TIFF 2020 review: Inconvenient Indian (Michelle Latimer)

The French philosopher Georges Bataille stated that literature is evil, for literature cannot produce any actual change in a world that leaves no room for being passive towards life itself. We are, then, constantly required to act, to engage, to make a change. In short, we may need literature but nobody would become better because one reads literature. Here, by extension, one could propose that cinema is also evil, once we acknowledge that like literature it does not produce something real. We may have the materiality of the film, but what is shown or told through a movie is not real, which leads us to the question: can someone become better by having contact with art?

Michelle Latimer’s Inconvenient Indian seems to question such an argument by adding something else to this proposition: if it is accepted that art is evil, that would inevitably make cinema evil as well; however, it may not be evil because it does not create something material or any positive change. It is evil because the silver screen, just like a blank page, accepts anything. Therefore it can and it will be responsible for creating and consolidating versions of history and stereotypes of people. As we are told right at the beginning of the film: History, the one often marked with a capital H, is nothing but a story we tell ourselves about the past. Latimer’s main thesis appears in the documentary through the narration of Thomas King, author of the book that inspired the film, claiming that we must be careful about the stories we tell and even more careful about the stories we are told. Every narrative serves a purpose.

Latimer uses her documentary to question how indigenous people have been represented in film, and even how what is called “Native American” in narratives is, in fact, shaped by the white men’s gaze and their necessity for a narrative that justifies the American history. Inconvenient Indian goes even further with its main idea and shows how even native people themselves have been fighting against a distorted reflection in a mirror that should but does not show their true selves. At this point the film asks us to deliberate about the meaning and value of films such as Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North: should we forget about them? Burn them? Forbid them? Or simply accept that it is not fair to look back and judge the past because allegedly we know better now? Thomas King appears on screen several times to answer this question: no, it is not fair, but we must, for it is necessary. By giving us images of indigenous showings at museums, Latimer posits that the way we look at those clothes, arrows, and pictures shows more about us right now, in the present, than they teach us about the past. Nothing in a museum has agency. They are dead. Static. But above all things, organized to create a narrative in which they are not the protagonists.

Here is where Inconvenient Indian dialogues best with the current political scenario; one in which the past is claimed by some as something mythical that was great, and the statues that symbolize the violence some people were submitted to throughout history are being torn down by others. As I look around me, around the place where I am writing about Michelle Latimer’s Inconvenient Indian, I see those same questions being asked, now not in the film’s North America but across Latin America. My digression here is to point out that even if all of Christopher Columbus’ and Pedro Álvarez Cabral’s statues were destroyed across the continent, even if all the cities, streets, and buildings named after slave owners or high-ranking military people from the various dictatorships were to be renamed, the biggest reminder of our colonial history is everywhere around us. It is in the destruction, pollution, corruption across the land. It is marked on the skin of black and indigenous people, it is in our religions, and in our white Jesus. And above all things, it is immortalized by the languages we speak, for Portuguese, Spanish, French, and English are the most spoken languages across the American continent.

Inconvenient Indian asks its audience to look at their own imagery, to pay attention to the stories they tell their children, and to their costumes at Halloween parties. To ponder about how native people have been portrayed as the extreme ones, or the savage other in movies and literature; how they were always the ones who needed to be saved and civilized. Is there a greater act of violence inflicted by art? By using a lot of juxtaposition of footage of people living in reservations and people who are reclaiming their identity as Native Americans in the present, with images from old movies and photos that formed our imagination when we think about what an indigenous person is supposed to look like, the film explores the social invisibility forced upon them. Latimer’s documentary is, then, above all things, a film about culture and struggle for survival told in the indigenous peoples’ own terms. As Tommy Orange once wrote: “And don’t make the mistake of calling us resilient. To not have been destroyed, to not have given up, to have survived, is no badge of honor. Would you call an attempted murder victim resilient?” The documentary ends and the question remains open: if art had played a crucial role in the creation of harmful stereotypes, can anyone become better for consuming art?