Eyre exposes the heart and muscle beneath 'Skins'

SANTA FE, N.M. ? Movie fans awaiting the follow-up to director Chris Eyre's hit feature "Smoke Signals" will not be disappointed by "Skins," which opens in movie theatres across the country on Sept. 27.

Filmed on location at the Pine Ridge Reservation, "Skins" tells the story of Rudy Yellow Lodge (Eric Schweig), a reservation cop whose job includes regular encounters with his unruly but endearing brother Mogie (Graham Greene). Haunted by memories of Vietnam, the alcoholic Mogie is a source of constant challenge for Rudy, while Rudy also finds himself stepping outside the law in his determination to ensure justice on the reservation. The tragedy that unfolds leads Mogie and Rudy into deep and dark waters, where they are finally able to start healing their relationship, and the legacy of their pasts.

"People say that it's a very powerful movie and its strength is that it's universal," says Chris Eyre, who directed and co-produced "Skins" and has been presenting the film at festivals in Europe and the U.S. "Ultimately it transcends the racial sensibilities that "Skins" has and just becomes a movie about universal truths and redemption for the characters. The reception has been overwhelming and positive. That's a testament to the fact that people are ready for Native American cinema."

Eyre was attracted to making the screen version of Adrian C. Louis' 1995 novel because of its honesty and what he calls 'a sense of itself.'

"It was unflinching in its portrayal and that's what people have been saying about the movie. I think "Skins" is the most commercial Indian movie ever made. It has Lakota language in it, Lakota religion, and Lakota culture, and that doesn't mean culture from 1890. It's not about romanticizing who we were. It's about looking at who we are, or some of who we are, and reclaiming the good with the bad, in order to move forward. I'm not leaving it to the American public or the white liberal to say who we are."

Eyre emphasized the historical significance of Pine Ridge as key to the story.

"Pine Ridge is a flashpoint of relationship between the U.S. government and Indian country. It has been one of the icons of what Indian country is, and I think in order to take a pulse of where we are, we have to look there first. The people from Pine Ridge opened themselves up to let us make this movie there," he added. "People see the poverty in Pine Ridge but what they don't see is the spiritual strength that exists in those communities. As a native filmmaker, I have a responsibility, and they actually trusted me to go in there and tell a story that wasn't going to make people feel bad about themselves. This is really a movie that's an honoring, it's almost a ceremony.

The frankness of the story leaves the audience in no doubt about the struggles faced by its characters, including poverty and unemployment.

"I'm not about shying away from the issues," said Eyre. "My question is still 'Why is it that Indians are as poor as they are in this country?' I don't think you can call yourself an Indian artist unless you are conscious of what's going on in Indian country today."

Some may see the alcoholic Mogie as a clich?, but Eyre stresses that the film is for all Indian people who had ever had a relative suffering an alcohol problem.

"I wanted to make Mogie into someone's brother, somebody's uncle, somebody's father. Given the number of people who have gone this way over the past 100 or so years, I felt like I wanted to recognize that person. The movie galvanizes a reaction from Indian people that puts Indians into one of two categories. Either they really understand Indian people in this country today, or they are embarrassed and miss the point. Which is that these are our people. If you think it's wrong to air this kind of dirty laundry, then I say denial is at work. The movie is an honoring of a man's life. I think Indians who see the movie will feel pride and redemption in the fact that this Indian character embraces who he is, despite everything that's going on."

"It's difficult to conjure up that darkness inside," said Graham Greene, who plays Mogie. "What I like about Mogie is that he always keeps his sense of humor, right up to the end. 'Skins' offers people a reflection of some pretty gruesome conditions, but it takes them there gently, and with humor. It's a brutal piece to do, but a healing one, too."

Eric Schweig, playing Rudy the cop, is a recovering alcoholic himself, and could identify with the brothers' complicated relationship.

"Rudy is slowly watching his brother die of alcoholism, and that's what I had done before, with time as a trigger," says Schweig. "Ultimately, though, the film is about redemption and love and how everybody sticks together no matter what."

The climax of "Skins" presents a breathtaking moment of defiance at Mount Rushmore, involving a one-on-one showdown between Rudy Yellow Lodge and George Washington. The imagery is provocative and Eyre acknowledges the co-operation of the U.S. Parks Service in allowing the scene to be shot there.

"'Skins' is a very patriotic movie. Rudy as a trickster is making a statement. He's counting coup. Patriotism isn't about waving a flag. It's about exercising your right to challenge, to question and improve and to open up dialogues about ways to make this country better. What we are fighting for is the right to say what we want to say in this country."

"Skins" is a complex and compelling movie, tender of heart if tough in stance, with moments of raw emotional intensity and flashes of dry humor.

"It's been said I make women's movies for men," observes Eyre. "That's something that I embrace wholeheartedly. They are really home dramas. I want to make movies that nourish the human spirit."

Eyre is taking "Skins" on the road in a groundbreaking 'Rolling Rez' tour, offering free screenings to Indian communities before the film's theatrical release. He is personally presenting the "Skins" screenings in an innovative mobile cinema that seats 100 in indoor comfort, with high quality projection and sound systems, not to forget a snack concession and restrooms.

"The Rolling Rez tour was born because there's no movie theatre in the town of Pine Ridge, and I knew I had to screen 'Skins' for the community where it was made. So we began to look for ways to bring the movie to the people and came across this mobile cinema. From there we decided to take it to other reservations and urban Indian communities.

As if Eyre doesn't sound busy enough, he just finished directing a TV version of Tony Hillerman's Navajo mystery novel "Skinwalkers", which premiers Nov. 24 on PBS. He hopes to work on more Hillerman adaptations in the future, but meanwhile has his eye on a movie version of Peter Mattheissen's "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse."

"I think that would be an amazing movie and a story to tell," says Eyre. "I'm sure it will happen."