It was the film that needed to be made said Cree film director and the Nation’s own Neil Diamond in reference to his latest film, Reel Injun.

Produced by Rezolution Pictures, Reel Injun is a feature-length documentary that chronicles Natives in cinema from the birth of film to present day. The picture is the product of Montreal filmmakers Neil Diamond, Catherine Bainbridge, Ernest Webb, Linda Ludwick and Christina Fon.

Featuring the stark landscapes that once served as sets for iconic western films, nearby impoverished reserves and a who’s who of Natives in the film industry, the documentary sees Diamond crisscross the U.S. in a “rez car” as he examines the Hollywood Injun through a series of interviews and film clips.

Among the interviewees are screen legend Clint Eastwood, Native actor Adam Beach, musician and actor Robbie Robertson, and Native American activists John Trudell, Russell Means and Sacheen Littlefeather.

The film is bittersweet however. Though its landscapes are breathtaking and there are a myriad of comic high points, the inherent racism towards Natives in cinema and the distorted light that they are painted in remains disturbing.

For Diamond, making this film was the dream of a lifetime because he had the opportunity to pick the brains of many of his own heroes.

“A lot of these people – Russell Means, Sacheen Littlefeather, John Trudell – I grew up reading about and seeing their faces. These are people I always wanted to meet like Robbie Robertson and Clint Eastwood. I loved Eastwood as a kid, his spaghetti westerns and Dirty Harry movies,” said Diamond.

Reel Injun was a big departure for Diamond whose previous works dealt primarily with the Cree and featured interviews with Crees.

He admits the types of interviews he had done previously compared to his current film were quite different, but working with the Cree for so many years had prepared him for Reel Injun. With Crees, particularly Elders, Diamond said he rarely had to ask many questions as an Elder would need little prompting, often answering several questions in one without him having to ask any follow-up.

Diamond said many of his Native interviewees in the film were similar, particularly comedian Charlie Hill.

“I asked him two questions and he just kept going. He brought up all of these films that I had wanted to ask about and all of these stereotypes. He was so funny. Then he would pause and just as I was about to ask another question, he would start up again and make an awesome statement or a joke. As I sat there thinking whether I should ask him another question, he would say, ‘Are you going to ask me a question? We should have asked the janitor to do this interview,’” said Diamond.

Though Reel Injun looks largely at the depiction of Native Americans in cinema, it also shows how Native filmmakers have come full circle over the past century of filmmaking. The silent era had its own Native American producers, writers, directors and actors, and only in recent years have Natives emerged once more to tell their own stories. For many decades however, they did not exist.

Natives coming out on top as directors and actors to tell their own stories and to present their own realities are central to the whole point of the film. As Diamond pointed out, Natives tell their own stories best.

Though Hollywood does not have a lengthy tradition of hiring Native actors to play Native roles, Diamond is glad to see a decline of non-Native actors in “red face.”

“As a storyteller, if you want to completely mesmerize your audience, you should have your actors be as close to the characters they are playing. That way they are totally believable, your story is better and the audience won’t think the film sucks because it isn’t real. It should be as real as possible and if there is a blond-haired blue-eyed guy playing a Native who is obviously wearing a wig, I just can’t get into the story,” said Diamond.

Reel Injun has its Montreal premiere at the Festival International du film sur l’art on March 25 at 9:00 PM; its theatrical engagement at the Cinéma du Parc starts April 2.

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