Stunning Documentary Shows Struggles Still Faced by Native Americans

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By Carter Glace, Staff Writer

In our various battles against injustice across this country, an often forgotten yet long raging battle is that of fighting the mistreatment of Native Americans. The strife the Native people have gone through is not limited to violence 1700’s and the Washington Redskins today. Facing a lack of opportunities in the work place, extreme poverty, conditions in reservations referred to as “Third World” by some studies, inadequate health care opportunities, and the federal government still not respecting territories, Native Americans face constant unbelievable struggle.

“Songs My Brother Taught Me,” directed by Chloé Zhao, doesn’t directly confront all of these issues, but they hang over the entire film. Taking place on a South Dakota reservation, the film follows two children shortly after the death of their estranged father. Johnny (John Reddy) sells bootleg liquor in the hopes of leaving for Los Angles, while Jashaun (Jashaun St. John) is just trying to find some semblance of stability with any parental figure.

If there is one weakness the film has, it is that having two very separate and equally weighed stories keeps the film from having one driving heart. Playing with such heavy issues, it would be nice to have one characters eyes to see everything through and have more development, as oppose to two less substantial narratives. However, it’s hard to complain about this too much because both characters are just that compelling.

This film is a master class on capturing the struggles and turmoil of people through very little dialogue, letting silence and action do the talking. Moments include Johnny driving a duffle bag of alcohol past an anti-alcoholism rally, or Jashaun wandering through the burning wreckage of her home, or the duo walking through the plains as Jashaun finds out her brother is leaving. Despite each supporting character only seeing a few minutes of screen time each, their hardships in life are clearly laid out, making three-dimensional characters in efficient pace.

It doesn’t hurt that the film is beautifully shot. The stunning compositions of the countryside find a perfect sweet spot between the two very different pictures of the west. On one hand, the plains provide stunning vistas and that nostalgic Americana feel. While on the other hand, those same shots reveal how improvised and empty the area really is. The film seems to alternate a bit from those gorgeous compositions to a more documentary style that can be jarring.

But what’s most impressive is how it handles the crisis’s facing the reservation. It doesn’t shy away from the alcoholism, or the crime, or the poverty, or abandonment. The film takes a somewhat objective, watchful look at this ecosystem. It doesn’t cast blame, or criticize, or hastily suggest a solution. It just shows the people these problems affect, and how they are trying their best to make their lives better. It is delicate, real, and empathetic. “Songs My Brother Taught” me is a quiet, beautiful film capturing the complicated world many Americans still find themselves in.


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