The portrayal of Indians on the silver screen has always intrigued Neil Diamond. That’s because he is a filmmaker and a Cree. And that is why he decided to make a feature-length documentary on the way Hollywood has depicted North American Natives over the last 120 years.

On September 15, Reel Injun received its world premiere at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival, where the reaction was overwhelmingly positive.

This insightful and entertaining presentation is a personal journey of trying to decipher the celluloid identity of the North American Aboriginal. Diamond takes his viewers from northern Quebec across the heartland of the continent all the way to Hollywood, before returning them to the Arctic where he discovers the future of Native cinema with Inuit filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk (of Atanarjuat fame).

By providing his audience with an historical overview of the depiction of the Native American, Diamond is able to show “the Indian” in different developmental stages. It starts with the “noble Injun” as seen in many of the early silent films. By the 1930s, Hollywood is depicting the Indian as a bloodthirsty and murdering savage, hell-bent of stopping progress. Luckily, there is always a John Wayne type who comes the rescue.

By the late 1950s, audiences are learning that the only good Injun is a dead one and are witnessing some of the atrocities committed against Natives. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, the groovy Indian emerges as the kung-fu fighting Billy Jack and the young warriors of AIM change the image forever. With the release of Dances With Wolves in 1990, cinema-goers are finally introduced to the empowered Indian, fully fleshed out and realistic. And finally, as the 20th century comes to a close, a new age of Native Cinema is born.

As Diamond explores the changing character of the Indian with numerous film clips, he interviews a bevy of Native and non-Native filmmakers, actors, scholars and activists, including Clint Eastwood, Adam Beach, Robbie Robertson, Sacheen Littlefeather, John Trudell and Russell Means. They all offer their perspective of Hollywood’s fascination of the Native and the development of the imaginary Indian.

For Diamond the motivation to make Reel Injun was a culmination of images, ideas and misconceptions that he has confronted all this life. “I remember once being asked by a barber. ‘Do you speak Indian?’ I thought, where do these people get their ideas from?

“Originally I had an idea of doing a funny documentary for APTN about white actors playing Indians. I was going to call it ‘I’m Not Indian, But I Play One On TV’. I wanted people to laugh at the stereotypes, but at the same time question where they came from. I started revisiting movies I had seen growing up and reading books on the subject. Then I saw The Celluloid Closet, a documentary about the portrayal on gays in film and thought what about using this model for Natives.”

There are many stereotypical portrayals of Natives, like wearing feathered headdresses, living in teepees and riding horses. But there is one that Diamond has always found most puzzling. “What always gets me is the ‘spiritual Indian’. The Europeans has this romantic image that Natives possess these mystical elements and are all shamans. Don’t they realize we’re no different from everybody else.”

When looking back at his own cinematic influences, Diamond says there isn’t one specific film, but accumulation of many that shaped his understanding on the subject. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Will Sampson was powerful. As was Little Big Man. When I saw Chief Dan George on screen, I remember thinking that he seemed like a Native guy compared to all the others I had seen.”

Making Reel Injun for Diamond was a dream come true as he visited several mythical sites in Indian history. “I went to Wounded Knee, which is a sacred place for all Aboriginals. I saw the Little Big Horn where Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull defeated Custer. And I saw the Southwest where Geronimo lived and fought against the U.S. army.”

One dream Diamond was able to fulfill while making the film was riding a horse on the open plains of Little Big Horn. “There are no trees or rocks, no obstacles to trip over. You get this sense of being really free. I felt the some way when I was in the desert in the Southwest. The closest I’ve come to experience that wide expanse as a northern Cree is on a skidoo in the middle of winter in some windswept setting.”

Produced by Ernest Webb, Catherine Bainbridge, Christina Fon and Linda Ludwick (Rezolution Pictures International), and Adam Symansky (NFB), Reel Injun will be screened as the opening film of the ImagineNative film festival in Toronto on Oct. 14.