An Indian Blessing
This past Friday, our screening of “We Won’t Bow Down” was a manifestation of the Indywood dream coming to life.
Big Chief Trell of the Wild Mohicans and his family honored Indywood with a full- feathered Mardi Gras Indian blessing. I was warming up the crowd before the film, not quite sure if the Wild Mohicans were ready for their entrance, but then I heard that big bass drum booming. The Indywood door swung open, and in walked the spirit of the city.
This was more than a performance for the Indywood viewers—it signified a grander blessing that the Mardi Gras Indian Nation has given this film, “We Won’t Bow Down.” It was the Indians introducing in their language their story told through the medium of cinema.
This was Indywood at its best. We were using the theater to share New Orleans culture.
Telling Local Stories on the Big Screen
Let me give you a little context for why the Big Chief’s blessing was so significant.
The Indians have a troubled past with photographers and documentarians who snap their pictures and “capture” their culture without any knowledge or respect for its history.
For any of y’all who don’t know, the Mardi Gras Indians make fantastically brilliant Indian “suits,” which they spend thousands of dollars and hours constructing every year to wear on Mardi Gras Day. This tradition honors a 200 year-old history, going back to the times when Native American tribes in the bayous around New Orleans welcomed escaped slaves into their families.
Needless to say, the Indians have a right to tell their own story and to ensure the culture they toil so hard to preserve and re-create is honored, respected and not exploited.
And that’s what makes this film so exemplary of the power of neighborhood cinema.
Why “We Won’t Bow Down” Deserves a Blessing
“There’s no other film like this,” says Big Chief Trell, “and there’s never going to be another one, because we let these guys in.” Chris Bower, the director of “We Won’t Bow Down,” spent ten years getting to know the culture before he asked to start filming. He is now an honorary member of the Wild Mohicans.
Bower earned the right to record the Indians by enabling them to tell their own story.
“This is a tradition that was passed down from mouth to mouth for generations,” says Big Chief Howard, one of the Indians interviewed in the film. “Now we’re finally starting to record it.”
Cinema Re-Invented as a Medium of Culture
Cinema is a perfect medium for the preservation of oral traditions, as long as the people who embody those traditions are able to control the telling of their story.
When I was a student at Tulane University, I had the pleasure of taking a class from Dr. Nick Spitzer, host of the radio show “American Routes” on NPR. Dr. Spitzer, as I still can’t help calling him, has a take on anthropology that I really like: Rather than the anthropologist being a sort of bespectacled vulture with a clipboard circling and recording the traditions of dying cultures for cold academic study, she should see herself as someone who helps people preserve and continue their traditions.
This idea has strongly influenced me in the creation of Indywood. As Hollywood movies get more and more culturally bland for the sake of appealing to the broadest possible audience, we now have the ability to re-invent cinema as a tool for preserving and sharing local cultural expression.
How Does A Movie Like “We Won’t Bow Down” Find An Audience?
It’s wonderful that the Indians gave Bower their blessing to “record” their culture. But recording it is only half of the cinematic equation. How does a film like this find its audience?
Unfortunately, the answer to that question is currently rather bleak. Here are Bower’s options for finding an audience:
1.) Bower can submit the film to film festivals. But many New Orleanians who will benefit most profoundly from this film’s message might not be the film festival-going type.
2.) After he’s submitted to film festivals, Bower can hope that the film gets picked up by a distribution company. But since the content is so baffling to anyone who is not a New Orleanian, it’s likely distribution companies just won’t know what to do with the film.
3.) Even if Bower can’t find a distributor for the film, he can release it online, hoping that the film’s audience will find it in the vast array of streaming content. But that’s just lame.
The Best Venue: A Community Theater
Any human with heart would way rather see this movie in a theater after it’s been blessed by a Big Chief.
New Orleans deserves to have this film played in the community context of the big screen—not a laptop screen where the Big Chief’s blessing can’t be translated.
A decade ago, none of this would have been possible. Only recently has the technology existed to bring a film like this to a local big screen, without taking the long, arduous journey through film festivals and distribution deals.
But in 2015, I can shoot an email to Chris Bower and ask, “Would you bring me the film on a flash drive, and we’ll play it for a week?” No distributors needed. Chris and I and y’all our community are our own little distribution network.
The Mardi Gras Indians can take advantage of the Indywood distribution network to tell their story in their own right, thus leading us Indywood viewers to honor and respect them all the more.
This is local cinema. It works.