In Sterlin Harjo’s beautifully shot documentary the serene stillness of the Mississippi River is given an ominous feel. Considered the river of death by the indigenous community living nearby, the river has become a symbol of grief. Tales of disappearances and hardships have flowed deeper than the depths of the river itself. The grim and sorrowful stories have managed to travel melodically through generations on the wings of cultural songs.
Harjo’s own grandfather, Pete, has become part of this oral history. Although the circumstances of Pete’s 1962 disappearance still remain a mystery, it has been immortalized in song to the point where even those who never met the man know of his plight. Curious about such songs, Harjo embarks on a quest to understand their origins and the overall musical nature of his culture. What Harjo uncovers is eye-opening to say the least.
Using the Muscogee (Creek) church hymns as a starting point, This May Be the Last Time offers an intriguing look at the ways in which music both defines and binds cultures. In one moving sequence the sorrow that fills the parishioners in a church is juxtaposed with children playing tetherball outside. Singing in their native tongue as they play, it becomes apparent that the song they are singing is to the tune of “Jesus Loves Me”. Harjo’s film finds links between the unique style sung by the Muscogee congregation and both White Appalachia spirituals and the songs of enslaved African Americans.
Featuring gorgeous images of the Oklahoma landscape, the film resonates most when Harjo is interviewing family and friends. Despite being sung in a different language, many of the songs featured in the film penetrate the viewer’s soul unexpectedly. It is hard not to be moved by the deep timber of their voices, take reformed bad boy Wotko for example, as they sing their own death songs and the stories of others.
Although the songs may cover bleak topics, This May Be the Last Time is anything but. Harjo’s biggest accomplishment is how he manages to make the film feel uplifting and universal. This is ultimately a story about families and communities coming together. Music is not only the thread that tightens these bonds, but also provides the light of hope in even their darkest moments. Skillfully blending archival footage with interviews from experts and family members, Harjo’s film is a beautiful and fitting tribute to the musical storytelling that continues to be a key facet in indigenous cultures.
Friday, October 24, 11 AM, TIFF Bell Lightbox