Self-appointed Indians, and the others March 24, 2012

Mele Pesti thoughts about "In Absentia" (dir: Tareq Daoud) and "Indians like us" (dir: Sylvie Jacquemin)
A short documentary on Cuba and a longer one on the French in the US was a fortuitously matching double feature. And not only because both of the documentaries screened involve Indians. More for the reason that both of these films embrace the main theme of the criteria that has to be met in order for a person to be considered an Indian, the differences between the internal and external glance, and how the contradictory perceptions collide into such a unified mythologised group as the Indians have today become today.

For quite a few of us who were raised during the Soviet era the image that is evoked in our minds in association with Indians is the Serbian actor Gojko Mitić’ rendition of a  brave feathered hero, whom we could admire in this very same Athena cinema even back in the 1980s. During the discussion held after the Worldfilm screening, we stumbled upon an interesting dimension: in this part of the world the Indians were almost always pictured as heroes and the cowboys as antiheroes carrying imperialist attitudes, although elsewhere in the world it was quite the opposite. The Cold War worked on several levels.

Therefore, it was even more thrilling to compare how the ‘real’ Indians live at the Cold War frontiers that are still in place: in Cuba and in the US. And indeed, at the initial stage the contrasting dissimilarities in these two films were obvious: while the Cuban government is trying to do everything to promote model ‘Indianness’ in model villages, the US government’s stance depicted in this film sheds light on a continuously poor attitude and marginalisation of indigenous nations.

In Absentia gave an intriguing peek at a village located in the Guantanamo region in Cuba, which was declared a model village by the Cuban government, where one can see the ‘real’ Indians. When a local lady affirmed that in order to earn this esteemed status they had to become clean, moral and industrious, then a viewer with a Soviet background cannot help but reminiscence about the model collective farms and other so-called Potemkin villages. However, when it comes to Cuba, it is more complicated: in the background we have colonialism, genocide, and the mass killings of Indians that happened back in the 1950s, prior to the socialist revolution. Compared to all that, the praising of Indians as part of a campaign and for ideological purposes can be deemed a certain kind of progress. And if we take Peru for example, where Indian is a derogatory term, then no doubt the Cuban situation is way better. In Absentia generated a multitude of questions in connection with appearances, representation and identity; hence it was a good film.

French filmmaker Sylvie Jacquemin portrayed a group of French people whose adoration of all things related to Indians brings them to beat the drums, to sing and to dance while wearing feathers and self-sewn garments. The life dream of these middle-aged, small-town French is to meet real Indians. Indians Like Us is a cute account of long lasting lifetime wishes (50 years for one gentlemen) coming true, of the French quest to the US to meet the Indians.

Fear or humour – these are most probably the two emotions that a person even a bit aware of the contemporary living conditions and circumstances of the Indians would have expected from this film. Fear or moreover the compassion for the surely predictable crushing of the dreams of the French enthusiasts, and the humour from the hilarious way it might all turn out.

It was funny, but it had warmth, beauty and sensitivity, as the film had in general. Illusions were crushed only for a part of the group, whose idea of Indians was like something stuck in the 18th century: we heard it directly from the filmmaker herself who was present at the Tartu screening; it was not dragged to the screen. All the other French approached the Indians with a respect close to reverence, completely acknowledging that this role-play they are engaged in back at home could appear a tad weird or even insulting to the genuine bearers of the culture. With such predilection the trip and contact established turned out to be a wonderful success. The screen displayed a sensitive tale on being an Indian on 21st century, from other side on a possibility of establishing a deep meaningful connection between the people who at the first glance appear to be worlds apart. The magic word is respect – respect showed by French towards the Indians as well as by the filmmaker towards the central characters.