Black shimmering water, resembling light sparks, ripple down the screen, as a voiceover explains how unnatural water moves in the power canal. How the land of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, where the film takes place, belonged to no one. A 22-foot waterfall, located where the man-made canal lies, now only a memory.
Ojibwe filmmakers Adam and Zach Khalil’s debut documentary film, “INAATE/SE/ [it shines a certain way.to a certain place./it flies.falls.],” which premiered at MoMA’s Doc Fortnight last night, begins with an explanation of Ojibwe stories and their ability to transform. Through the use of different mediums, including interviews of community member and friends, animation, etc., the film retells the Seven Fires Prophecy of the Ojibwe. Passed on throughout generations, the prophecy foretells the arrival of white colonizers and forecasts the future of the Anishinaabe nation.
Contrasting these interviews are those of the museum curator, who cheerily welcomes the filmmakers to the Sault Historic Site. He’s the keeper of “real artifacts,” including photographs of early 19th century Sault Ste. Marie, a canoe with personal ties to the filmmakers and other items revealing U.S. selective memory.
Despite having documentary characteristics, like previous collaborations, “We Love Being Lakota” or “Men’s Council of the People of the Way of the Longhouse,” INAATE/SE deviates from the typical way of re-telling history.
Before the plot begins to travel towards a different dimension, we first experience the film through experimentation with sound. The audio, at times, sounds as if it was being played backwards, like instruments being tuned. The slow, waltz-like melody reminds us of those opening scenes, of flowing water. Industrial sounds, such as machinery, ringing, beeping, create an unsettling background highlighting the harsh realities that Ojibwe community members and their ancestors endured, say through Christianization or the Boarding School era.
And yet, the Khalil Brothers have a way of using comedy to explore issues such as assimilation, via a Bret Michaels concert and other interesting encounters. Their editing of different perspectives is key to exploring the questions they allude to throughout the film: what does it mean to be Indigenous today? How does this relate to the well-being of the community, both on an individual and communal level? Can we recover, as a people, from fear, trauma and loss?
These questions are not new to indigenous communities throughout, well, the world. However, it’s the unusual harmonizing of different aesthetics (low-resolution video, animation, stills, etc.), which distinguishes INAATE/SE visually from the rest. The use of multiple mediums is refreshing, especially when we’re forced to look at everything in high definition, whether we like it or not. Despite videos affordability – though now maintaining video may also come as a challenge – aesthetically, video still pertains to its own category, not to be confused with film. Fortunately, the Khalil Brothers do not adhere to this type of categorical thinking.
Their film can be jarring at times, throwing us into a hyperactive narrative, then suddenly into a well-composed interview. These edits can feel “uncomfortable.” Yet this “uncomfortability” is so necessary to disrupt standards of documentary making, especially when there are countless documentaries on indigenous people that are one-dimensional. Additionally, this “uncomfortability” is necessary to challenge U.S. mainstream way of thought. We need to feel uncomfortable in order to face and discuss histories because, usually when related to Native people, they are not easy to digest.
INAATE/SE demands us to wake the fuck up, one way or another; through the personal stories, the unforgettable original score and multi-layered scenes. “INAATE/SE/ [it shines a certain way.to a certain place./it flies.falls.]” is further proof that indigenous documentary filmmaking is heading into unexpected places and transforming our ways of passing on knowledge and culture.
In the end, the Khalil Brother’s stimulating documentary debut makes us think what it means to be indigenous today.
Genesis Tuyuc (Maya Kaqchikel), born and raised in NYC, is a fiction writer, filmmaker and community organizer. She is an alumnus of New York University, where she studied Linguistics and Creative Writing.