Interview with Chris Eyre
by Melissa Bisagni, October 2008
MB: I am curious, how long you have known about the Film and Video Center (FVC) and the film festival?
CE: I met Elizabeth through the Film and Video Center in 1992, when they were on 155th Street. I went up there, met her and just started to talk to her about Native film when I first got to New York....I think [the festival] is great; the Film and Video Center is like second to nothing else in the country for filmmakers and archiving indigenous work from the hemisphere; it is pretty unique.
MB: What was your first film that showed here at the museum?
CE: I think the first movie of mine that showed here was Tenacity...Thief of Time and Skins we premiered here…Smoke Signals we did the premiere here at the Smithsonian, so there has been a relationship that's been really great over the years.
MB: From your experience with the festival in past years, do you feel there is a difference now, has there been an evolution?
CE: I think the biggest evolution that I've seen is that there are so many Native filmmakers now. Maybe it is just because the FVC has shown us all these different people by searching them out in South America and Central America, Canada and the US, but it does seem like there are more Native filmmakers then ever. When I came to New York in '92, I remember the handful of Native filmmakers who were in the country—George Burdeau, Phil Lucas, Sandy Osawa, Ava Hamilton, Dean Bear Claw, Victor Masayesva and probably a few others—that was really the mainstay of documentary Native American cinema.
Dances with Wolves and all those movies made a lot people say they wanted to be Native actors, and I guess, at the same time, it grew [to include] Native filmmakers. It seems like it has been growing rapidly and steadily, and it's fun to see what everybody is doing. It seems like if you sit on a festival or programming panel every couple years you get a new group of people that are really talented, and it just seems to keep growing, which is great.
MB: When you started working in the 1990s almost everyone worked in documentary film, and you, of course, have been working in narrative fiction since the beginning of your career. How do you feel about the work that the young Native narrative filmmakers are doing now?
CE: I remember telling non-Native people that I made films, and they'd always take a pause and stare deep at you and say, "You mean documentaries?" There was some strange idea that all we could do was make documentaries. Docs are probably my favorite form just because the proximity to reality is so much closer then narrative. In narrative that is what you are going for, but in documentary…you are actually seeing a piece of reality in all its forms, and I love that. I love that sense of heightened reality.
I got into narrative feature just because I was raised on narrative features, like Little House on the Prairie, if you call that a narrative feature. Now it seems as though it is shifting, and the generational thing is that people are making more narrative work. I wonder how the work is going to be different; we see a lot of work that is from the north…there is a huge movement of northern Canadian aboriginal stories, it seems like we're seeing a huge explosion in the past couple of years after The Fast Runner…and Canada has more resources, I think, then we do it terms of film and video support and subsidizing their film makers, so maybe we'll continue to see that.
MB: What did you think of The Fast Runner when you saw it for the first time?
CE: The Fast Runner is probably the most successful Native or aboriginal commercial movie ever made. And it's an interesting movie, it's a great movie. I laughed at certain parts, because when I saw the guy running naked across the ice and running through the water and running through the snow, and falling down, and just continuing and continuing, I laughed to myself quite a bit because I thought, "I can't get an actor to do that!"
So I know I was watching something really wonderful unfolding. It was part cultural—it wasn't actor-driven, director-driven commercial work—it was actually culturally passionate. I realized I was watching something different…something that is unique and much more Native than something like Smoke Signals or Skins. It's a real look at a culture and a language, and stories, tribal stories. I was fascinated by The Fast Runner.
Young Native filmmakers, or older, Native filmmakers trying to bring that authenticity to a commercial audience…that is kind of what the front line of war is….For me, in order to get work seen is a really difficult thing. I have done a few shows for PBS recently, and I'm working in television now, but to bring what I want to see to the screen is a whole different ordeal. I see Native filmmakers bringing what they want to the screen, but there is not an audience for it, so they play film festivals and they play in vacuums a little bit. And so to merge those two things together, I think is the whole achievement….I think The Fast Runner is a pretty awesome example of where I think people want to go.
MB: In The Fast Runner you see a commitment from the community that helps in delivering cultural specificity to the film. Today, we saw a little of your Trail of Tears, and it seems that you have all of these very strong Cherokee voices in the work, not just as historians but even your actors. Was the experience of having a culturally specific story to tell a different experience for you?
CE: They're all culturally specific, but some of them you dig deeper in that experience. You know, Skins was a deep cultural experience; Tenacity is about the Onondaga, and it is a metaphor—they're just different depths of that cultural experience. I always find that we are looking for an answer as Native filmmakers, "Ok, this is the definitive Native movie, this is the Native movie that is going to deliver us, this is the Native movie that will make white people understand us, this is the one movie that [will] bring new legislation to Congress, if they just understand this component of our history." And there is not that one movie.
So, for me, the Cherokee movie is tied deeply to a lot of Cherokee people, but it is not unlike the Wampanoag movie that we made or the Absentee Shawnee movie, they just have different depths of culture in different times and places. They are like having children, they're experiences, journeys, and they're wonderful things. So I can't say this one is better than this one, or this one is more culturally relevant than this one; there are some that I am less excited about, but they are all just kinda cool, they are all just fun.
MB: What do you want to bring to the screen next?
CE: There are a ton of things I would like to bring to the screen….I would like to make a movie or a series on Native gaming in this country….in 1973 there was an attorney that tested tribal sovereignty through bingo in Connecticut and that story is 35 years old almost. So there are still stories out there that are pretty recent that need to be told, and we're not being allowed to tell these stories for a commercial audience. We can make these movies and they can spend the rest of their days at Native film festivals-and I think that is important—but I think we all want our work to be seen in a wider context so we educate the people that need to be educated.
The other thing is—we've seen The Exiles recently—I come from that whole [era] where my grandparents were moved from Oklahoma to Oakland and lived in the "exiles" world, and then eventually moved to Warm Springs in Oregon….There is a whole '50s and '40s look at Native people that I think is fascinating and amazing, and to dramatize some of that '50s world in the urban areas would be a pretty wonderful movie, too.
MB: That is definitely an interesting thing about this festival, where there are so many different Native communities represented—some with similar elements of history and story, and others so different from each other.
CE: I also find that a lot of times people want to have an all-Native crew—it's like this utopia—if we just had a Native caterer and a Native PA, and I can be the producer, and we have the Native actor, you know-then everything would be great. Everybody wants that definitive answer.
I don't think it's going to come in that way or that shape; there is not going to be that perfect movie; it's going to be a community of movies that have an overall effect. Nobody is going to make that definitive movie—there will be some great movies—-but what we know about Indian country, it is about all of us; it's about a community of us, and about the movement of it—so, hopefully, I'll be able to make one of those great movies, and other people will [make others] and it will just keep going.