imagineNATIVE 2015: Mekko

Mekko_04

There is sickness that is plaguing the streets of Tulsa, Oklahoma but only Mekko (Rod Rondeaux) can see it. Told by his grandmother from an early age that he possessed the gift of a seer, one who can foretell when death is around the corner, he has been stricken with a burden he did not ask to carry. He spent years doing everything in his power, most notably resorting to alcoholism, to block out the visions that relentlessly haunted him. This came at a tragic price though, one that shook his family to the core and landed him in jail for nineteen years.

Recently released from prison, and rejected by the little family he has left, the weary Muscogee man finds himself unexpectedly amongst the city’s homeless community. On the streets he not only makes friends with a local waitress, Tafv (Sarah Podemski), but also connects with several of his fellow homeless aboriginals – including his old friend Bunnie (Wotko Long) who has fallen on tough times. While bonding with his people brings brief comfort, the looming presence of Bill (Zahn McClarnon), a ruthless thug who treats the streets and it inhabitants like his personal playground, causes much tension. Believing that Bill is an “estekini”, a witch who can turn into an animal, Mekko must decide if he has the strength to vanquish the darkness that Bill brings to the community.

Mekko is a slow burn tale that plays like a subdued modern western. While the cowboy hat is present on his central character, writer-director Sterlin Harjo replaces the pistols and spurs with mysticism and Indigenous lore. Though this may all sound fantastical, Harjo handles it with a gritty realism. He wisely spends the bulk of the film observing Mekko’s interactions with his people. Seamlessly blending fiction and reality together, Harjo provides a captivating look at Tulsa’s homeless population. There is an authenticity to the somber stories that many of the street people tell Mekko. However, despite the dangers they face, the flames of tradition are never truly extinguished.

It is this sense of faith that Harjo’s film exudes which gives the seemingly bleak film a surprisingly optimistic tone. As one elder tells Mekko late in the film, there is still hope that those who have lost their way will return to their homes – a reference to both the physical households and the spiritual ones that remain abandoned. Similar to his previous film, the wonderful documentary This May Be the Last Time, which also featured Wotko Long, Mekko is steeped in cultural waters. Everything thing from the pounding of the tribal drums and songs sung in the local bar to the abandoned church’s gospel music sign, a subtle nod to This May Be the Last Time, radiates off the screen.

While some audiences might find themselves getting antsy by the film’s measured pacing, it is important to remember that whether or not Mekko has his confrontation with his dark foe is only part of the story. Harjo is just as concerned with the journey as he is the results. Thanks to strong performances by Rod Rondeaux and Zahn McClarnon, the latter of whom is absolutely terrifying as the menacing Bill, Mekko manages to maintain interest even in its slower moments. Once again finding intriguing ways to incorporate Indigenous legend into contemporary storytelling, Mekko is another example of why Sterlin Harjo is such a refreshing voice in cinema.

Screens:
Wednesday, October 14, 7:00 PM, Bloor Hot Docs Cinema

Tickets information can be found at the imagineNATIVE website.