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  • Screen Text and Institutional Context:Indigenous Film Production and Academic Research Institutions
  • Karrmen Crey (bio)


NAVAJO TALKING PICTURE (Arlene Bowman 1986) and Cry Rock (Banchi Hanuse 2010) are documentaries exhibiting striking thematic similarities: both are made by Indigenous women emerging from university contexts who seek closer contact with their Indigenous cultural heritage. The filmmakers' relationships with their grandmothers manifest a cultural disconnect: while their grandmothers are fluent in their traditional languages, neither filmmaker is a speaker. The gap in language proficiency gestures to a cultural and social rupture that has taken place in the interceding generation. The generational ruptures experienced by Indigenous peoples under colonialism are well-known: efforts to eradicate traditional social organization through reservation/reserve systems and residential/boarding schools—among other legal, institutional, and physical methods—were designed to destroy Indigenous peoples' cultures and assimilate them into colonial settler society. As a part of this process, boarding school and residential school systems were created and separated Indigenous children from their families and communities, forcing children to adopt colonial settler values and cultural practices. These schools sought to eradicate Indigenous languages in particular, often using corporeal punishment to prevent students from speaking their traditional languages.1 As a result, a generation suffered massive cultural and social disruption that is represented by generational differences in Indigenous language speakers. This crux is the central motif for both films, through which they investigate the applications of the cinematic apparatus for connecting Indigenous people to their communities and cultural heritage.

Their methods for engaging and representing these topics are, however, very different, drawing from frameworks for undertaking Indigenous research that emerged from distinct historical periods and national contexts. Bowman produced Navajo Talking Picture in the early 1980s through the University of California, Los Angeles film production program in association with [End Page 61] the American Indian Studies Center (AISC); Cry Rock was deeply informed by Hanuse's experience in the First Nations Studies Program (FNSP)2 at the University of British Columbia in the mid-2000s, and her experience in media-based project development at the National Film Board of Canada (NFB). For Navajo Talking Picture, the reinvention of film-based anthropology that began in the 1960s intersected with developments in Indigenous studies during the same era to engender a research environment in which it was understood that Indigenous people are best equipped to undertake research on Indigenous people and topics, a frame of reference that the film examines and complicates via Bowman's interactions with her grandmother, Ann Biah. Made twenty years later, Cry Rock engages with debates in Indigenous studies about the relationship between oral narrative traditions and the media used to record them, questioning the impact that recording technologies have on oral narratives and their survival. By doing so, the film intervenes in assumptions that the cinematic apparatus can function as an extension of oral traditions, a discourse promoted by the NFB, raising the possibility that recording technologies actually hasten their erosion. Cry Rock ultimately explores oral narratives as a mode of understanding that is intrinsically tied to specific geographical places and relies on a direct relationship between storyteller and listener, which media technologies cannot replicate.

Bringing together Navajo Talking Picture and Cry Rock is in part a means by which to argue that analyses of the thematic similarities between media texts should be attentive to institutional contexts that Indigenous media practitioners navigate in their work, an approach that draws on precedent studies of minority media by Chon Noriega (2000) and Jun Okada (2015). Their work on Chicano cinema and Asian American film and video, respectively, has sought to understand minority cinemas not as pre-given, identity-based categories, but as areas of production debated and shaped through various social forces, including state policy, political movements, developments in media technologies, and institutional funding structures and policies. At stake are the terms through which minority media are conceptualized, as Noriega argues, as identity-based cinematic "genres": "What must be repressed in such a move is the fact that one is doing a form of genre analysis that effectively reduces institutional analysis and social history to a textual effect; that is, these social phenomena exist only as signs circulating within...


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pp. 61-88
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