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Reflections on CYCLE 0, Indigenous Cinema at the 59th AAFF

Time blurs, myth and history collide, and form is reinvented in CYCLE 0, one of the special programs of the 59th Ann Arbor Film Festival. Featuring Indigenous artists working with experimental film and moving images, the program is curated by the COUSIN Collective, a consortium of artists founded in 2018 by Sky Hopinka, Adam Khalil, Alexandra Lazarowich, and Adam Piron, whose work is rooted in supporting avant-garde Indigenous filmmakers.

The artists in CYCLE 0 employ elements of abstraction, disruptions to linear time, and sometimes surrealism and even science fiction as they investigate themes of colonialism, gender violence, stereotypes, and settler mentality.

Coyolxauhqui by Colectivo Los Ingrávidos

The program begins with Coyolxauhqui by Colectivo Los Ingrávidos, an avant-garde collective based in Tehuacán, Mexico. It’s a dizzying indictment of gender violence seen through the lens of an Aztec myth, set in a rural landscape of Mexico. Titled after the moon goddess Coyolxauhqui, who was murdered by her brother, the film references the femicide epidemic in Mexico, which drew international attention beginning in the early 1990s, when hundreds of murders of women in Juarez, Mexico were reported. According to a report by RFK Human Rights and the Center for Women’s Holistic Development, there were 47,178 women killed in Mexico due to their gender between 1985 and 2014.

The work begins with visages of colorful cacti, each adorned with prickly pink fruits, coming in and out of focus. Drumbeats play as the camera darts across mountains, grasses, and insects, depicting a rural Mexican landscape as dangerous and yet full of power.

Toward the end of the film, haunting female voices are heard as the camera reveals women’s shoes, bras, tampons, and other garments hanging from trees and abandoned. The brutal imagery harkens to past and present dangers faced by women, but there’s also a kind of twist that the filmmakers insert. Cactus, in Spanish, is a masculine noun: el cacto. These are masculine cacti, and we see them smashed on the ground. There is a subversive suggestion that the teeth of male supremacy are not completely invulnerable.

Raven Chacon (Diné) & Cristobal Martinez (Xicano) also draw on both myth and history in A Song Often Played On The Radio (2019). The film centers on two characters played by celebrated performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña and singer Nacha Mendez, searching for the mythological 7 cities of gold. The characters never share the screen together, but individually engage in their fruitless searches.

A voiceover by Guillermo Gómez-Peña provides an ongoing commentary while the character wanders about the dessert. He reads aloud an anachronistic letter to the King of Spain, weaving in anecdotes from the history of colonialism in the Americas, including tales of conquistadors getting mocked by the Indigenous people they encounter. Woven throughout are “dichos,” or sayings, like, “you will be judged by the yardstick you measure others with.” The voice-over is satirical in its portrayal of conquest, portraying the conquistadors as bumbling fools.

Nacha Mandez’s character lends her gritty voice to a song in the Ranchera canción tradition. Her exquisite performance contrasts with the subsequent scene, featuring her counterpart, where he acts as a conductor in the desert, wielding animal songs from the desert with his conducting motions.

Mandez presents very masculine in the film, with her well-pressed suit and white brimmed hat, striking a place of order in contrast to the other character’s more chaotic energy, armed with a metal detector and shiny black leather chaps, which he eventually ditches for a skirt.

Eventually, the voice-over reveals that the two characters are doppelgängers. The double identities refer to both gender, and also the clash of European and Indigenous cultures, the repercussion of that violence on both groups and to the land to this day.

Pahá kiŋ lená wakháŋ by Kite

In Pahá kiŋ lená wakháŋ (2017) Kite (Oglala Lakota artist and composer Suzanne Kite) takes spacetime— a concept that space and time are interconnected in four dimensions, as her subject, as she problematizes historicization of Indigenous culture. Kite imagines a non-linear way of thinking about the past, present, and future of Native people.

Pahá kiŋ lená wakháŋ opens with an animated graphic depicting an hourglass shape, with markings for “Time” and “Space” indicated on a grid. In the animation, the double-cone shape tilts on its side, revealing layers of circles that perhaps represent a journey into both the past and future. As orchestral music plays, the circles open up spaces for text to appear, indicating historical incidents like “Indian Relocation Act,” “Leonard Peltier in Prison,” “Wounded Knee,” and the “Wovoka Prophecy,” referring to the origin of the ghost dance movement.

The names of people and incidents connect to one another, causally, thematically, and through the people impacted. The Indian Relocation Act, for example, was a policy that caused immense harm to Native communities, harm that the AIM movement sought to rectify. Kite invites the viewer to shift their thinking of time into one that can and must look at the past and future all at once.

Toward the end of the film, Kite intersperses imagery from nature— the moon, wildlife, a snowy landscape, with footage of Native American “water protectors”— tribal members who have fought for their Indigenous right to protect land and water. She creates a link between earlier struggles— during the colonization of Native land as well as 20th-century activism, with movements fighting for Native rights and sovereignty today.

Giizis Mooka’am Giiwe by Eve-Lauren Little Shell LaFountain

Giizis Mooka’am Giiwe by Eve-Lauren Little Shell LaFountain (Turtle Mountain Chippewa), also distorts time. The film is framed around a smudging ceremony and meditates on urban Native identity as it illuminates the natural world amidst a city setting.

The camera remains in place as the world moves through time. Opening to a shot of greenish mountains, and set to a score of ethereal sound that is at once of the natural world and otherworldly, LaFountain quickens the pace of the sun and moon’s cycles, and in doing so captures cars zipping up and down the highway, blinking lights from houses and buildings, and clouds traveling across the sky.

Central to all this activity is the figure of a woman who appears to be burning sage outside her home. Despite the speed in which we watch her, her ritualistic gestures have a way of suggesting a slower time. The sped-up camera creates a way to view the world at a distance so that the viewer is able to access an experience of stillness.

We Only Answer our Land Line (2019) by Olivia Camfield, Woodrow Hunt

In the last film in the program, We Only Answer our Land Line (2019) filmmakers Olivia Camfield (Mvskoke) & Woodrow Hunt (Cherokee and Klamath Tribes descendent) invite the viewer into a computer screen. There, a folder called “Alien video,” contains a world of spacey costumes and intimate kitchen scenes, historical documents, such as the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Dawes Rolls, and TV footage of powwow and memorial marches.

In our digital age, our computers and devices often hold our most intimate memories, our most vulnerable documentation. Camfeld and Hunt paint a story through these files, albeit a surrealistic one. Set to a melodic ballad, titled "Indians Never Die" by Black Belt Eagle Scout, the piece breaks open restrictive narratives of Native history and identity, using science fiction to open up endless possibility.

All of the films in the program push back against settler notions of what Native storytelling is supposed to be, and invite Indigenous film and video artists to explore boundlessness in form and structure.

Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis-based journalist and critic. She has written for Bomb, Artnet News, Hyperallergic, The Lily, Broadly, American Theatre, and contributes dance reviews for the Star Tribune.


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