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Written, Produced & Directed by Kent Mackenzie
Released by Milestone Films
USA. 72 minutes. Not Rated
With Yvonne Williams, Homer Nish & Tommy Reynolds

For its beautiful black-and-white aesthetics, docudrama realism, and its depressingly still fresh portrait of off-reservation Native Americans, The Exiles is an excellent selection for rediscovery and wider exhibition.

Other than scenes tantalizingly glimpsed in Thom Andersen’s 2003 documentary on movie locations, Los Angeles Plays Itself, The Exiles was never released beyond the film festival circuit. Part of the problem in 1961 was that filmmaker Kent Mackenzie used a blended technique that was not as fictionalized as the films he admired but felt were still lacking in realism, such as Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito, François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, and doubtlessly Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados. Nor was it strictly a documentary, as he felt that approach could perpetuate stereotypes of poverty.

Instead, Mackenzie embarked on a unique collaboration. He befriended Indians from many Southwest tribes—Apache, Choctaw, Hualapi, Maricopa, Pima, Pueblo, and Mexican-Indian—who he met at bars in their now-vanished Bunker Hill neighborhood and involved them in the script development process. From conversations about their lives, he created a loose Friday night dusk-to-dawn story of a couple, pregnant Yvonne and pugnacious veteran Homer, and the other Natives they drink, dance, flirt, and fight with during one restless evening. They then portrayed these characters, based on themselves, with improvised dialogue and voice-over interior monologues. In addition to all the usual problems of independent filmmaking, Mackenzie faced additional challenges in his five-year script development and shoot, including another pregnancy, one participant hauled off to jail, and two cinematographers drafted.

The film opens with Mackenzie’s prologue of Edward Curtis’s archival photographs of American Indians. Throughout, he often cuts from close-ups of faces to wider landscapes for visual context. At one point during Homer’s bar crawl, he’s handed a letter from home, and a photograph enclosed from his parents sends his thoughts, and the film, back to the reservation, where he recalls his favorite childhood activity, mocking the tourists.

Gliding along the boisterous and boozy barflies, the camera catches a man not unlike the ex-GI and alcoholic portrayed by Graham Greene in Chris Eyre’s Skins, still one of the few films about contemporary Natives. The loneliness and yearning of the women is also emphasized, whether waiting by themselves or fending off drunken advances. When the bars close at 2 am, the camera continues down the street, watching those who hang around to drink and fight, with the cops ready to charge in.

The music coming out of radios and juke boxes, written for the film by Anthony Hilder, exquisitely reflects the jazzy and early rock ‘n’ roll styles of the period. Music rights clearances were not the issue here, unlike in the similarly recently restored (also by UCLA Film & Television Archive) Killer of Sheep by Charles Burnett, who serves as the official “presenter” of this showcase, along with Native American writer/filmmaker Sherman Alexie.

The climax comes when, as Homer muses, “Indians like to get together where they’re not gonna be bothered or watched or nothing like that. Want to get out there and just be free…nobody watchin’ every move you make.” They pile into borrowed cars that roar through the tunnels and roads up to a hill overlooking the bright lights of the big city, part of which was later bulldozed for Dodgers Stadium. There they feel free to recollect their native roots. (Ironically, the day jobs of many of the dancers and chanters on the hill were playing more stereotypical “Indians” at Disneyland.)

While recent slice-of-life fiction films have used similar extensive background research, like Lori Silverbush and Michael Skolnik’s On the Outs about teen girls, they tend to have more seemingly trumped-up story developments. There is no major drama here—the friends stagger home and the city slowly wakes to the dawn of yet another day. The very uneventfulness of The Exiles adds to both its authenticity and sadness.

Mackenzie only made one other feature, Saturday Morning (1971), before he died in 1980. Like any member of the public, I can e-mail my recommendation to the Library of Congress to enter The Exiles into the National Film Registry. Nora Lee Mandel
July 11, 2008



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