The 15th Doc Fortnight festival closes on February 29, 2016, with the world premiere of Adam Khalil and Zack Khalil’s INAATE/SE/ [it shines a certain way. to a certain place./it flies. falls./], the artists’ reflection on and reframing of their own Native American heritage. I recently spoke with the Khalil brothers about the concept and context for their film:
What is the Seven Fires Prophecy? How did it help structure the film?
The Seven Fires Prophecy is a story about the history of our tribe (Ojibway), which both predates and predicts first contact with Europeans. The story begins by chronicling our tribe’s migration from the Atlantic Coast to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to avoid first contact with Europeans. It goes on to narrativize the history of the colonization of our people, while also providing direction for the recovery of our way of life in the future. The prophecy serves as both a record of the past, and a foretelling of the future. It is not a fatalistic prophecy but one which presents multiple forks in the path of the Ojibway people and seeks to guide us along productive lines.
Our intention in using the Seven Fires Prophecy to structure the film is to draw attention to the fundamental differences between Ojibway history and the colonial version of the history of our people, not only in factual detail, but also in utility and function. Colonial history seeks to encapsulate our past into tidy sterile archives so that it may be safely forgotten about, whereas the Ojibway version of the history of our people seeks to use the past as a story which unites the entire tribe under a common purpose to be pursued into the future, in this case the revitalization of our traditional worldview after a prolonged period of systematic cultural annihilation.
It was only after doing a few shoots that we realized we would have to not only depict the historical version of the prophecy, which started over 600 years ago, but would also have to explore how the prophecy resonates in our community today. In order to do justice to representing the complexity of colonialism’s legacy in our community, we had to look beyond a linear view of history. This nonlinear view is part of the Seven Fires Prophecy, and is what differentiates Ojibway conceptions of history from traditional colonial history. We wanted to take this alternate notion of history and apply it to film, and to do so required us to think about the film outside of the traditional conceptions of genre. Doing so gave us a lot of freedom to move between forms, take risks, and hopefully come closer to a more Ojibway way of making films.
How does this film relate to its installation version? Do you see those as having a fluid relationship?
They are essentially the same work in different forms. In the installation version we get to play with the added dimension of space and sculpture, allowing us to engage with and critique the traditional role of a museum or gallery exhibit on indigenous peoples, drawing the audience in and then forcing them to critique their own interest.
In the cinematic version of the project we still play with these themes, but we have much more leeway with duration and control over pacing. The installation had to function differently. It’s a two-channel 60-minute loop with several other video channels and sculptures, and the edit was constructed in a way where you could enter or exit the film at any moment. With the cinematic version we have a lot more control over how the audience experiences the arc of the film and so we allow them more time to sit with certain things.
Some of the most striking moments in the film involve the use of collage or layering effects. It’s striking to think about the legacy of direct cinema and the camera’s access to “truth” and then think about a documentary form like yours that can embrace graphic impositions onto the image. How did this form develop?
There is an Ojibway tradition of documenting stories through pictographs etched into birch bark scrolls. The Seven Fires Prophecy was originally transmitted orally and etched into birch bark scrolls. There is a legacy of Ojibway painters that were directly inspired by these birch bark scrolls, the most foundational being Norval Morrisseau, who emerged in the art scene of Canada in the 1960s as the “Picasso of the North.” Much of his work mimics the style of and tells many of the same stories as the birch bark scrolls, but is instead depicted in incredibly bright swaths of paint on very large canvasses. His paintings are incredibly vibrant and have a really affective and ethereal quality to them. We were really inspired by his work and used some of it in the film, along with tracings of some of the images from the birch bark scrolls. We decided to include them in the film in an effort to fully depict the range of Ojibway ways of understanding, documenting, and shaping history. For me these images have an access to “truth” that is far more nuanced and relevant than that of a security camera or ethnographer’s gaze.
In terms of the superimposition involving characters on green screen, it was important for us to develop new formal strategies for depicting the complexity of these characters’ relationship to this history and their Ojibway identity. In Ojibway culture, there’s this figure Nanabozho who’s a trickster or a sacred clown type of character, and there’s a way of working through these questions about identity in his trickster way, where you’re trying to shake things up to see what’s really there—creating space for humor and exploring taboos. That’s an approach that was really important for us to incorporate into the film—to mix the sacred and the profane. So the green screen and layering effects were a way to play with this tension between the sacred and the profane and help us to depict the character’s interiority.
How did you encounter the various people who appear in interviews throughout the film?
Almost everyone in the film is a person that we have had lifelong relationships with, whether as friends and classmates, or even cousins (with the exception being a handful of friends of friends). I think that this is incredibly important and I sincerely doubt the film could have functioned successfully if this was not the case. Because these were already comfortable relationships, there were levels of access and trust that would have been impossible to achieve otherwise. There were also plenty of decisions made in the editing room that would have been more difficult to make had it not been for our relationship with the characters.
In this sense, though the scope of the film is vast, it is an incredibly personal film. We did not set out to tell this story from an omniscient prophetic perspective, but instead from our own personal viewpoint on colonialism’s legacy, as evidenced through our experience of life in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan today. I think it is this aspect of the film that gives it its power. For every grand historical statement made, there is an example from our community today to back it up. This further reinforces an Ojibway notion of history which is not linear.
We really try to emphasize that we are not experts on Ojibway history or spirituality. We present ourselves, and others from our generation, as people who are typically not particularly knowledgeable about our traditional ways of life, but who want or even need to learn. The film is about that process, and really is that process unfolding. The work of our generation is to learn about what was lost, what remains, and how to move it forward. The only way to do that is to ask questions, sit down and listen, and that’s largely what the process of making the film was for us.
One of the most memorable sequences in the film is your visit with Wild Bill. His presence in the film feels very central. How did that come together?
A good friend of ours from home is the Native American guidance counselor at the local high school. When we told him we were making the film, he insisted we go out and spend the night with his uncle Wild Bill and shoot an interview. Wild Bill is an elder, and an eccentric alcoholic who prides himself on living off the land. He lives on this remote island with 30 people on it year round, and it was the dead of winter and the ferry was only running once a day. We were on a really tight shoot schedule and it was a tough call to spend the night out there, but we decided to go, and it ended up being an incredibly meaningful experience, and crucial to the film. That’s how a lot of the best moments of the film came to be. Things we didn’t plan to do, but were put in front of us by our friends and family.
Video technology has a long tradition of engaging with native peoples throughout the world. How did you think about this legacy when approaching your process? What gaps were you trying to fill?
Native American culture is a perversely fetishized commodity, and in order to make films about our tribe, it was first necessary to acknowledge and address that native communities relationship with video has long been one of extraction and misrepresentation. One of the foundational texts for this film was a poem our mother wrote titled “Native Videographers Shoot Back.” Its title aptly describes the tone of our film. We intended to fire back against the anthropologists who would seal away our history in an archive or patronizing ethnographic film.
There’s this trajectory for native people and cinema. First we were the subjects of white anthropologists, ethnographers, and auteurs. Then there came a point where natives were finally making docs about natives. Now there’s more and more native narrative cinema. We wanted to create a film which acknowledged this trajectory and combined, improved, and expanded upon this ground.