Challenges of Portraying Indigenous People in Film
There are many times when films have come under great criticism for their portrayal of the indigenous tribes and people. Producers often find that while the presence of these indigenous tribes in the film can enrich the story, they are also more likely to bring more challenges. The presence of indigenous people is often meant to portray their issues, bring to light their stories and in essence provide knowledge about these tribes that may not be readily available. However, due to the problems and challenges encountered in making such inclusion, producers and film directors have often ended up dealing with racism allegations.
Stereotyping and Racial Profiling
The biggest challenge encountered in the film industry when it comes to the indigenous tribes is the stereotyping of such people. Stereotyping is with regard to opinions that have already been formed and are therefore mad persistent through continued exposure. When encountering the indigenous tribes, producers and film makers often fall as victims of stereotypes. There is what they expect such tribes and people to look like talk like and even behave like. Their scripts and motions are therefore based on this stereotype. Pearson and Knabe give an example citing that often the indigenous people are dressed in skin even in simple animation films (15). He takes an example of Pocohantus, the animation film directed at exploring the relationship between the native Indians and white colonialists. In the film, the main actress Pocahontas is dressed in native skin. However, in the sequel she is dressed in a silk flowing garment. Such stereotypes continue to exist despite historical evidence and knowledge that counters this stereotype.
Knopf suggests that there is little effort put in understanding the indigenous tribes, their behavior and even mannerisms (78). Producers are often more inclined to include the indigenous tribes because they elicit particular emotions in the viewer. They are more inclined to focus on the outcomes of such inclusion rather than on portraying accurate information in their films. The stereotype is not only with regard to the indigenous tribes, it also goes as far as the relationship between indigenous people and the modern whites. In his “dancing with the wolves” film, Costner for example falls victim to a popular stereotype regarding this relationship. The white settlers are seen as savage men, out for blood and often misinformed with regard to the true nature of the natives. While they may view the natives as bloodthirsty cannibals, they are in fact peaceful people who are often inclined towards being helpful. Whereas in portions of the country, the white settlers and native Indians contrasted greatly. There has been evidence that there were native Indians and white settlers who co-existed peacefully, conducted trade and in rare cases inter-married. However, film’s producers are more inclined to lean on the stereotypic relationship that is conflict and hatred between the two (para 7).
Repetition and Lack of Originality
In every film portraying indigenous people whether from Africa, native Indians or even from the native Australians, the one characteristic that is phenomenal is the lack of new information and knowledge. Even documentaries tracing the origins, or providing knowledge on these tribes fall victim to this. It seems like there is nothing new to learn from these tribes, (Columpar 54). The main theme is often, a tribe that shuns the modernization of society and fights against the settlers who want to modernize said tribe. All these tribes seem content with their own existence and are often viewed as peaceful despite the fact that many were indeed far from peaceful. The main challenge for a producer with indigenous people in his film is not to fall into the trap of repetition. The same theme, the same costumes and even similar mannerisms are some of the reasons why the media has been touted as the reason behind growth of racism. Majority of these themes and costumes are far from accurate. The media has often been portrayed as ignoring the facts for purposes of sensationalism. It is therefore not surprising to find that major criticism arises from the chosen themes and costumes of the indigenous people in the films (Hearne 112)
Considering Costner’s film again, critics have often cited that the film promised an exciting journey into the culture and norms of the native Indians. However, all Costner does in the film is rat what has been in other films for decades and what has been printed in numerous books. We are all aware and have read extensively that the white settlers thought of the natives as savages and bloodthirsty human beings or something below the level of human beings. It has been documented extensively that the opposite was indeed true, a lesson that the settlers had to learn with much difficulty. The story that Costner brings out has nothing new in itself, it has been told again and again perhaps with just a few variations. This is the main trap, even with producers whose story begins as unique and original, they are very likely.
Social Representation and Social Identity
When issues of racism and political alienation arise, the media and film industry are often blamed for the circumstances. Often it is assumed that such circumstances have been created by continued exposure to films and situations that force people to develop a particular collection thought and therefore action based on such portrayal. It is therefore not surprising that majority of film producers tend to shy away or dilute situations where indigenous tribes are concerned. For example Marubbio and Eric cites that issues of slavery and mistreatment of the indigenous tribes by white settlers are more or less diluted (87). True accounts of the situations are experiences are often found to be too gruesome to the point of igniting political alienation and sometimes causing uprisings. When a particular film portrays a theme between the indigenous people and white tellers there comes a form of alienation, segregation and identity. The result is a distinct separation between the two groups, which could spark an incident.
Wood (103) found that often the indigenous people are portrayed as helpful as and more knowledgeable in matters of nature than the white settlers who are often considered as clueless and purely capitalistic. He found that immediately following the release of a film in this manner, there is an increase of indigenous people registering in environmental organizations as well as an increase in protests against what many term to be capitalistic moves such as cutting of trees, continued consumption of oil and other such environmental matters. This is what can be terms as social representation; it is not concerned with the accuracy of the information as delivered by the film but rather the collective thoughts and reactions that arise from such information.
Accessibility and Availability
Despite the challenges many film producers and especially those drawn to make indigenous tribes and people films are often willing to learn more and correct mistakes of the past. Whereas it is true that some of the previous film makers have relied on poor information and misconstrued knowledge in their films, today they are more willing to do research and produce what they can sell as accurate information. Unfortunately, despite their good efforts they have been met with a new challenge. Majority of the indigenous people are far from accessible. They are less than willing to share the accurate information about their ancestors often preferring to stay away from the limelight. Marrubio and Buffalohead cite that previous experiences with the film industry are to blame for inaccessibility and the lack of availability of the true indigenous tribes (61). In the past, producers and film makers have taken advantage of such tribes, exposing their intimate and private life and misrepresenting information given to them. Small tribes in rural regions have suffered greatly from such exposure resulting in them becoming mistrusting to film makers and producers. They are more willing to live with the misrepresentations rather than come out and make corrections with regard to their nature and customs.
In some extreme cases, indigenous tribes have gone to court seeking injunctions on the release of particular films as long as they maintain scenes from their tribes. In many cases, such scenes are thought to have tampered with the history of the tribe or to go against the believers and norms of that particular tribe. In the past, these law suits and protests have garnered little interest in the corridors of justice. However, today in an attempt to encourage and be seen as an equality societies, these law suits and protests are earning popularity and can easily become a major challenge for producers. Days of release of a film could be held, scenes could be forced out of the film and producers quickly become the target for individuals who see them as violating the rights of the indigenous societies. With more and more indigenous producers entering the world of film, the challenge of law suits and attempts to protect the secrets, customs and mannerisms of indigenous people have become even more common. Today, producers have to be careful and in some cases get consent from official representatives of the indigenous tribes before featuring them in films.
Many film makers today have learnt tough lessons when it comes to portrayal of indigenous people in films. They have had to endure tough law suits, engage in political dramas and fight off negative publicity. It is therefore not surprising that the film industry is now quickly turning to research to understand and get accurate information of indigenous tribes. Information and knowledge is key, it is no longer about putting an individual in skin clothing and adding some color to their skin. Today, behavior, culture, norms and even costumes have to be close to the real thing, if one does not want their film to end up as a mockery. This is an attempt to draw good publicity where film and media has been blamed for inaccurate information that has led to collective action.
Columpar, Corinn. Unsettling Sights: The Fourth World on Film. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2010.
Hearne, Joanna. Native Recognition: Indigenous Cinema and the Western. Albany: SUNY Press, 2012
Knopf, Kerstin. Decolonizing the Lens of Power: Indigenous Films in North America. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2008
Marubbio, M E, and Eric L. Buffalohead. Native Americans on Film: Conversations, Teaching, and Theory. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2012.
Pearson, Wendy G, and Susan M. Knabe. Reverse Shots: Indigenous Film and Media in an International Context. Waterloo, Ont: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2015
Wood, Houston. Native Features: Indigenous Films from Around the World. New York: Continuum, 2008.
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