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Director Chris Eyre: Debating Tonto Was 'a Ridiculous Use of Our Time'

Director Chris Eyre discusses Tonto, The Lone Ranger, and opportuities for young Native American filmmakers.

Chris Eyre, Cheyenne and Arapaho film director of Smoke Signals, Skins, and Hide Away, is chairman of The Film School at Santa Fe University of Art and Design (SFUAD), where he also teaches a director’s class. He recently took some time to speak with ICTMN about the controversy over Disney's Lone Ranger, as well as his enthusiasm about the Robert Redford Milagro Initiative, and its impact on the young generation’s involvement in film.

How do you see the debate on The Lone Ranger, and the issue about Native American actors not being hired for Native roles?

As a Native making movies on Native themes, my opinion is that there are three types of films including Native Americans: The first one is a bad representation of Natives in the movies, and the second is related to a new generation describing their own experience making movies, including my 14-year-old daughter. And the last one, like The Lone Ranger, is a pure invention of the Indian for the masses, without specific history, having nothing to do with Natives, other then dressing someone as people expect an Indian to be -- a pan-Indian composite. So I am not offended -- it's humorous, comical. Where is the reality of Natives? I see nothing there as a reflection of our reality. It's a total farce, you can see that from the beginning. It could be dangerous if people believe that Natives are like that, but then again, it was not written by a Native -- it is pure entertainment.

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And I laughed at it, as good entertainment. So this debate is a ridiculous use of our time. The Baby Veronica case is a more relevant discussion. Regarding Native actors -- if a Native actor had to play Tonto, it would be worse for him than for Johnny Depp, since this character never existed. And there is such a long history of actors playing Native roles, like Burt Reynolds -- this is nothing new, thus it does not seem much of a controversy to me. The invention of Indians will continue forever; the Lone Ranger is a fictitious story, just entertainment.

As chair of The Film School of SFUAD, what is your opinion on emerging filmmakers, and the future of filmmaking among Native students?

The Santa Fe University is part of a large international network, from Europe, to Mexico, which is great. It includes an eclectic group of people, offering a unique reflection of the world, with a larger percentage of Native students than most schools. I teach a directing class, since we offer a BFA in film making, that is open to everyone. We also have two brand new scholarships, Robert Redford Emerging Artists scholarship, and the Unique Voice scholarship, for an individual reflecting the indigenous voice, from anywhere in the world -- this fall, we awarded it to a student from Mexico, who reflects the indigenous voices, and to another one from El Salvador. Both reflect Native voices to the degree we think is part of the Redford initiative, as this scholarship is dedicated to the representation of indigenous voices -- whether Aboriginal or Sami.

And we can see a generational phenomenon, which keeps growing. Everybody wants to have a voice, through Vimeo, You tube, Internet etc. I see young people filming with phones! We really notice that passion in the school, from young people, among an international group. Any country, tribe, nationality, can be here. And nothing is more enlightening to me than watching this passion. It feeds me and makes me feel good to be here. I am really glad that more Native people are working in film and music -- the way we are progressing. It takes a whole group of people, with various points of view, to show that there is not just one Native America, but a whole spectrum of places, and people. Today, Native American film festivals are popping up everywhere!