When we think of Native Americans in movies, the images that appear frequently go back to one-note characterizations from westerns in their heyday. Revisionist films have shown the awful treatment from the U.S. government, but it’s still within a historical perspective. We rarely learn about what’s happening in our present day on the reservations. The writing of Sherman Alexie and Chris Eyre’s film adaptation Smoke Signals offer a partial picture, but the spiritual perspective remains in the forefront in those works. With Pine Ridge, Director Anna Eborn depicts the daily lives of a culture that’s struggling under a brutal economy. The camera follows the residents of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and doesn’t provide added context into the difficulties. We hear brief stories from a large group of participants, and those examples help to paint a broader picture of America devastated by an economy that’s going nowhere.
The opening scene at a gas station presents the slumber that’s overtaken this land. A teen approaches everyone and tries to sell a tent and stove, and his pitch contains plenty of desperation. Two other guys lean on the wall and talk about possible jobs, but they have nothing to do. Before we even see an image, words explain the misconceptions about Native Americans. “Most people think we still live in teepees” is just one part of that diatribe that begins this documentary on a fiery note. Later on, a young man instructs visitors about the site’s history at a Wounded Knee museum. They’re all tourists, and that image says plenty. We catch a glimpse of a dancer in native dress, but that’s the only other connection to the past. Does anyone have time to concern themselves with history? Given the difficult economic climate, the lack of interest in what came before is completely understandable.
Pine Ridge packs a punch because of the striking images that spend just a few moments on the screen. A mother takes care of two cute kids in a run-down house and throws her trash bags on the roof. We meet a woman named Cassie who openly recounts her childhood abuse and now has three kids of her own. Eborn’s camera often rests behind the participants and simply follows them at a languid pace. A lengthy scene near the end shows a group of friends having fun in a dirty lake. It seems like a harmless moment, but then one of the guys reveals that he’s heading to jail soon. A final speaker talks about having “no dream”, and there’s a sense that we’re watching a culture die before our eyes. There’s nothing sensationalistic about the filmmaking. Eborn takes her time and builds a case of a dead economy. This story goes beyond the Native American culture and could take place in much of this country. People mean well and try their best, yet there’s only so much they can do in this unfortunate environment.
Saturday, April 26, 6:00 PM, Scotiabank Theatre
Sunday, April 27, 1:00 PM, TIFF Bell Lightbox
Sunday, May 4, 4:30 PM, TIFF Bell Lightbox