Sunday, March 29, 2009

NAFV Fest: Older Than America

The Ojibwe Nation certainly predates the founding of the United States government, but so does the Catholic Church and they have both been the targets of violent discrimination in this country (just read up on the Know-Nothings attitudes toward the “Papists”). That is why it is somewhat disconcerting to see such a virulently anti-Catholic film like Georgina Lightning’s Older than America (trailer here) screen Friday at this year’s Native American Film and Video Festival.

Older is an angry film. Set in the Northern Minnesota Fond du Lac Reservation, it tells the story of a family literally haunted by a decades-old tragedy at the now defunct boarding school for Native Americans. This school however, was run by the Catholic Church, who naturally will stop at nothing to cover up the crimes committed there. When the audience meets the seemingly genial Father Bartoli, they are already on notice that his behavior will prove despicably villainous.

As the film opens, the events at the boarding school remain shrouded in mystery, but visions from that incident have been appearing to Rain, played by director Lightning. This greatly disturbs her, considering her mother has been institutionalized for many years in state of near catatonia. She wants to marry her longtime lover Johnny, but her family history gives her pause. Things start to come to a head when geologist Luke Patterson arrives to investigate a minor earthquake, the epicenter to which happens to be at the old boarding school.

Despite its excesses, Older features some fine performance, including Wes Studi, on-hand to lend the film some instant cool as Richard Two Rivers, the reservation’s longtime radio host with a checkered past. There is also nice on-screen chemistry between Lightning and Adam Beach (well known for his work as reservation police officer Jim Chee in the Joe Leaphorn mysteries), as Johnny, Rain’s reservation police officer fiancĂ©. Fans of Twins Peaks and this season of 24 will also enjoy watching Chris Mulkey as the venal mayor, whose corrupt family at one time employed Two Rivers.

Any film characterizing Native Americans in the manner Older depicts Catholics would be booed out of the festival, and not unfairly so. It is a real shame, because Lightning shows promising talent as a director, using the old dark schoolhouse as an effectively creepy backdrop. There are some legitimately tense moments in Older and to its credit it features probably the most accurate portrait of an insufferably arrogant federal bureaucrat in indie film history. Unfortunately, out of anger at past abuses, it commits its own brand of nefarious stereotyping. Older’s next screening will be at Lake Arrowhead Film Festival in California on April 4th. The NAFV Festival continues tomorrow at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Again, admission is free, but reservations are recommended.