The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
“It’s the trickster element that exists throughout Ojibway storytelling and history, engaging both the sacred and the profane, turning things upside down and looking at them from a fresh perspective.”
The Ojibway are the fourth largest Native American tribe in a swath of country spread across both Canada and the United States. A once powerful and bountiful nation, the Ojibway are known for their sacred birch bark scrolls—legendary documents that contain prophecies along with the group’s history, songs, maps, memories, and stories. Raised in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and currently making their home in New York, Ojibway filmmakers Adam and Zack Khalil (twenty-seven and twenty-four years old respectively) have been working on their latest project for several years. And it’s one they started with their mother, an indigenous scholar, in their hometown of Sault Ste. Marie. Carrying on her legacy, they posit that the history of an oppressed people can be rescued from complete extinction by reclaiming their own narratives from the archives and museums that would have their people bound, gagged, and confined to the past.
Ultimately a deeply personal quest, their film cleverly and passionately opens up an arsenal of archival imagery, interviews, animations, performances, and rapid-fire, poetic cut-ups to make a case for the Ojibway to be their own storytellers once again. Having done shorter work both separately and collaboratively, INAATE/SE/ [it shines a certain way. to a certain place/it flies. falls./] is their first feature-length work. Most of their projects to date have been video installations that sculpt moving image and sound to create bespoke landscapes of the Ojibway experience. The first iteration of this work was as a looping, multi-channel installation with various objects arranged around it, but as a film it stands on its own as an artful and brilliant collage, expressing hope, pain, despair, and the trickster humor that is so evocative of its people.
I spoke with the Khalil brothers a week before INAATE/SE’s premiere as the closing film for the 15th edition of MoMA’s Doc Fortnight, this year eloquently dubbed: “Actions of the Past, Shockwaves in the Present.”
Pamela Cohn I want to start with the title. It’s evocative visually—with the two capitalized Ojibway words juxtaposed with the dozen or so words it takes to define them in English. Even in translation, it doesn’t really make logical sense in a way that we’re used to interpreting. Can you talk a bit about the language itself, and how embedded that structure has to be in your work?
Adam Khalil Inaate/Se/ is an Ojibway word that loosely translates to “movie magic.” Most literally, it means it’s a certain kind of movie. That’s the most straightforward translation, but there’s inherent meaning in every syllable of those words. So it does say, in English, that it’s a certain kind of movie—that it shines a certain way to a certain place. It flies. It falls. It’s describing the basic mechanism of film projection. And for us, this “certain way to a certain place” means returning home to Sault Ste. Marie, the spontaneous nature of the film’s creation, and how we allowed the process to unfold. We followed it.
PC So these aren’t ancient or ancestral words at all, but quite contemporary and modern?
AK The interesting thing about the Ojibway language is that it’s had to adapt. Ojibway academics now have this popular school of thought around the notion that every syllable is an action verb. Basically, the language describes a series of actions. And then there are the words that had to be invented—the title being one of them, describing the moving image. It’s talking about the screen, the light in the frame, the 16mm film flying in and out of the projector.
Zack Khalil I can give you a really funny example of this, which is the word “refrigerator.” That was also an invented word, and it translates, essentially, to “stingy box.” The refrigerator allows you to preserve food so you don’t have to share it before it goes bad. (laughter)
PC From the beginning, the film presents layers of water imagery, a metaphor for the flow of life and connections, spiritually and otherwise, between the generations that are called out in the various prophecies described. But then everything gets stuck when you start to talk about the “trapped culture,” the appropriation of objects that signifies that there was once a great nation of people whose history is now relegated to things behind glass in museums, or other reliquaries that hold all of that away from their origins. Or else they’ve been neatly folded into the dominant culture, so much so that they disappear. I was really struck by that footage in the bowels of the museum, row upon row of booty that was made by hand, by someone’s dad or mom, sister or brother. The camera moves very frenetically, creating this feeling of helpless distress.
ZK That moment comes relatively early on and is meant to establish a certain ground, because we want to prepare the audience for the less conventional nature of the rest of the film. It was important to confront the audience with the impact of the consumption of Native culture by showing the museum and tourists on their Segways, then showing those objects in the archive, some of which had been sitting there for a really long time. We wanted that very obvious acknowledgement of how Native culture is consumed by audiences in museum settings.
AK It’s shot that way because I wasn’t very good with the camera back then, five years ago. That’s part of a larger story, but there’s also an implication of some sci-fi narrative there. That place is the size of a football stadium. Our mother was getting her PhD at the University of Washington in Information Sciences, focusing on indigenous information ecology, and her stance was that information should be accessible and available to everyone. But something like knowledge, which is different from information, shouldn’t be, especially when it comes to First Nation peoples, mainly because of how such things had been taken away from us in the past. The people that took it wanted knowledge of something they could never have. It’s just not accessible in that way. So her work was in collaborating with institutions to repatriate ancestral remains and objects. And five years ago, she was documenting tribal library and museum archivists. That footage was shot at the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian. Basically, it’s cold storage. You might see certain objects that have a tag on them that says “chosen,” and those are the objects now on display at the American Indian museum in Manhattan.
There was a Dutch banker named George Gustav Heye in the early part of the nineteenth century. He was a collector of Native American artifacts, almost in a kind of fetishistic way. He hired all these scouts across the States to collect anything Native. There was a 3x5” note card for each object, with the name of what it was, the place, and year they found it—not really useful information. So the collection that the federal government acquired from Heye is a mix of tourist trinkets and sacred objects. The museum itself has no idea what’s what for the most part. Our mother was making this film as part of her dissertation, documenting tribal researchers who go into the archive to try to figure out what’s there. I was an undergrad at Bard and she wrote me into the project description, so together we shot in the archives in DC. We also did video chat with family and friends back home to try to identify things. It was a very bizarre process.
ZK The scene’s inclusion in the film comes after Paul—a historian from the Tower of History in Michigan—informs us that he probably has our grandfather’s canoe in their archive somewhere. Paul has just described how Sault Ste. Marie was industrialized and how the Native community was kicked off the land. But that building and space are incredibly futuristic, though it’s meant to be from the perspective of the people whose objects those were, to a certain extent. The depiction of the space is cold and surreal, almost baffling from a human perspective, I would argue.
PC An ancestor’s point of view or someone from the future—whose perspective?
ZK All of the above—and ours as well. It’s a very strange space filled with old things.
PC I must tell you that I really can barely abide how most filmmakers, including Native American ones, try to describe and portray Native history and culture in film. It’s usually done very badly.
ZK For sure! No argument here.
PC There are so many ironic moments in your film where it feels like you’re taking the piss out of those kinds of examples or portrayals—or of the ways someone might try to emulate what it feels like to be Native for a non-Native audience. What is this film saying in response to those portrayals we’ve all grown up seeing in pop culture? Can you remember that moment when you decided there’s got to be a better way to describe what the Native experience feels like?
ZK So many of the decisions in the film, I could say, might have been reactions against what you’re describing—those horribly realized or misleading or overly-romanticized or pitying views that are typically applied to indigenous people. In terms of what we wanted to provide, it was different. We’re making work about our own tribe, so that’s a good start. Avoiding clichés was important, of course. One of the things you might have noticed about the score is that there’s no powwow music at all, no beating drums. Whenever I’m watching a documentary on Natives and hear that music come in, I sort of stop thinking. I already know what’s being communicated to me. We wanted to challenge that directly and come up with something that had less a view of the past and far more to do with the future, and with what it means to be Native in that future. So we had to think of creative and narrative ways of portraying things that had nothing to do with typical documentary. It’s the stories and genesis of the prophecies, but it’s also about being in Sault Ste. Marie in 2015.
AK There’s this way that Native culture is projected out into the world where it’s all about authenticating this lost past. It’s something we even do internally within our own tribes, and it’s problematic. It creates a big issue between tradition and culture. That’s what the heart of the film is trying to address—figuring out how we move forward and keep this way of life, and, at the same time, adapt. There are now some people thinking and writing about an indigenous worldview as kind of post-Apocalyptic, in a way. We’re trying to imply that narratively. But it’s not the end of anything so much as it’s a paradigm shift where we no longer have to always authenticate ourselves through some past history. That’s why collections of Native art are very rarely contemporary. Instead, it’s a tomb of anthropology and ethnography that’s part of, and a result of, colonization. We just aren’t allowed to be visible as contemporary individuals.
PC It seems as if that’s so ingrained in the DNA of your generation, and by this point it’s been going on for so long. That kind of brutal colonization has repercussions that you’re able to describe so adeptly in such odd and unexpected ways. Thirty minutes in is a scene that I found profoundly moving, the scene about the Indian school the Jesuits ran and all the horrendous things that happened there to the boys and girls that attended. That scene unleashes this kind of searing pain in those memories that is still hard to bear—especially for the generation who experienced it firsthand.
ZK There are a lot of layers to what’s happening there. The origins of that scene are from a Hi8 tape shot by our aunt. She was taking Ojibway language classes at a local community college. The language instructors would go on an annual field trip, and many of them went to boarding school or residential school when they were younger. It was important for them to show the people learning the language about how and why the language was lost in the first place. Our aunt is in her seventies now, but she studied anthropology and taught ethnography at Harvard for a while. So, of course, her approach is very different from ours in encountering this issue. We found her footage and, by happenstance, we had the opportunity to visit this building as well and take our own footage. Between these instances, fifteen years apart, our friend Alicia had her own grandmother tell a story about her great-grandfather who also went to this same school. It was an incredibly fortunate series of circumstances. But you saying that this scene is where the searing pain comes through is so good for us to hear, because that was the intent. It was so powerful to have this direct-address kind of experience that describes something most people have very little idea about.
PC Here the story is embedded in your narrative right before a pretty significant tonal shift from this simmering rage to doing a kind of psychedelic Twin Peaks mash-up of spirit quests and sweats, much of which is quite goofy and playful.
AK In Ojibway storytelling and mythology, there’s this character called Nanaboozho—a shitty, teenage version of Jesus. He’s the first man on Earth, and he’s creating the way it exists by fumbling through it, messing things up—like an episode where he gets the Raccoon into trouble, ends up burning his tail, and that’s why it’s bushy, etc. Lots of wacky stories about Nanaboozho fucking shit up. It’s the trickster element that exists throughout Ojibway storytelling and history, engaging both the sacred and the profane, turning things upside down and looking at them from a fresh perspective. It’s necessary, especially when people are really lost and confused about what it means to be Ojibway in the twenty-first century.
ZK Our mother passed away about three years ago, and that’s when we started working on this film in its first incarnation. So, that’s where you might feel the very personal grief and rage and healing and all that stuff embedded in the bigger story. But it’s a very personal film. It also feels like a completion of what she was doing with her own work.
AK She was trying to dismantle the archive in hopes of repatriating these objects back. But she was also looking at it in a very critical way, as this tool of colonization to keep our culture in the past, making it inaccessible, making it feel lost when it’s very much alive.
ZK To further elaborate on the humor of the piece and how that plays off the rage: humor is incredibly important for Ojibway or Anishinaabe people, as it is all across Indian Country. It’s very biting; there’s a lot of teasing. It can be dark, man. A lot of it comes from a very tragic place. I think that’s the way humans function generally, but it’s especially true among Native communities. There’s also another arc that is very typical: you’re a teenager or in your early twenties, and you’re Native, but that’s not a very important part of your life, then you start to meet people who are searching for what it means to be an indigenous person. You realize that this requires a renewed commitment and expending effort to learn about your culture however and wherever you can. In the film, Adam and I are going through that process, as are Alicia and Darrell—we’re all going through a similar cycle. You’re confronted with a lot of things that will make you incredibly angry. So there has to be a healthy way to deal with that rage in order to continue to move forward. That’s the role humor plays in the process, and it’s the role it plays in the film as well.
PC There’s this constant conflation of religion and belief we encounter in the film. It becomes really present particularly in the last part where you talk about the decision to take on that mantle and figure out how much of your life you want to invest in planting a flag in terms of personhood, in terms of identity, and in the ways you relate to the rest of the world. Almost everyone in the film talks about this. We learn, of course, that all that spirituality, religion, and ways of believing came with a lot of violence and force. How do you dismantle the damaging part of that and keep the part that’s healing?
AK That’s a powerful question. Obviously there’s a contrast between religion and how Ojibway spirituality functions. There’s no source of authority. It’s all localized. There are all these ceremonies we may or may not have lost, but we’ve been making it up on the fly anyway. I mean, we’ve been told what to do, and we’re still being told what to do, and we’re maintaining those traditions—but they’re changing. A basic tenet of the Ojibway lifestyle is to live life in a good way. That history of the Jesuits and Catholicism where we’re from was only trying to take people away from that kind of living. “Get in line. Assimilate.” This has gone on since the 1600s. That segment with Wild Bill in the film, this recluse, this trickster—he’s also a messed-up alcoholic. But he’s still doing his thing the way that we’ve always done it. Not in the purest, best way possible, but he’s continuing the tradition anyways.
ZK When you’re trying to reconnect with your heritage, and trying to decide how much to invest, and acknowledging that it’s about encountering this fucked-up history, there does come a point where dwelling on it becomes something that does not help you out—nor does it for those of your community. For us, the process of making this film was trying to deal with this. That’s why the film feels so angry at certain points. We create this effigy of a Jesuit to burn. It’s important to go through that anger and process it in order to let it go.
AK And to show it to a wide audience is important, because I don’t see that in Native cinema anywhere.
PC The film succeeds in line with your goals on so many levels—using moving image and animation, beauty and ugliness residing side-by-side, humor and tragedy also side-by-side. It feels utterly human, as many attempts at this kind of “argument” distinctly do not. But as we talked about before, sometimes we’re hard pressed to know the difference between a trinket you can buy at the res shop off the highway in Arizona and a precious object used in an intense and meaningful way by the people who made it.
AK We’re smiling really big right now hearing this. One of the most important goals for us in making this film was communicating to multiple audiences by making things clear and explicit, but not in a condescending way. It’s a conversation with three to six different groups at any given time—there’s our tribe, there’s Indian Country, the experimental documentary world in New York City, the film world, and the art world. We want all those people to understand what it means to be Ojibway in the twenty-first century. And for us, this comes from movie magic and commercial editing. That means trusting what’s happening when it’s happening, then putting it through a meat grinder and working it over and over again until things really start hitting.
ZK That’s how all these moments we’ve been talking about came to be. For me, Darrell is such an important voice here. He’s the first one to take the medicine. He’s standing in front of the Tower of History exhibit, and we’re hearing about how he was in the hospital where the doctor told him he would die before he was thirty-five unless he stopped his use of drugs and alcohol. That was a particularly potent moment for me because it really connected with the colonial way of shutting Indian history away behind glass cases. It really showed, in a very direct way, how violent that is to Native youth. We have our fun with the Tower of History using that cut-up video with Paul as the tour guide who’s dressed up as a Jesuit priest. There’s a lot to laugh about there, but at the core, it’s a vestige of an incredibly violent institution. That tower sticks out like the biggest fucking sore thumb you’ve ever seen in that city. It felt really good for me to connect it to an indigenous person’s experience in Sault Ste. Marie.
PC You’re so beholden to this culture in many ways, but it’s also good to see that you’re using all this as the baseline for your artwork, a place into which to pour all this stuff and sift around as you see fit. It’s a very rare thing to see it manifest in such a powerful way—or as you stated before, to allow others to have an experience of Native culture through this refracted way of storytelling.
AK We’re so glad some of these ideas are being communicated. That means a tremendous amount to us.
Pamela Cohn is a producer, programmer and freelance arts journalist based in Berlin, Germany. She programs for DokuFest in Kosovo and for the True/False Film Fest in Columbia, Missouri.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.