual challenges of a national cinema and arguing for its political and creative utility in the Native Southwest, I outline how the very act of naming may serve a critical function in the formation of national cinema. Next, by looking at the emblematic work of Blackhorse Lowe, Becker, and Klain, I explore the common ground on which a Navajo national cinema might be anchored. Finally, I conclude with a discussion of the challenges that might undermine the prospects for a Navajo national cinema in terms of institutionalization, viewership, and aesthetic reductivism.

Navajo National Cinema?

At first glance, a Navajo national cinema might seem implausible due to the small number of filmmakers involved and the limited sovereignty of the Navajo Nation. Unlike the venerable national cinemas that developed almost a century ago in France, Germany, Japan, and other large nation-states, Navajo cinema is linked to an indigenous population with less than 300,000 citizens, whose traditional lands in modern-day Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah are under the competing jurisdictions of the Navajo Nation and the encapsulating state of the United States. [End Page 50] Another challenge for Navajo cinema is that, unlike the prestigious national cinemas of Europe and Asia, it has no state support, few vibrant commercial networks to facilitate its production and distribution, and little to no public recognition.1 A skeptical observer could argue that if a Navajo national cinema exists at all, it exists in a vacuum of minor film festivals, disparate artistic projects, and febrile critical imaginations. Yet stature...


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