Critical Ecosystems

  • Birgit Däwes (Editor) and Marc Maufort (Editor)
    Enacting Nature: Ecocritical Perspectives of Indigenous Performance. Peter Lang Publishing Group (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Wendy Gay Pearson (Editor) and Susan Knabe (Editor)
    Reverse Shots: Indigenous Film and Media in an International Context. Wilfrid Laurier University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Christina Turner

Two recently published collections of essays examine works by Indigenous authors in an international context. They describe how artists from Turtle Island (North America), Australia, and Aotearoa (New Zealand) are using film and performance to subvert stereotypes and narrate counter histories. At their best, both of these collections demonstrate how Indigenous authors simultaneously stretch and trouble the borders of extant critical discourses.

Reverse Shots: Indigenous Film and Media in an International Context grew out of a conference of the same name held at Wilfrid Laurier University in 2007. In the volume’s introduction, editors Wendy Gay Pearson and Susan Knabe describe how Indigenous film originated with documentary work in the 1960s and how Indigenous filmmakers have worked to subvert the “taxidermic impulse” (shared by the academic field of ethnography and Hollywood alike) to freeze Indigenous subjects in time. The book’s title comes from the cinematic term for a shot which frames a character’s response, but also describes how “when Indigenous people move behind the camera . . . they are in a sense creating reverse shots—that is, films that reverse and revise from within their own perspective the dominant culture’s view of Indigenous people.”

The book is organized into five sections that reflect an engagement with recent developments in Indigenous film beyond documentary. The first comprises the introduction and Michael Greyeyes’ keynote speech from the 2007 conference. The second, “Decolonizing Histories,” addresses works that subvert the colonial gaze, frequently by speaking back against particular films such as Nanook of the North (1922), which is responded to by The Journals of Knud Rasmussen. The third section, “Mediating Practices,” examines the political and economic factors that influence the production of Indigenous/Aboriginal film and television. The fourth examines documentary, while the last comprises two essays that perform more traditional academic readings of the films Heater and The Price of Milk.

Theoretically, the volume’s contributors tend to blend ideas drawn from the fields of Indigenous and Postcolonial studies, such as when Pearson and Ernie Blackmore invoke “Aboriginalism” as an extension of Said’s “Orientalism” to articulate how a colonizing culture constructs images about Indigenous people. Pearson draws on Michelle Raheja’s idea of visual sovereignty in her discussion of films that represent the pre-colonial world in Finland, the Arctic, and Australia. Maeghan Pirie’s chapter on Alanis Obamsawin and Shelley Niro, and Gail Vainstone’s contribution on the work of Loretta Todd, both underscore the intersection of racism and sexism in Canada’s Indian Act.

More so than literature, political and economic factors play a major role in determining which films get made and who sees them. For this reason, the most interesting chapters in Reverse Shots are those that attend to pre- and post-production, such as Erin Morton’s and Taryn Sirove’s chapter on Southern audiences’ reception of short films by the Isuma Igloolik Collective, and Stephen Foster’s and Mike Evans’ discussion of their work with Prince George Métis Elders on a collaborative documentary.

The book’s organization according to theme rather than region allows for rich thematic comparison and guards against geographic essentialism. However, it also means that certain pieces of historical or geographical context, like the negative impact of the Howard government in Australia, are unnecessarily repeated. With the exception of Pirie’s chapter, which covers one film by Shelley Niro, discussions of Native American film are notably absent.

Like Reverse Shots, Enacting Nature: Ecocritical Perspectives on Indigenous Performance examines works by Indigenous authors in a comparative transnational framework. For the most part, the book’s editors and individual authors adhere to Cheryl Glotfelty’s conception of ecocriticism as a reading practice that “highlights the close relationship between nature and culture.” Some authors in the collection take Glotfelty’s definition at face value; others, like Marc Maufort (in his concluding chapter), highlight the close interrelationship between nature and culture in Shuswap society to suggest how works of Indigenous performance can help us rethink how we define ecocriticism.

Brigit Dawes’ introductory chapter lays the theoretical groundwork for the rest of the volume. Dawes anchors her reading of plays by Yvette Nolan and Marie Clements in the concept of heterholism, which acknowledges the cultural specificity of Indigenous artworks without reducing them to essentialist parameters. As such, her reading of Clements’s The Edward Curtis Project and Nolan’s The Unplugging focuses on how these playwrights deconstruct both the stereotype of what Greg Garrard has termed the “Ecological Indian” and a Romantic ideal of nature. Other authors pick up on Dawes’ framework without invoking it explicitly; one example is Maryann Henck who reads Drew Hayden Taylor’s The Berlin Blues using contemporary tourism theory.

The chapters in Enacting Nature can be roughly divided into those which approach culture (and thus, on a micro level, the performance stage) as an ecosystem, and those which read nature as metaphor. In the latter camp, Yvette Nolan’s chapter on Laura Shamas’ Chasing Honey and Diana Looser’s on New Caledonian drama both examine nature as an allegory for a polity under threat. In the former, Jay Darby’s reading of Lynn Riggs’ Out of Dust and Ric Knowles’ discussion of earthen mounds in North America both attend to the ways in which nature comes into being on stage. Since a dramatic script is merely a blueprint for performance, the strongest essays in this collection attend to stage directions and details of set and lighting in particular productions. While most of the book chapters focus on plays, two, by Lisa Swain and Lisa Warrington and David O’Donnell, discuss dance and performance art. The collection evinces a wide breadth of coverage of dramatic works from Canada, the United States, and Oceania (including New Caledonia and Fiji as well as Australia and New Zealand). With the exception of Looser’s chapter, the focus is largely on works written in English.

Both Reverse Shots and Enacting Nature compare works by Indigenous artists within and across chapters, while attending to local specificity in such a way as to avoid reductionist readings. As such, both books are promising contributions to the field of comparative Indigenous studies, as well as to ecocriticism and film studies, respectively.

 



This review “Critical Ecosystems” originally appeared in Radio, Film, and Fiction. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 225 (Summer 2015): 125-127.

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